February 22, 2020
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Blasting A Straitjacket

Between 1974 and 1996 Pakistan acquired nuclear weapons and missile delivery systems. China emerged as a major nuclear power. The Pokhran tests were a logical, legitimate response to this.

Blasting A Straitjacket
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AN answer to all the critics of India's nuclear weaponisation and the tests of the 11th and 13th of May is available in a succinct aphorism of the 17th century political philosopher George Herbett. He said in his 1651 Latin book Jacula Preduntum: "Having a sword of one's own keeps the swords of others in their sheaths." India deliberately refused the acquisition of this sword for four-and-a-half decades in the hope that the rest of the world would be responsive to India's reasonableness, restraint and practical idealism on matters related to nuclear non-proliferation, disarmament and arms control. This did not happen. What India faced instead were increasing strategic threats and deterioration of its regional security environment. Compounding this was a consistent and incremental pattern of discriminatory pressures on India aimed at restricting its technological and defence capacities.

Some points are worth recalling. India was the most prominent advocate of nuclear and general disarmament from 1946 onwards. Secondly, it refused a US suggestion in 1963 that it produce an atom bomb to counter anticipated nuclear weaponisation of China in 1964. Thirdly, it was only in 1972 when Pakistan commenced its clandestine nuclear weaponisation programme that India took the unavoidable counter-measure of conducting the first nuclear test at Pokhran on May 18, 1974. Between 1974 and 1996, Pakistan acquired nuclear weapon status and missile delivery systems clandestinely. China emerged as a major nuclear weapons power.

Despite these developments, India acted with utmost discipline and self-restraint for 24 years till May 11, 1998. Despite not signing the NPT and related agreements, it has not violated a single element of the disciplines mentioned in these treaties. India has not exported nuclear weapons technology or equipment. Indian nuclear reactors built with foreign collaboration are under IAEA safeguards. Despite this discipline, the latest attempts in the '90s have been to put India into a straitjacket to foreclose its options for selfdefence, technological self-reliance and acquisition of political and strategic strength. India's decision to conduct tests and affirm its nuclear weapons status was a legitimate, logical response.

India had to affirm to itself and confirm to the world its nuclear and missile technology capacities which were doubted at one level and which were sought to be capped and rolled back at another. Secondly, the Government of India had to indicate to its citizens the sophisticated levels of Indian technological capacities in the spheres of high energy physics, nuclear engineering, computer simulation, etc. This was necessary to impart to Indians a sense of security and self-confidence. Thirdly, India had to counter a regional and international strategic power equation pattern aimed at perpetuating the domination of the five nuclear weapon states in the new world order. India had to acquire a strategic position as a balancing factor both in regional and international power equations. India also had to change the terms of reference for future arms control and disarmament processes which were essentially restrictive and discriminatory against the developing countries. Lastly, the time-table for the coming into force of the CTBT was such that if India did not conduct the tests and confirm its nuclear weaponisation this year, India would not have been able to undertake such an initiative a year or 18 months later, as that would have attracted punitive sanctions envisaged under the treaty.

Then there has been the question of recent developments which compelled India to end its ambiguity and move on to exercise the option it had only kept as a possible choice. The answer simply lies in the security environment around India stretching from Diego Garcia in the west in an encircling arc right up to Pakistan, the Gulf and the Straits of Hormuz and then on to the South China Sea. A number of countries have a nuclear presence in this entire region, one out of whom, Pakistan, has threatened the use of its nuclear and missile capacities against India more than once. Pakistan's ties with other nuclear weapon powers like China and the US is a factor which cannot be ignored by India.

Conducting the May '98 tests was necessary for technological and operational reasons, the objective being to lay the foundations of India having a deployable deterrent capacity against potential threats. India had already delayed this process which had affected its security. Secondly, apart from having to break out of the straitjacket of punitive and discriminatory stipulations which would have become operational under the CTBT by the end of 1999, India also had to pre-empt the stipulations getting further compounded by the Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty coming up for discussion at the Conference on Disarmament.

Another pertinent question is whether India's economic modernisation and development would be affected irretrievably because of the sanctions that would inevitably be imposed on India in the aftermath of the nuclear tests. The assessment in informed government circles as well as among strategic and economic experts is that sanctions would create problems for India in the short term. But India's basic natural and human resources and the inherent strength of the Indian economy would be able to withstand the pressure of these sanctions, provided it fulfills three requirements: remaining politically stable and united, engaging in constructive discussion with all the important powers of the world to reassure them about their concerns, and continuing with its economic liberalisation and reforms purposefully.

A point to be kept in mind is the Indian reaction to external criticism. New Zealand and Australia withdrawing their high commissioners from India is an exercise in blatant hypocrisy, given these countries continued relations with nuclear weapon states who have conducted tests nearer to their territories and whose nuclear capacities provide a security umbrella to these countries. Japan criticising India can be understood in the context of it being the only one to have suffered from a nuclear weapons attack; but being especially critical of India is contradictory to Tokyo's attitude towards nuclear weapon powers who have closer relations with it and are also geographically closer to it. The reaction of the US and the west European democracies are as anticipated. One hopes that in the context of India's willingness to adhere to some of the provisions of the CTBT on the basis of reciprocity, their reactions would become moderate and tempered by an objective acknowledgement of India's concerns and responsible, restrained nuclear track record.

The basic rationale and motivation of India's nuclear testing initiative is that of being alert to its security environment, being responsive to its threat perceptions and being conscious that there is no substitute for self-reliance for ensuring the country's territorial integrity and security.

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