Site hosted by Build your free website today!
Nuclear India: A Short History

Supporters of nuclear weapons argue that India’s decision to cross the nuclear threshold is in continuity with New Delhi’s policies in the past. They claim that if there is any policy change under the BJP-led coalition, it is only in response to the altered ground situation, especially in our neighborhood.

This is misleading, false and dishonest. At the doctrinal level. May 1998 marks a violent break with India’s past postures. The decision to acquire nuclear weapons, and the plan to deploy them, is a betrayal of India’s commitment to nuclear disarmament and its promise never to use nuclear energy for military purposes.

This does not mean that India’s nuclear, weapons policy has been constant and unchanging for 51 years since Independence. It has gone through four distinct phases, culminating in the disastrous decision to test, acquire and deploy these weapons of mass destruction.

Phase I: THE NEHRU ERA, 1947 TO THE MID-1960S

This was a period of voluntary nuclear abstinence. Nehru was not only deeply committed to the complete elimination of all nuclear weapons, but also opposed to their manufacture and possession by any state, including India. He was opposed to nuclear weapons on moral, political and strategic grounds, calling their possession a “crime against humanity”. He integrated this opposition into India’s foreign policy, giving it an activist edge. he was the first world leader to call for an end to all nuclear testing following U.S. bomb,b tests in the Pacific in 1954. However, India’s civilian nuclear energy programme under the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) also had a dual-use capacity; major figures such as Homi Bhabha were not unaware of this. Bhabha himself was not as categorically opposed to a possible future Bomb as was Nehru.

On July 24, 1957, Nehru said in the Lok Sabha:

We have declared quite clearly tht we are not interested in making atom bombs, even if we have the capacity to do so and that in n event will we use nuclear energy for destructive purposes...I hope that will be the policy of all future governments.

And just months before his death, when reports were pouring in of China’s nuclear preparations, Nehru rejected the suggestion that India should follow China and acquire nuclear weapons for “deterrence”.

PHASE II: MID-1960S TO 1974

In this period New Delhi became increasingly disenchanted with the prospect for global disarmament. Quiet preparations were being made to acquire a nuclear weapons capability, while retaining a strong opposition to deterrence and weaponisation. India’s nuclear programme under Homi Bhabha underwent a significant shift at the ground level. Bhabha commissioned a plant to reprocess spent fuel from the CIRUS “research” reactor built with Canadian and U.S. assistance. In his speech in October 1964 following China’s first test, he said tht India too could conduct a test in 18 months. But such changes were not articulated at the policy level. In October 1965, Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri told Parliament:

Despite the continued threat of aggression from China which has developed nuclear weapons, the government has continued to adhere to decisions not go in for nuclear weapons but to work for their elimination instead.

In April 1968, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi said in the Lok Sabha:

[India’s nuclear] policy is framed after due consideration of the national interest, specifically with regard to national security... we do feel that the events of the last twenty years clearly show tht the possession of nuclear weapons have not given any military advantage in situations of bitter armed conflict.

She argued that “The choices before us involves...engaging in an arms race with sophisticated nuclear war beads and an effective missile delivery system..Such a course, I do not think would strengthen natinal security... it may well endanger our internal security by imposing a very heavy economic burden...”

Indian policy pronouncements in this post-Nehru period underwent a subtle shift from a categorical oppositon to a “no Bombs now” orientation. The new uncertainties were relflected in the Indian attitude to the NPT negotiations, an arena where India had initially played a significant role. The final draft diluted what India and other non-nuclear weapons-states wanted - a better balance between the obligations of the nuclear weapons-states signatories and the non nuclear weapons-states signatories. Despite this watering down, the other non-nuclear weapons-states went along with the treaty, but India did not sign.

Why? First, there was China’s decision not to sign the BPT and India’s new reluctance to commit itself to complete or permanent future abstinence. Subsequent Indian opposition to the NPT is invariably and repeatedly stated in terms of India’s “principled” opposition to the discriminatory character of the NPT, or the very fact of its enshrining differential obligations for nuclear weapons-states and non-nuclear weapons-states.

The ground level preparations, and accumulation of unsafeguarded plutonium form CIRUS, gave Indira Gandhi an opportunity to conduct Pokharan-I in May 1974-a test which the DAE scientist had long been demanding. the test, purportedly for “peaceful” civilian purposes, or a peaceful nuclear explosion (PNE) was carried out for primarily domestic political reasons. Yet India continued to strongly reject nuclear deterrence or grant any kind of legitimacy to nuclear weapons.

On May 22,1974, four days after Pokharan-I, Indira Gandhi wrote to Bhutto to assure him:

I am aware that in popular parlance a nuclear explosion evokes an awesome and horrifying picture. however, this is because our minds have been conditioned by the misuse of nuclear energy for the development of weapons and by the use of these weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We in India have condemned and will continue to condemn military uses of nuclear energy as a threat to humanity. Mrs. Gandhi emphasised that “it is strictly in this context tht our scientists have launched on this experiment... There are no political or foreign policy implications of this test.”

