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Home > India > News > Columnists > Praful Bidwai

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Body blow to nuclear disarmament

September 12, 2008

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In contrast to the euphoric headlines in the Indian media proclaiming a 'nuclear dawn; and the 'remaking' of the world to suit Nuclear India's ambitions, the internal reception to the completion of the heated debate in the Nuclear Suppliers' Group in Vienna [Images] was sullen and frosty. When the decision, incontestably a major decision, to grant India a waiver from the NSG's tough trading rules was announced on September 6, there was no applause whatever. 

A European diplomat at the gathering told Reuters: 'For the first time in my experience of international diplomatic negotiations, a consensus decision was followed by complete silence in the room. No clapping, nothing�' This showed the extent to which many of the NSG's 45 member-states 'felt pressured' by the United States's furious lobbying for the waiver, which bludgeoned them into submission. Very few NSG members were fully satisfied with the waiver, and many entered caveats through their 'national statements'. Said a dismayed diplomat: "NPT RIP (rest in peace)!"

Announcing the death of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty may be a trifle premature, but there's simply no doubt that the waiver has shaken the global nuclear order and blown a gaping hole through the nuclear export control system. For the first time, the world's major powers have agreed to resume nuclear trade with a country that possesses nuclear weapons, but has neither signed the NPT nor acceded to any other agreement on nuclear restraint or disarmament, including the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

This confronts us all with a choice. We can be short-sighted, narrow and parochial and welcome the waiver as a historic victory signifying India's "arrival" as a Great World Power. Or, we can take a broad-horizon, long-term view and consider the causes and consequences of the waiver not just for India, but the whole world. If India is ever to exercise a major influence on world affairs, its policy-makers and -shapers should surely be concerned with the global consequences of any major event, action or decision, and not just India's self-interest.

Sadly, just the opposite is true. The bulk of the English-language media celebrates the waiver in a gung-ho manner and sees itself as a campaigner/outrider for the US-India nuclear deal from a narrow national-chauvinist perspective. A majority of the deal's opponents too share that same perspective, and regard it as a litmus test of national sovereignty. Both viewpoints vest sovereignty in mass-destruction weapons, not the people.

This column offers a different perspective, based on a commitment to peace, nuclear disarmament, and balance and equity in international relations. Seen from this angle, both the nuclear deal and the waiver are indeed unmitigated disasters for the cause of global nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament. They will not even enhance India's security, but intensify an arms race in this region, degrading the security of all its states and detracting from their peoples' true priorities. Nor will the deal help India's energy security. Costly and unsafe nuclear power isn't the route to energy security.

First, consider three big claims made about the waiver. It's a victory of "sweet reason", proffered Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee's September 5 statement. This generated a "positive momentum" and convinced half the dissenting six states -- Austria, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand [Images], Norway and Switzerland [Images] -- to radically change their stand. Second, the waiver rights a historic wrong by lifting sanctions and discriminatory technology denial wrongly imposed on India after 1974. And third, it will bring India into the global "non-proliferation mainstream" and promote restraint on India's part.

Mukherjee's was a vague statement saying India opposes nuclear proliferation, doesn't subscribe to an arms race, and will behave "responsibly". This doesn't square up with India's actual record in initiating and sustaining a nuclear arms race in South Asia for three decades. Nor did Mukherjee provide the specific assurance the world sought: a legally binding commitment not to test, or else, nuclear commerce with India would end.

The truth is, the waiver happened not for arms-control reasons, but because of the onslaught of US pressure on the dissenting NSG members The pressure was described as "brutal and unconscionable" by former United Nations undersecretary for disarmament Jayantha Dhanapala. Regrettably, India too practised "with-us-or-against-us" threats to push its case. The US and India both offered economic inducements to supplement strong-arm methods.

