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The Rediff Interview/ Praful Bidwai

'Are nuclear weapons going to help us counter low-level insurgency in Kashmir?'

May 1998: India has just carried out nuclear tests in the desert of Rajasthan and many Indians appear to have gone ballistic in delight. The media is agog with this frenzy of patriotism. But there were other voices that were drowned out in the orgy of self-congratulations, of statements questioning the need for plunging India into an arms race that it can ill-afford at this stage.

One of the strongest critics of India's nuclear tests (and a strong advocate for nuclear disarmament) is Praful Bidwai, who recently co-authored a book with Achin Vanaik, South Asia on a Short Fuse: Nuclear Politics and the Future of Disarmament.

Bidwai, who quit IIT-Bombay in his final year, is one of India's bestknown columnists. He is also a scholar at the Fellow Transnational Institute, Amsterdam, where he works on North-South issues and Third World debt and poverty. And today, he is as well-known as an activist in the field of nuclear disarmament and is part of the Movement in India for Nuclear Disarmament.

At present, Bidwai is busy organising the first National Convention on Nuclear Disarmament. In an exclusive interview to Associate Editor Amberish K Diwanji he explains the need for the convention and his reasons for seeking nuclear disarmament.

Why are you holding this convention?

This convention will be held in New Delhi from November 11 to 13. The background is that there are at least 40 cities in India where there have been sustained anti-nuclear activities. There have been symposia, seminars, discussions on nuclear weapons and the wisdom, or lack of it, in relying on nuclear weapons for security. There has been public action demanding disarmament, reduction in military expenditure, a return to the right development priorities in this country. Now, most of these groups have been doing these activities discretely with no coordination with each other.

There are also been groups based on professional affiliations such as Journalists for Peace, Physicians for Peace, Physicists for Disarmament, and so on. All these groups feel the urgent need to have a national-level organisation and network and such a network must have a national profile and identity because these are issues on which policies are being made at the national level. There is not much that you can do at the regional level.

It is with a view to setting up a national network and to trigger off a national campaign of a very concerted kind that the proposed convention is to be held. Now, the demand for the convention came from all these different groups. In fact, over a 100 groups have made this request. Some of us, like Vanaik and I, were lucky enough to travel while we were writing our book. We went around to a number of Indian cities, partly to hold discussions on the book and partly to generate interest on nuclear disarmament and meet groups that are active in different cities.

These groups were keen to hold a national-level meeting, and we had two preparatory meetings in Nagpur, including one on July 30, where 100 of us met. There we decided on the concept, scope and agenda of the convention.

Will there be delegates from abroad, especially Pakistan?

We are anticipating about 500 to 700 people, about 90 per cent from different parts of India, representing about 200 organisations. But we are expecting people from the South Asian region, and, of course, Pakistan in particular. We have had a lot of contact with Pakistani groups, thanks to e-mail, thanks to citizen-to-citizen contacts over the last few years. We have been in steady touch and done joint programmes.

For example, last year on Hiroshima Day (August 6), many members of the public wore white ribbons in Pakistan and India. The Pakistan Peace Coalition held a convention in February 1999 and 30 people from India were invited to this convention which had 500 delegates. I was one of those invited from India. So we do have close connections with the disarmament groups in Pakistan.

We will also have some observers from the international peace movement; activists from Japan, US, Germany, some for international peace organisations like Greenpeace, Peace Bureau and so on. There will also be participants from the UK's Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, one of the oldest peace movements. You know the peace sign -- a circle and a triangle -- is the symbol of CND. So we hope to get a substantial number.

What do you hope to achieve from the convention?

In India we have three kinds of groups involved. First, there are the groups for whom nuclear disarmament is a principle agenda, which include the one that I am with -- MIND. This was set up first in 1983 in Bombay and re-established after the nuclear tests in 1998 in Delhi. There are groups that identify with MIND and want to affiliate with MIND. And then there are the groups like Physicians for Peace for whom also the main agenda is nuclear disarmament.

