India has been consistent in its efforts at campaigning for a world free of nuclear weapons. From 1945 onwards, the country has expressed abhorrence for these weapons of mass destruction and presented several proposals and resolutions in the UN General Assembly on universal nuclear disarmament.
One of the most prominent and comprehensive approaches aimed at achieving this was presented in 1988 by then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi – the Action Plan for a Nuclear Weapons Free and Non violent World Order. It encapsulated a broad based, three phase schedule over a period of 22 years for reaching a world free of nuclear weapons by 2010. However, the world then was still mired in Cold War politics, and the Action Plan was ignored. Disappointed, and with increasing intelligence reports on the advances being steadily made in Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme with Chinese help, India finally conducted its own nuclear tests in 1998 to safeguard itself against the possibility of nuclear blackmail and coercion.
Despite being engaged in operationalizing a credible deterrent since then, India’s aspiration for a nuclear weapon free world hasn’t dimmed. And, in fact, there’s no contradiction in these two positions since while the security threats of the moment require India to maintain a credible nuclear arsenal, it believes that the long-term security interests of the country can be best found in the universal elimination of these weapons.
This aspiration motivated Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in October 2010 to set up an informal group of experts (of which I had the privilege to be a member) to consider how best the ideas contained in the Rajiv Gandhi Action Plan of 1988 could be carried forward now. The group held a series of meetings and detailed consultations with several government officials who had participated in the drafting exercise of the Action Plan in 1988, as well as several international specialists, to try to gauge the international pulse on nuclear disarmament. Finally, on the occasion of the 67th anniversary of Rajiv Gandhi’s birth, on August 20 this year, the group presented its report to Singh.
The report makes the case for India to proactively pursue efforts at universal nuclear disarmament since the present conditions are far more favourable than in 1988, when the major players had extremely inflexible positions. Under President Barack Obama, the United States appears far more accepting of the need for disarmament, especially in view of the increasing dangers of nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism. And the US lead on this issue could galvanise other capitals too. Under this scenario, India has the opportunity to bilaterally engage with the United States on the issue, along with other major players, with all of whom New Delhi has a strategic partnership today.
The report suggests a seven point roadmap that includes the following specific steps: a statement of commitment by all nuclear armed states on eliminating their nuclear arsenal as part of a universal, non-discriminatory and verifiable global process; work on reducing the salience of nuclear weapons in the security doctrines of nuclear-armed states; reducing the dangers of accidental use of weapons through de-alerting; negotiating a global agreement on no-first use; negotiating a treaty incorporating negative security assurances; negotiating a convention banning the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons; and, finally a Nuclear Weapons Convention banning the production, stockpiling and possession of nuclear weapons.
Besides recommending that India must assume a high-profile role in advocating universal nuclear disarmament, the report hopes to start a debate on the subject. As is amply evident in the history of failed attempts at disarmament since 1945, unless countries seriously engage in discussions on the issue, we will never be able to find the ground for possible convergences. Therefore, there’s a critical need for India to bring disarmament to the agenda of all its bilateral strategic partnership dialogues to explore possible actions.
Lastly, it must also be noted that the creation of a world without nuclear weapons must essentially be built on the basis of certain fundamental principles that promise an inclusive approach and security for all nations. The Rajiv Gandhi Action Plan had identified these principles as universality, non-discrimination, verifiability, simultaneous collateral measures to enhance confidence and security, acceptance and tolerance, and an approach that is time-bound but flexible. The relevance of these principles is timeless, and only those measures that are based on these can hope to succeed. A collective search must begin now as the danger of the continued existence of nuclear weapons in national arsenals is growing by the minute.