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May 19, 1998


The Rediff Interview/Zia Mian

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'It is a matter of life or mega-death'

Zia Mian, lecturer of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, has made the institutional, technological, and political motivations of nuclear power and nuclear weapons in South Asia his speciality. In his emailed reponses to Assistant Editor P Rajendran's questionnaire, he feels the BJP has made India's people nuclear hostages by conducting last week's atomic tests.

Would you say last week's tests are part of a muscle-flexing exercise -- provoked largely by domestic compulsions -- rather than a reaction to the external threat posed by the China-Pakistan nexus?

After all, the Bharatiya Janata Party says it wanted to conduct the test the last time it was in power (May 1996), but could not because the DAE scientists wanted the government to prove its majority first.

I believe it is a mistake to see these tests in such a narrow perspective. There is not only domestic and external, but also past, present and future.

There is some evidence of attempts by various Indian governments to carry out tests in 1981, 1983, 1984 and in 1995, that is well before the BJP ever dreamed of coming to power. Each time the preparations were halted, suggesting the costs were considered too high for the gains that were expected at that time.

Since the BJP has always wanted India to be a nuclear weapons state, its coming to power meant that the decision to test would be thought about and followed through in a more determined way.

India's relations with Pakistan have been uneven and often poor through the 1990s, but sporadic efforts were made to start some kind of talks, trade etc. India's relations had shown signs of improving with China -- as seen in the 1996 agreement on confidence building measures along the line of actual control at the border which reduced military forces and heavy weapons there.

The BJP has a different sense of what kind of relations India should have with its neighbours.

The real reason for the nuclear tests is political in all meanings of the word, combining domestic and external, past present and future. It was given, I think, by Vajpayee in his speech in Parliament on March 25, when he said "Our party feels India should have the bomb since it will place this country in a strong position vis a vis the outside world." The BJP wants a certain kind of India and a place for that India in a certain kind of world.

There is a view backed by Frank von Hippel of your university that India may have faked a nuclear explosion using a larger fission device to look like a thermonuclear device. What is your call on this?

I am not aware of this claim. I had understood him to say that it was possible the relatively low yield of the largest May 11 test was consistent with a test of a boosted fission weapon which relies on a small amount of fusion to dramatically increase the power of a fission explosion. This is normally the second stage in the evolution of nuclear weapons programmes.

There is a discrepancy at this time between the yields of the May 11 tests announced by Indian nuclear weapons scientists and those inferred from seismological data gathered around the world. But there seems no point in doubting the statements made by (Atomic Energy Commission chairman R) Chidambaram that a thermonuclear device of tens of kilotons was tested on May 11. Professor von Hippel concurs with this judgement.

India has always aspired to moral authority, especially when issues like disarmament are discussed. How will the current tests affect India's long term standing in the international arena?

The moral authority assumed by India and conferred on it by large parts of the world was a legacy of the remarkable nature of the struggle for independence and the role of Mahatma Gandhi. This was significantly eroded in 1974 by the first nuclear test. It is now largely gone, probably for good, unless a future Indian government decides to follow the example set by South Africa and renounce nuclear weapons after having acquired them.

Signing the Test Ban Treaty, agreeing not to deploy nuclear weapons, relations with its neighbours in the near term etc may allow for some shading of that opinion, but even that may be optimistic. I believe that it is profoundly immoral to have tested these weapons. But the BJP, and those who support the tests, uses a different criteria for what is moral.

India now has the same moral authority as the other nuclear weapons states -- except, of course, the US, which is in a class of its own by its use of nuclear weapons in 1945. They share the morality of the murderous hegemony.

The belief in India is that these tests confer superpower status on the country. Do you agree with this assumption? If not, why not? What attributes do you think make a nation a superpower?

The term superpower is a twentieth century euphemism for a state with an empire. This has always been constructed and maintained by aggression towards and domination over neighbours, one thinks of central and south America for the US and the former eastern Europe for the Soviets.

The BJP's ideas of Akhand Bharat may point to imperial ambitions. But superpower has also meant the power to influence events around the world. It is hard to see India having a global reach -- superpower also means acceptance by others that you have that status and are a legitimate player.

India will now certainly be a target in the nuclear war plans of the other nuclear powers, but it is unlikely to be seen as an equal by them. A nuclear India is more likely to be seen as an unwelcome but regrettably real "honorary white" in the nuclear apartheid world that it used to condemn.

What about Pakistan? Would it need to go for a nuclear option as a security measure? If it does, would it be better not to hastily put together a set of N-tests and try to immediately make a point and opt for a more carefully planned set?

No one needs nuclear weapons, and no one needs to test nuclear weapons. Need has nothing to do with it. It is a matter of deciding whether you want the power to commit nuclear mass murder.

If Pakistan tests, it will be because its military have decided they need to maintain their credibility in their own eyes, and in the eyes of a population they have systematically incited and educated to think as they do.

As for a delayed test because of the need to plan for one, it is more reasonable to presume that, like their Indian peers, they have been preparing for possible tests for years.

If Pakistan conducts tests, there are reports that sanctions will affect Pakistan worse than India. Is that possible? How?