The second type of groups are those for whom the priority is principally human rights, displacement of people, development issues, gender and caste issues, Dalit rights, environmental protection and so on. All of them see nuclear armament as an emerging concern that impinges on what they are doing. If India makes the bomb, it is going to take money away from development issues. And as India plunges into a nuclear arms race not just with Pakistan but also with China, it will have repercussions for Indian polity and ideology.

For instance, you have the emergence of a national security obsession and syndrome which justifies mindless forms of reliance on nuclear weapons and which justifies anything in the name of national security. These groups are concerned that the diversion of resources and emergence of a macho form of nationalism will impact on them and their concerns.

The third set of people who are keen to get involved see mass education and advocacy of peace and reconciliation as their main agenda. These are teachers and people who feel we haven't learnt enough from Hiroshima, who feel we don't teach our children values of peace and conciliation, don't talk about the importance of ethics and morality. We have a whole generation growing up which thinks that war is a normal way of life, that strife and conflict are part of human nature. They are concerned with reversing some of these views.

So all three groups are keen to set up a national network which will have coordination committee which will try to organise activities in many areas -- public education, advocacy and lobbying. The convention will produce a permanent organisation which will meet periodically.

You plan to set up an organisation with a secretariat?

To the extent possible with our 'very' limited resources. In fact, one reason for us not being able to hold this convention earlier was because the resources seemed daunting and even now it is going to be very difficult to raise the lakhs or rupees we need for this convention, but a strong effort is on to get the money.

But we do want to set up a lasting structure to respond to what is happening, so that if there some statement from, say, the government on the nuclear question, we would like to provide an alternative analysis or a critique. We also want to try and educate members of Parliament who know so little about nuclear issues, educate people in public life and act in the area of disarmament.

Nuclear activists, both in India and Pakistan, and even the world, are seen as idealists who have little impact in the real world? Do you see yourselves having any influence over government policy?

Many of these groups have historically started as very, very small initiatives. For example, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in Britain was started in the 1950s by people like Bertrand Russell. You had only a handful of people -- 10 or 20 -- holding marches. Yet it grew so that the CND had more members than the entire Labour Party and its influence was so strong that it was able to persuade Labour to adopt a completely unilateral disarmament agenda. This was the influence that CND came to acquire in the 1970s and 1980s.

That apart, in India I think our numbers have grown. In the beginning it seemed we were very small, but so were the strongest supporters of nuclear weapons. You saw all these people celebrating on television, but that was a small minority. The bulk of the supporters were more ambivalent: They thought it was an act of defiance against the global unequal nuclear order; some thought India had made a point about able to test but was not going to make the weapons and some thought India and Pakistan were going to reach some sort of a stable, mature relationship after the tests.

Now, none of that has happened. India and Pakistan, instead of becoming more mature, became more aggressive and within a year, went to war. Kargil was one of the bloodiest conflicts between India and Pakistan, and the only war between two nuclear powers.

Again, those who thought that India was defying the international nuclear order, which is undoubtedly discriminatory, saw that India has actually joined it on the side of the discriminators. It became a second or third rate member of the nuclear club and people saw through it!

Thirdly, I think people realise that nuclear weapons lead to an arms race, and that is happening. Look at the hardening of the Indian posture. First we said we are going to be just a small nuclear power but a year ago, the government published the draft nuclear doctrine which talks of a very ambitious, open-ended, triadic arsenal with deployments on the ground, in the air and at sea, with no limits on the technology.

You now have a new emerging arms race between India and China that is being the inevitable consequence of India's nuclearisation. So what you have now is a complete falsification of some of the romantic assumptions and that is why some of the people who initially supported the nuclear tests are now very critical of the nuclear weapons programme. I mean, we had a 28 per cent increase in one year in the defence budget after the Kargil War...

But that was after the war...

Yes, but even after the China war, we never had that kind of an increase! Today, defence expenditure is 50 per cent more than what is spent on primary education. Are you going to get security through military spending or are you going to get real, human, genuine security through education, jobs, social cohesion? And I think people are questioning that. But I think our numbers are growing.

