At last week’s nuclear security summit in Washington, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh once again reiterated his country’s interest in global nuclear disarmament. This vision of a nuclear-free world has long been on the minds of a host of Indian political leaders, right back to the nation’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.
There’s little question, polemical claims on the part of some uninformed commentators notwithstanding, that his commitment to the abolition of nuclear weapons was genuine. As far back as 1953, Nehru helped introduce a United Nations resolution calling for a ‘standstill agreement’ on all further nuclear testing.
Of course, such an outcome has yet to materialize, so it’s certainly tempting to dismiss Singh’s reiteration of India’s continuing interest in global nuclear disarmament as mere empty rhetoric designed for public consumption.
But there’s an alternative explanation for his invoking the prospect of a world free of nuclear weapons. Thanks to Nehru’s spirited opposition to such weapons in the 1950s and 1960s, a segment of India’s attentive public still believes that it’s both possible and desirable to seek a nuclear weapons-free world.
To understand the persistence of this view, it’s instructive to look at India’s tortured history over the issue of nuclear weapons.
After Nehru’s demise in 1964, India actually embarked on a nuclear weapons programme, the Subterranean Nuclear Explosions (SNEP) project. This effort was undertaken largely because of its defeat at the hands of the People’s Republic of China in a border war in 1962 and China’s subsequent acquisition of nuclear weapons capabilities in 1964. In addition to this endeavour it also sought a nuclear guarantee from the great powers. To the dismay of its national leaders, no such guarantee proved to be forthcoming.
Despite its own quest for nuclear weapons, thanks to the sheer weight of the Nehruvian legacy, India continued to publicly espouse the cause of universal nuclear disarmament. The nuclear weapons programme, thanks to a perceived threat from China, nevertheless went ahead in fits and starts. Accordingly, India refused to join the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty of 1968. Its objections were twofold. At one level it did little to stop the vertical proliferation of nuclear weapons. On the other, it merely exhorted the existing nuclear weapons states to eventually dispense with their stockpiles. What Indian policymakers didn’t publicly articulate, however, was the obvious: since it had not yet tested nuclear weapons joining the treaty would have effectively foreclosed India’s nuclear weapons option.
Thanks to a combination of both domestic and external policy concerns, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered India’s first nuclear weapons test in May 1974. However, faced with a firestorm of global condemnation and a raft of sanctions on a vulnerable Indian economy, she chose not to carry out any further tests. When domestic political difficulties forced her out of office, her successor, Morarji Desai, a Gandhian, chose to briefly suspend work on the nuclear weapons programme.