India's Changing Nuclear Policy

This article gives some essential background to the five nuclear tests carried out in May 1998 by India's recently-formed coalition government; the Hindu nationalist BJP, which dominates the new administration, had promised during the election campaign to take a hard line on the nuclear issue, but few observers expected it to act so quickly or be so little troubled by international opinion

By M.V. Ramana | 1998-01-01 12:00:00

It has been over a year since India voted against the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), the international agreement which prohibits countries from carrying out nuclear explosions. India's purported reasons were that the treaty was not linked firmly to a time frame for global nuclear disarmament and allows existing nuclear states to refine weapons designs. India is demanding that the proposed Fissile Material Cut-off (FMCT or Fissban), which seeks to prohibit the manufacture of fissile material , also be negotiated only alongside, or after, a time bound scheme. Since the "permanent five" nuclear weapons powers (P-5), are not willing to commit themselves to this goal, there is a stalemate in nuclear arms control.

There have been two kinds of interpretations of India's actions. Is it a cynical ploy so that India may further its own nuclear ambitions? Or is India standing up for real global nuclear disarmament? The reality is more complicated. A better understanding of India's actions is vital to see a way out of the current impasse.


The Indian nuclear program was started in mid-1940s as India gained independence from centuries of British rule, and after the use of atomic weapons against Japan. Both these legacies have had an impact on Indian leaders. As early as 26 June 1946, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, said : "As long as the world is constituted as it is, every country will have to devise and use the latest scientific devices for its protection. I have no doubt India will develop her scientific researches and I hope Indian scientists will use the atomic force for constructive purposes. But if India is threatened, she will inevitably try to defend herself by all means at her disposal." Science and development both were perceived to be necessary to erase the ill-effects of colonial rule.

From the beginning, the Indian nuclear program was ambitious and envisaged having capability for covering the entire nuclear fuel cycle. Thus, India has developed facilities for mining uranium, fabricating fuel, manufacturing heavy water, reprocessing spent fuel to extract plutonium and enriching uranium.The program never lost sight of the military uses of atomic energy. During the fifties, Homi Bhabha, the chief architect of the nuclear program, was greatly interested in developing the technology for peaceful nuclear explosions, an interest that culminated ultimately in the 1974 nuclear test at Pokharan. Yet India was a champion of the non-aligned movement. Even as its nuclear program was growing, India was at the forefront of several disarmament proposals, including the CTBT, originally suggested by Nehru in 1954.

The Soviet response to this proposal was to say that the CTBT should be discussed only in the context of general disarmament -- a step further than the Indian position today. The U.S. side rejected the idea of a CTBT. Nehru also took the lead in pointing out the dangers posed by nuclear weapons by commissioning an official study to examine the effects of nuclear explosions.

During the negotiation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1967, India argued against the discriminatory aspects of the treaty. The NPT, which seeks to prevent "horizontal proliferation" -- an increase in the number of countries possessing nuclear weapons -- divides its signatories into two categories : nuclear weapon states and non-nuclear weapon states. Only those states which had developed and tested nuclear weapons before the treaty was negotiated were included in the former category. India objected to this and on more than one occasion described this as nuclear colonialism. This emphasis on non-discrimination has since come to mark the Indian position on arms control.

Previously India had consistently supported global non-discriminatory arms control measures such as the CTBT and the Fissban, but it has vilified the CTBT as discriminatory once it decided not to sign the treaty.


During the course of the CTBT negotiations, there was a crucial change in the Indian stance that has been missed by many. As late as March 1996, Indian Foreign Secretary Salman Hyder said "We do not believe that the acquisition of nuclear weapons is essential for our national security and we have followed a conscious decision in this regard." This was completely in line with the traditional Indian view on not using nuclear weapons for military uses. But on 20 June 1996, when the Indian Ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament, Arundhati Ghose, rejected the CTBT in the present form, she said that the CTBT was not "in India's national security interest" and "our national security considerations (have) become a key factor in our decision-making." This was the first time Indian actions in an international nuclear arms control setting were justified using the argument of national security.

While it is quite likely that security considerations must have played a part in the development of India's nuclear policy, this had not been its public position. Indeed, the whole exercise by Indian officials in dubbing the 1974 Pokharan test a peaceful nuclear explosion only proves this point -- reasons of national security were not used in public.