How many numbers do you put it at?

It is difficult but in a good survey last year, 72.9 per cent of the Indians polled in 13 cities said they do not want India to make or use nuclear weapons, even in emergencies. This is a large number and we have seen that nuclear weapons have not been a political tool. Just after the nuclear tests, the BJP lost in the elections in the states (in November 1998), even though the BJP made a referendum of the tests. It was Pokharan versus pyaaz (onions) and Pokharan did not win. In Rajasthan, it is possible that the BJP lost because of what happened in Pokharan.

India has Pakistan on one side and all the troubles in Kashmir, it has China on the other side, which has shown no interest in disarmament. In such a world, what would you say that India should do?

First of all, I am not denying the problems with Pakistan in Kashmir and so on, but how do nuclear weapons help us resolve the problems? Are nuclear weapons going to help us counter low-level insurgency in Kashmir? On the contrary, nuclear weapons have helped Pakistan in that we had decisive conventional weapons superiority over Pakistan, which we lost after the nuclear tests.

Nuclear weapons have aggravated the situation and it is correct for us in India to say that the South Asian region is the most dangerous in the world today. Chances of a nuclear war breaking out today -- whether by design or accident, intended or unintended -- is much higher today in South Asia than during the entire Cold War. Let us not forget that there is no strategic distance between India and Pakistan; we live cheek by jowl. Missile time between our cities is three to eight minutes and has seen a hot-cold war for the past 50 years.

What about China?

I think China and India reached a very major breakthrough in the 1990s. In 1993 and 1996, we signed two major treaties -- on maintaining peace and tranquility along the border and on confidence-building measures -- which would allow demilitarisation of up to 100,000 troops. After this, China dropped plans for a particular missiles which could have targetted peninsular India.

Now, we have reversed that. We are getting into a serious and hostile arms race with China at the nuclear level. And don't forget, China is 30 years ahead as a nuclear and missile power and three times bigger than India as an economic power. It would be suicidal and economically ruin us to get into that race. We need not have provoked China, but we needled and named China.

Let us go back to the fundamental question that India argued for 50 years. Nuclear weapons do not provide security but an illusion of it; they do not prevent defeat even by non-nuclear weapons states. Look at America's defeat by Vietnam and the Soviet Union's defeat by Afghanistan! The Soviet Union ultimately collapsed.

Thus these are bogus notions of power; they do not provide security. India learnt and preached that lesson for 50 years, one which it has now forgotten.

What about the fact that some countries continue with to arm themselves, such as the US and its National Missile Defence?

Yes, but we don't have to imitate them in their horrible historical blunders. The fact is that nuclear weapons are not compatible with international law and countries possessing nuclear arms are rogue states. That is the judgement of the International Court of Justice in 1996. Because there are criminals in the world does not mean you should do that; you do not enhance your power or prestige by doing so.

Now that we have gone nuclear, what would you suggest next?

First, completely halt all nuclear and missile programmes. In fact, those attending the convention have agreed that nuclear weapons must not be made, inducted into the armed forces or deployed. We must freeze our programmes.

Second, we must launch a national effort at reversing our programme to return to a pre-1998 status. And along with we must return to the international disarmament agenda with some spirit and enthusiasm. Imagine the impact if India and Pakistan were to say that we are suspending our nuclear weapons programme if you five nuclear powers get down to fulfilling your obligations under NPT and CTBT.

Are they doing that?

No, I am saying the moral and political impact will be tremendous. Today, the vast majority of states despise nuclear weapons and have opted out of it, including powers like Japan and Germany. It is only a handful of states who want nuclear weapons and who have to give them up. With our peace legacy of Buddha, Gandhi, and Nehru, we have a stature that we can use for nuclear disarmament.

What about Pakistan?

Pakistan is the most reluctant nuclear power to have disclosed its cards. It is a reactive power to whatever India does. Because it knows that in the long run, it can't compete with India. They have said they will not deploy if India does not. And if India agrees to sign the CTBT, it will follow suit. They have even said we don't care about principles, we will do what India does.

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