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The Rediff Special/Shalab Kumar

Life beyond Pokhran

Now that the dust of the Pokhran II tests has settled (quite literally), and Pakistan has conducted its own 'nation-building' tests, it would be useful to look at the arguments made for and against the Indian tests. The arguments in discussions have revolved around three core themes -- the security of the nation, the global nuclear environment and the arrival of India as a superpower.

The government of India has been very strident in proclaiming the nuclear testing as necessary for the security of India, citing the acknowledged nuclear strength of China and the then suspected nuclear capability of Pakistan, as well as the past history of aggression by these countries as reasons.

Critics claim, quite rightly, that the nuclear capability is at best a deterrent, and the fact that India has nuclear capability was clearly demonstrated by Pokhran I. These tests, hence, add nothing to enhancing deterrence and will have dubious impact on increasing security.

This debate actually boils down to a fairly simple question -- is known nuclear capability a better deterrent than one which is only suspected? The answer becomes clearer in the context of the Pakistan tests and India's reactions before and after Pakistan's tests.

The strident, and often aggressive, posture taken by the Indian government towards Pakistan was despite the knowledge that Pakistan might well be in the same stage of readiness as India is. The post-Pakistan tests scenario has seen a marked cooling of tone and stand, in the statements made by Indian ministers as well as in public opinion. This is in fact the best argument for an overt nuclear status.

The definite knowledge of Pakistan's nuclear capabilities is already proving to be an effective deterrence as far as Indian aggressiveness is concerned. It stands to reason then that the unambiguous knowledge of India's nuclear status is likely to be as effective a deterrent for China and Pakistan. India's security is well served by the message given out by the Pokhran II tests, provided the perceptions of security threats are right.

There have been quite a few proponents of the view that the security fears are misplaced. While bilateral talks with China and Pakistan have progressed in the past decade, it is na´ve to believe that we have even made a beginning as far as the basic differences are concerned.

The Kashmir issue remains a bone of contention with Pakistan. Does anyone seriously believe that Pakistan has given up its claim on Kashmir? Or that it has stopped aiding and abetting secessionist elements in the region? Similarly, the border issue with China has not disappeared just because the diplomats have stopped talking about it. As long as these countries continue to claim Indian territory, there is a security threat from them. How else is a security threat defined?

The reaction of the western world focuses on the impact of these tests on the global nuclear environment. The belief is that India's tests have opened the gates for further nuclearisation of the world -- effectively stymieing the march towards a 'nuclear-free' world. Unfortunately, the belief that we are marching towards a 'nuclear-free' world is a myth.

The facts are quite well known now. The Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1967 is not really aimed at non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, as the name seems to suggest. It is aimed at the non-proliferation of the 'ownership' of nuclear weapons. The five designated 'nuclear' countries in the NPT are under no obligation to curtail the testing or building of nuclear weapons. The NPT is not even a small step towards a nuclear-free world.

One of the arguments which has often been made is that the NPT ensures that nuclear capability remains in the hands of 'responsible' nations, as opposed to 'rogue' nations. I have two problems with this argument. One, who decides which nation is responsible and which is not. Two, are we really sure that these nations are responsible?

Lest it be forgotten, the US is the only country in the world to have actually used a nuclear device for mass destruction. The erstwhile USSR was, and China is even today ruled by totalitarian regimes not averse to sacrificing a few lives within and outside their own countries in pursuit of global power. China's role in Pakistan's nuclear programme is quite well known now. Responsible? You be the judge.

The CTBT is actually the only positive move towards a nuclear-free world, except that these very 'responsible' nuclear nations have refused to add a time-bound disarmament programme to it.

Voluntary stopping of tests is definitely a first step in this process. But without a clear outline of the next steps, the treaty will remain ineffective and discriminatory.

When Bill Clinton and his allies ask India and Pakistan to sign the CTBT after their tests, they reveal how insincere they are in their commitment to a nuclear-free world. Only these gentlemen could explain how the signing of the CTBT by India and Pakistan at this stage helps nuclear disarmament.

The overt nuclear status of India does not actually prevent it from playing a role in the process of nuclear disarmament. When a rich person donates money to charity and exhorts other rich people to do so, it is called philanthropy. When a poor person asks other people to give money away, it is called begging. Rajiv Gandhi was begging in 1986, Vajpayee could be a philanthropist in the new millennium.

India's call for a time-bound nuclear weapons destruction programme will carry far more weight now. In addition, by exposing the NPT and CTBT as weapons of nuclear-apartheid, India can precipitate a rethink on the nuclear disarmament process and its effectiveness. These tests might just be the shock that the world community needed for it to get serious about a nuclear-free world.

Domestic Indian opinion on the tests has been mainly celebratory. The pride and sense of achievement that the people feel is echoed by Swapan Dasgupta in a passionate article in India Today ('Character-building nukes', IT May 25, 1998).

"... Atal Behari Vajpayee has released a flood of pent-up energy and generated a mood of heady triumphalism. He has kick-started India's revival of faith in itself. To the West, the five explosions are evidence of Hindu nationalism on a Viagra high. To Indians, it is conclusive evidence that we count, that there is nothing to fear but fear itself. The Pokhran tests are only tangentially about security. Their significance is emotional. The target is not China and Pakistan. It is the soul of India...."

The reality of life in India is such that these feelings are bound to be short-lived. The misery of daily existence will negate the warmth that the Pokhran heat has generated. Mr Dasgupta is wrong. The Pokhran tests are not tangentially about security -- they are only about security. The soul of the nation will get strengthened when Indians feel proud of being Indians.

That will depend on the steps that the government takes in the social and economic fields. Dramatic steps in poverty alleviation, education, economic restructuring, etc. will be far more effective in building a stronger nation.

We are waiting, Mr Vajpayee.

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