Features | Security | South Asia

India’s Nuclear Free Dream

India has a real desire for a nuclear free world, says Sumit Ganguly. Don’t be fooled by its complicated past on the issue.

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.

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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.

However, it’s important to note that his moral objections to India’s nuclear weapons programme inhibited him from taking any steps toward acceding to the nuclear non-proliferation regime on the grounds that it was fundamentally inequitable and had no real provisions for moving toward universal nuclear disarmament. Desai’s term in office was short-lived as the fractious political coalition that he had headed soon unravelled. The nuclear weapons programme was reinstated with Mrs. Gandhi’s return to office.

Following her assassination in 1984, her son, Rajiv Gandhi, assumed office. Not long thereafter, in 1988, he embarked upon what many deemed was a quixotic enterprise, namely an ‘action plan’ that called for setting a timetable for the global elimination of nuclear weapons. Sadly, the world took little heed of this effort and dismissed it out of hand. Not surprisingly, faced with this rejection of a last effort, however impractical, to reduce the nuclear danger and faced with growing threats from China and Pakistan, it’s believed that he boosted India’s on-going nuclear weapons programme.

His successors looked on with dismay when the Clinton administration very deftly managed to get the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) to extend the NPT ‘unconditionally and indefinitely’ at the 1995 Review Conference.

Despite their frustration with this development, they nevertheless attempted to work with the United States to pursue a comprehensive test ban treaty (CTBT) at the UN Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. Only when Indian negotiators concluded that the CTBT provisions would still leave significant loopholes in the treaty and include a clause that would have made the treaty’s ‘entry into force’ contingent upon India’s ratification, they made a last ditch but ultimately unsuccessful effort to prevent it from being reported to the UNGA. In the UNGA, the Clinton administration adroitly managed to get it passed with an overwhelming majority of votes. However, when brought before the US Senate for ratification, the administration failed to muster the requisite support.

But, fearing that inexorable pressures would soon be mounted on India to accede to the CTBT regime, as it was one of the principal global holdouts, its policymakers under the jingoistic Bharatiya Janata Party coalition regime chose to conduct a set of five nuclear tests in May 1998.

Interestingly, despite choosing to conduct the tests, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee still felt compelled in the parliamentary statement that he issued in the wake of the tests, to make a public nod to India’s continued commitment to universal nuclear disarmament. Even the parliamentary leader of a party openly hostile to the Nehruvian legacy couldn’t avoid a reference to that goal.

Despite its seeming quaintness, Singh’s remarks must be placed in the context of this long, historical interest in pursuing a world free of nuclear weapons. Of course, India won’t embark on this endeavour unilaterally. But now that Obama has spelled out his interest in ridding the world of nuclear weapons, it might be possible to engage India in a global dialogue on disarmament—as long as its ambit is genuinely universal.