PHASE III: 1974 TO 1995-96

Further work on India’s nuclear weapons capability was suspended after adverse fallout. A conscious policy of nuclear ambiguity was adopted by New Delhi. This consisted in both affirming and denying tht India had/could have nuclear weapons/capability and seeking a special status as a Nuclear Threshold State. Meanwhile, in 1978, under Prime Minister Morarji Desai, the Indian government distanced itself from the 1974 PNE, and Desai emphasised the “peaceful” side of ambiguity while expressing misgivings about the safety of nuclear power.

After the mid-1980s, hawkish pressure mounted on New Delhi to go overtly nuclear in response to Pakistan’s reported nuclear preparations. India rejected seven proposals by Pakistan for nuclear restraint and regional disarmament, saying it would only discuss nuclear disarmament in “global, multilateral” fora, and in a “non-discriminatory” frame work.

India’s sole strategy of containing an alleged “Pakistani threat” was to entreat the U.S. to exert pressure on Pakistan, through the Pressler Amendment, for instance. Meanwhile, its own stockpiling of high-grade plutonium continued, with an estimated 300 to 450 kg accumulated by the mid-1990s enough for 60 to 90 fission bombs.

However, in 1986, India joined the Five-Continent Six-Nation Initiative for Nuclear Disarmament and in 1988 put forward the Rajiv Gandhi Plan for the elimination of nuclear weapons in the UN. This involved a step-by-step process including restraint at an early stage by the threshold states, including India. This was not energetically pursued. As the negotiations for a CTBT, which India had pioneered, entered their final phase, New Delhi stalled, making signing the CTBT conditional upon “time-bound” disarmament by the P-5. It tried to hedge the treaty in with clauses that appeared radical, but were meant to delay negotiations and prepare the ground for non-accession to a test ban agreement.

Domestically, New Delhi came under growing pressure to oppose the CTBT and then “logically” proceed to conduct test explosions: why reject the CTBT as a “trap” and “conspiracy” and then behave as if it were still in place; why bear the cost of opposition without reaping the “benefits” of nuclearisation?

In 1995, before the CTBT “rolling text” acquired its penultimate form, the Narasimha Rao government launched preparations for a test at Pokharan. The Cabinet was divided, and US military satellites detected preparations. Publicity, as well as the fear of economic sanctions, deterred Indian from testing. But a big shift had occurred at the ground level.

Yet, at the stated doctrinal level, there was no change. In 1995 Indian argued passionately before the International Court of Justice that “use of nuclear weapons in any armed conflict... even by way of reprisal or unlawful... Since the production and manufacture cannot under any circumstances be considered as permitted...The threat of use of nuclear weapons in any circumstance, whether as a means or method of warfare or otherwise, as illegal and unlawful under international law.”

At the height of the CTBT debate, in March 1996, India’s foreign secretary Salman Haider made a special appearance before the Conference on Disarmament to say:

We do not believe tht the acquisition of nuclear weapons is essential for national security, and we have followed a conscious decision in this regard. We are also convinced tht the existence of nuclear weapons diminishes international security. We, therefore, seek their complete elimination. These are fundamental precepts that have been an integral basis of India’s foreign and national security policy.

However, slippages from India’s professed commitment to nuclear restraint and disarmament had by now become evident. “Ambiguity” degraded significantly. India blocked the CTBT’S passage at the CD, but the text was taken to the UN General Assembly and signed. Hawks within and outside the government raised the level of rhetoric in favour of India crossing the threshold. The BJP and right-wing commentators in the media seized on the anti-CTBT rhetoric, to which there was little organised resistance.

PHASE IV: 1996 TO MAY 1998.

Having yielded so much ground to hawkish positions and stoked jingoistic nationalism. New Delhi had now become a prisoner of its own devious manoeuvres. The nuclear and defence establishments got hyperactive in lobbying for explosions and a policy break to permit full weaponisation.

The BJP articulated this point of view most vociferously at the political level. By 1997, its demands for overt nuclearisation became insistent. Its manifesto for the February 1998 general elections promised to “re-evaluate the country’s nuclear policy and exercise the option to induct nuclear weapons.”

Till March 1998, the BJP was the sole the Indian party to advocate nuclearisation. But the situation changed with the BJP-led coalition’s “National Agenda for Governance” which repeated the precise formulation of the BJP manifesto. The BJP issued orders to the DAE, Defence Research & Development Organisation and the armed forces t prepare for and conduct tests - without consulting its coalition allies. But the RSS was privy to the decision.

The first statement of the strategic rationale of the tests was offered by Prime Minister Vajpayee, not to the people of India, but to the President of the United States. His statement made no reference whatever to the “unequal global nuclear order”, “nuclear apartheid” and the failure of the P-5 to disarm. Instead, it offered “close cooperation” to Washington to promote “the cause of nuclear disarmament” ... thus wrongly conceding that the U.S. has such a commitment. It only spoke of the threat form China and Pakistan, heightened by Sino-Pakistani nuclear and missile collaboration.

On May 27, the government made a feeble but devious attempt to raionalise its reversal of earlier nuclear policies through a paper entitled “Evolution of India’s Nuclear Policy” laid in the Lok Sabha. This strung together half-truths and distortions to claim continuity - much in the same way tht hawks seek to paint Mahatma Gandhi as a legitimiser of the Indian Bomb.

Prepared by Praful Bidwai for MIND