Economic sanctions will be more damaging to Pakistan than India. Pakistan is heavily in debt, and engaged in a major IMF adjustment programme. It is dependent on the World Bank and the IMF to keep its economy afloat. India is not. Pakistan's economy is also much smaller and, therefore, more susceptible to shocks.

Can pressure from industrial lobbies get the US Congress to withdraw punitive steps? How likely is this?

Industrial lobbies here (in the US) have great power to affect Congress. It is a question if enough of them will want to take a stand on India. This will depend on the particular industries that are interested in Indian markets. As far as I can judge many of them are also interested in China.

The new opening with China -- Clinton was to visit China before India and Pakistan -- may mean that they will just pay more attention to China in the near term. After all, who wants to invest in places where there are nuclear weapons and may soon be two nuclear armed states with a history of conflict and war, with rising military spending and increasingly nationalistic populations?

Monitoring techniques detected only one of the five tests conducted at Pokhran. Would this jeopardise the complex international N-test monitoring system proposed by the Clinton administration?

No. It was already known that seismographs cannot detect very small tests. The CTBT verification procedures and instruments were internationally agreed, and are based on the presumption of consent and the possibility of inspections.

What reasons do you attribute for most nations not coming down heavily on China's 45 N-tests, sanctions, blockades, whatever, but quickly attacking smaller nations like India and Pakistan when they move into this area? Do you think the NPT and/or the CTBT is discriminatory and unfair in these respects?

China started its nuclear tests in the middle of the Cold War. There were tests all over the place, the US, Soviets, French and UK. Most nations condemned all of them, but could do nothing given the Cold War. After China's 1996 nuclear tests, some countries did impose limited sanctions.

If the implication of the question is why the US behaved differently, then the answer is that the 1994 law used to impose sanctions on India only applies to non-nuclear weapons states. This should come as no surprise since US policy on nuclear weapons as based on the NPT is inherently discriminatory -- there are two classes of states recognised by it.

But it is important that unlike law within nations, international law and treaties are consensual. The discriminatory aspect where it exists in such treaties is accepted by the states that sign.

The CTBT, however, is not inherently discriminatory. The CTBT simply does not address the existing differences in nuclear weapons science, testing capabilities, data from earlier tests, or resources to maintain and build on these capabilities to design new weapons.

It is equivalent to a law that forbids robbery -- it does not affect the rich since they have no need to steal (they have already acquired their ill-gotten gains) but those among the poor with criminal tendencies are more directly constrained.

Do you see an arms race beginning in the region? Some Western analysts see the threat of nuclear conflict in South Asia; other analysts based on the sub-continent believe nuclear tests by both India and Pakistan may actually establish the ground for a lasting peace. Which view are you inclined to go with? Do you think both nations must sign a non first-use treaty?

An arms race is not beginning. It has been going on since Partition. A nuclear arms race has been run in slow motion since at least the early 1970s. The missile race has been going since the 1908s. The recent tests only make it more dramatic and dangerous.

I do not believe that peace ever follows from an armed stand-off and certainly not one with nuclear arms. There is not even peace now between the US and Russia, even though the Soviets are gone, and Russia is not Communist.

The existence of the nuclear weapons themselves is an obstacle to peace. The US fears not so much Russia as its nuclear weapons. The same will hold for India and Pakistan if both become nuclear.

Signing a treaty of no first use is not so much a step forward as a step sideways. No-first use, only means second use. Does it matter whether you kill millions of people in an attack or as revenge? They will be dead nonetheless. But given the dangerous ground we are all on it is better to move in any direction than forward to deployment, and first strike and second strike forces.

What is need is for one or both to declare not to deploy nuclear forces and try to build on that a process of unilateral, bilateral and mulilateral nuclear disarmament.

Since a drastic shift in the hitherto ambivalent Indo-Chinese ties is likely, what do you expect will the changes involve, considering there is also a border dispute to consider? Also what do think are the effects of the changes in the region on nations without?

Indo-Chinese ties are very likely going to take a turn for the worse. The slow demilitarisation of the border will probably stop. Nuclear weapons make border disputes irrelevant, it becomes a matter of life or mega-death. China will probably target some of its nuclear weapons on India's cities and begin to treat India as a strategic enemy more actively. The BJP has offered India's people up as nuclear hostages.

The other nations in the region have been concerned about India for a long time. An assertive BJP intent on imposing a new found authority in South Asia may lead to India being surrounded by powerless neighbours who feel threatened and may become hostile.

Do you think it is likely India will back down from its current belligerent stand and agree to all the international community suggests? Do you think the Indians will actually go ahead and sign the CTBT?

The BJP have taken India a big step along the road it wants India to go. It is by no means close to its destination however. There is no evidence that the BJP government will consider moderating its tone in the foreseeable future. They have already said they will not sign the CTBT as it stands. It is clear the BJP want to be wooed by the nuclear weapons states.

It is important to draw a distinction between what the international community wants and what the US wants. The international community overwhelmingly wants to abolish nuclear weapons. This is clear at every international forum.

The US wants to construct a structure of treaties and regimes with which it and its allies along with the other nuclear weapons states can manage international security and threats to its hegemony. The declaration by Vajpayee that India is now a nuclear weapons state shows India is only offering to consider becoming part of the management team.

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