A process of historical revisionism also seems to be at work. Leading Indian government officials increasingly claimed that India has always had its nuclear option as part of its security calculus after the 1974 "peaceful nuclear explosion." Some indications that this shift has been in the making even earlier are provided by a revealing quote by the chairman of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission, R.Chidambaram. In 1994 he said, "There was no radiation emitted on the surface. That's how good our bomb was." Before the nineties, officials always took care to call it a "device."


These new considerations of national security are also evident from India's dilly-dallying with the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) earlier this year. After signing the treaty and ratifying it, in the face of uncertainty about the ratification of the CWC by Russia, China, Pakistan, and especially the USA, India suddenly threatened to withdraw from the treaty. To justify this shift, a senior official of the external affairs ministry said "The main problem here is that in the absence of the above countries [that is, the USA, Russia, China and Pakistan] not ratifying it, the CWC is neither universal nor equitable nor non-discriminatory because, as was the case with NPT and CTBT, certain countries will be keeping chemical weapons, while denying the same to others." Thus the CWC which, prior to this switch, India had praised as a model non- discriminatory treaty, and as a "useful model for our future efforts in the field of global disarmament," suddenly became a discriminatory treaty. But, once it became apparent that the U.S. would ratify the CWC after all, India executed another shift and welcomed the "non-discriminatory" CWC. Subsequently, India has revealed that it possessed chemical weapons and is in the process of destroying them in accordance with the CWC. This proved that India lied on several previous occasions when it declared that it did not possess chemical weapons, and in direct violation of the August 1992 joint declaration with Pakistan on the complete prohibition of chemical weapons."

Along with three nuclear weapons states, namely the USA, Russia, and China, India did not sign the land mines treaty in Ottawa in December 1997.


These recent shifts in India's attitudes towards global disarmament, and its increasingly strident criticisms of any step-by-step measures towards nuclear disarmament, can only be understood by analyzing the domestic debate.

Ever since the early sixties, hawkish sections of the Indian policy-making community have argued in the domestic media in favor of building a nuclear arsenal. The 1974 nuclear test is, in part, a display of their influence. Subsequently, they have not been able to alter the status quo in any significant way.

All this may change. The last few governments in India have been relatively weak and unstable, all formed by coalitions of various parties with different agendas. With the rise in strength of the Hindu fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), whose election manifestos have consistently endorsed overtly exercising India's nuclear option no party in power has been spared being attacked on its nuclear policy. The BJP has consistently opposed any restraints on the Indian nuclear and missile programs.

The BJP's policy is not new, but with no political party strong enough to oppose it, global disarmament initiatives take a back seat to preservation of the nuclear option. In this new political climate, the hawks have begun to dominate the nuclear debate. Citing the pressure imposed by the nuclear weapon states, and particularly the USA, on several of the non-nuclear weapon states and the threshold states to achieve this extension, the hawks managed to increase nationalistic feelings among the elite. The hawks also used the extension to argue that nuclear weapons are here to stay and hence India should go about building its own nuclear arsenal. The effectiveness of this line of argument can be seen subsequently in the domestic CTBT debate. Sections of the Indian population who were otherwise opposed to India going overtly nuclear came to accept that the CTBT, originally championed by India, was a "Western" treaty, and a continuation of the discriminatory nuclear regime set up by the nuclear weapon states.

For the hawks, the rationale for the linkage between a time-bound nuclear disarmament process and the Fissban or the CTBT is two-fold. First, this linkage is needed to be used to gain credibility among the majority of people in India, who support India's official position that India should keep its options open only as long as the other states are not willing to give up their arsenals. Indeed, there is substantial support for global nuclear disarmament among the Indian public. A recent poll conducted by the Kroc Institute and the Fourth Freedom Forum, in conjunction with the Marketing and Research Group (MARG), New Delhi, found that 83% of those polled supported an international agreement for the elimination of all nuclear weapons. The second rationale is that it buys time so that the internal debates can be fought out and some consensus for further nuclear weapons development reached.

This extra time is also essential for other reasons. With the increasing norm against nuclear weapons, as codified by agreements like the CTBT, or the decision at the World Court against nuclear weapons, the hawks sense this as their last opportunity to propel India into the ranks of the nuclear weapon states.

The economic liberalization program has also contributed in an indirect way to their campaign. Hand in hand with the 5-10% increases in the Indian economy has been the rise of Indian elite who, like the elite elsewhere, is greatly interested in making their country "powerful." And, conveniently for them, the best example of a country that has recently entered the ranks of the world's rich and mighty is China -- which in 1962 had a border war with India and defeated it. Completely ignoring the various economic and social factors that go into making China the power it is, the elite focus on its nuclear arsenal, and in it see their short cut to greatness.