Second, it's simply not true that "innocent India" was punished unfairly for conducting the 1974 test with indigenously developed materials and technologies. The critical materials were imported or clandestinely procured. The plutonium for the test came from the CIRUS reactor built with Canadian and US assistance, which was only meant for "peaceful purposes". Hence, the blast was hypocritically called a "peaceful nuclear explosion". But India had cheated the world by diverting civilian material to military use -- and become an accomplished proliferator. 

Unfortunately, the NSG has made a dangerous double standards-based distinction between "good" and "bad" proliferators and rewarded India because it has become Washington's friend and ally. Tomorrow, another country could exploit the same distinction. This will undermine efforts to contain Iran's and North Korea's nuclear programmes and weaken the global non-proliferation norm.

Third, the waiver won't bring India into the "non-proliferation mainstream" or encourage restraint on its part. In fact, the nuclear deal will allow India to produce more fissile material for bombs. Under the deal, India will separate its military-nuclear facilities from civilian installations and subject some of the latter to International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards to ensure that no material from them is diverted to military purposes.

However, India will only put 14 of its 22 operating/planned civilian reactors under safeguards. But it can use the remaining eight reactors to produce as much weapons-grade plutonium as it likes. According to a report by independent scientists for the International Panel on Fissile Materials two years ago, these eight reactors alone can yield fuel for as many as 40 Nagasaki-type bombs every year. In addition, India can produce more bomb fuel from dedicated military-nuclear facilities and fast-breeders.

All this makes nonsense of the idea of India's professed "credible minimum deterrent", which is understood as a few dozen weapons. (After all, how many bombs does it take to flatten five Chinese or Pakistani cities? 15, 20, 50?) India already has an estimated 100 to 150 nuclear weapons. Adding to the stockpile can only encourage a vicious nuclear arms race with Pakistan and, more ominously, with China, further destabilising already volatile South Asia.

At any rate, is the waiver "clean and unconditional", as India had insisted it must be? Strictly speaking, no. True, India formally accepted only one of the three conditions proposed by the dissenters through more than 50 amendments in the August 21-22 NSG meeting. This is periodic review of India's compliance with non-proliferation commitments. But the other two conditions -- exclusion of enrichment and reprocessing technologies from nuclear trade, and terminating the trade in the event of testing -- figure in the "national statements" of interpretation of the waiver by the six "like-minded" countries, and by Japan [Images] and Germany [Images].

So, in practice, nuclear trade with India will be limited. It will most certainly be terminated if India conducts a nuclear explosion, withdraws from IAEA safeguards because of interruptions in fuel supplies, or fails to abide by its other non-proliferation commitments.

Many national statements interpret Mukherjee's speech as a solemn promise not to test, which will automatically terminate cooperation in the event of a test. Although New Delhi [Images] won't admit it, this isn't quite the unconditional waiver it wanted. But it can live with this.

Both the Left and the Bharatiya Janata Party accuse the government of having betrayed the nine commitments regarding the deal made by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh [Images] to Parliament, and of having compromised India's "strategic sovereignty". This criticism is off the mark and exaggerates the degree of compromise involved in the waiver. More important, it altogether misses the crucial point concerning the disarmament and peace implications of the deal, in particular, the waiver.

Joining the Nuclear Club, which the Indian elite has long craved to do, won't remotely end global "atomic apartheid". India will merely become another participant in the apartheid  ruling regime. India's nuclear weapons will be legitimised. But India will sanctify other countries' nuclear weapons. The last thing India will do on joining the Club is to demand its dissolution or a radical change in its rules! This India will inevitably betray its promise to fight for a nuclear weapons-free world, held out by the United Progressive Alliance.

The UPA seems determined to ram the deal through despite its divisive character and lack of a domestic consensus on it. There's now a good chance that with the Bush administration's hard push, the 123 agreement will clear the US Congress in the current session ending September 26 or in a special lame-duck session.

However, the deal won't win the hearts of the Indian public -- and certainly not its votes. The Congress would be ill-advised to make it an election plank.


Praful Bidwai



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