Given the internal and external constraints on India, the hawks have not made much headway. International pressures have become especially important with the economic liberalization process which began in the early nineties, and has led to a greater enmeshing of the Indian economy with the world economy. The weakness and instabililty of the last few governments increases this vulnerability to international pressure. Government response may also be subdued due to calculations of the effectiveness of the nuclear option in security terms. It seems as though policy makers realize that while the nuclear option is useful politically to gain the attention of the five nuclear weapon powers, in particular the USA, its exercise would have little military worth.


In addition to the international and domestic positions offered by government officials and the hawks, there is another point of view that is not exposed to the public eye, but expressed behind closed doors in New Delhi, Washington and elsewhere. Over the past few months, while the crescendo about the Fissban has been building up in the Indian media, several Indian policy-makers have been quietly talking, informally, about trying to make a deal with the United States about the nuclear question. According to these policy makers, India would be quite willing to sign the Fissban -- for a price. What exactly the price is has never been stated explicitly, but most of the Indian proposals focus around nuclear and space technology.

Despite the strong U.S. opposition to transferring these technologies to India, the hawks are insistent on these for two main reasons. The first reason is to strengthen the alliance with the Department of Atomic Energy. A second, more obtuse, reason is that obtaining nuclear or space related dual technology from the U.S. is a visible display of India's importance.

In part, the informal suggestion that India will be willing to cut a deal over the fissban reflects the Indian view that, through its actions at the CTBT negotiations, India has proved that it is capable of playing hard ball with the great powers, and the time has come for the West, especially the United States, to recognize India's nuclear status. Hand in hand with this attempt to obtain recognition of its nuclear status is India's portrayal of itself in international circles as a trustworthy nuclear state. Indian officials often mention the case of a Middle-Eastern country that asked India for reprocessing technology, only to be denied. The message seems to be that India is responsible enough to be let into the club. And, it is suggested in return for this acceptance, India is prepared to abide by some limitations on its nuclear programs -- not due to arm-twisting by the P-5, but because it is a responsible player.

As in the case of the P-5 who, after having developed the requisite capabilities, embraced arms control as an extension of their security policies, India, in the view of the hawks, may be beginning to see itself as "arriving," if not as having "arrived," and so may be considering arms control negotiations in this new light.

In this context, the similarity between the ostensible reason put forward by India -- that the CTBT is not linked to time-bound nuclear disarmament -- and the Soviet position in 1954 is revealing. Like the five nuclear weapon states, India no longer unconditionally supports global arms control and disarmament measures, such as the CTBT and the proposed Fissban, but accords primacy to what it perceives as its national security interests.


In all these debates, the voices of the doves are seldom heard. There are several reasons for this. First and foremost, the policies of the P-5 towards nuclear weapons makes it very difficult for the doves to persuade the Indian public that the nuclear weapons states are indeed serious about disarmament.

In order to change this state of affairs rapid reductions in the size of the existing nuclear arsenals along with measures that de-emphasize the role of nuclear weapons, such as a no-first use commitment and de-mating warheads from missiles, are very necessary.

Another r ason, mentioned earlier, is that the Indian elite seem desperate to join the great power club.

A third reason is the lack of a strong peace movement. Most other concerned citizens and groups have their hands full with other problems, and as such have not had the time, or the resources, to address nuclear matters. The few groups which are interested in nuclear issues chiefly work on the environmental and social costs related to nuclear energy generation -- and even their numbers have been falling. The number of people subscribing to Anumukti, the only Indian anti-nuclear journal, has been coming down steadily.


The hawks have been steadily gaining ground in the Indian nuclear debate. Due to their influence, India seems to increasingly think and make policy like a nuclear weapons state. With the present weak government, it is likely to continue the current status-quo. In the last few years, it seems that with each round of negotiations involving India's nuclear option, the hawks have ended up on top. Thus, pressuring it to go through with, say the Fissban, may only end up moving India closer to the dream of the hawks -- a sixth nuclear weapon state. The way out of this impasse is to pursue measures that devalue nuclear weapons, and hasten the process of reducing nuclear arsenals possessed by the Permanent Five.

M. V. Ramana is at the Center for International Studies, MIT, Cambridge, USA. This work is supported by a SSRC-MacArthur Postdoctoral fellowship on International Peace and Security in a Changing World.
Peace Magazine Jan-Feb 1998

Peace Magazine Jan-Feb 1998, page 6. Some rights reserved.

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