The seven-year N-itch hasn't ended (Praful Bidwai)
- 'The News International'
May 14, 2005
THE SEVEN-YEAR N-ITCH HASN'T ENDED
Intro: The Pokharan-Chagai anniversary highlights the urgency of
regional and global nuclear restraint and disarmament.
As I write this on the seventh anniversary of the Pokharan-II tests,
there is a visible lack of enthusiasm everywhere in India about
celebrating the crossing of the nuclear threshold. Nor are many
people making (or rather, inventing) connections between nuclear
weapons, security, Great Power status, and the ability to influence
There was no official commemoration of May 11, the first day of the
tests, although the day was, rather unfortunately, observed as
"Science Day" by the Manmohan Singh government, in keeping with that
designation given by the Vajpayee regime through a populist slogan.
Among political organisations, the Bharatiya Janata Party alone held
a meeting-a tame, poorly attended symposium marked by
On a prime-time television programme, in which I was a participant, a
majority of those who SMSsed their opinion on Pokharan-II from
different cities took a critical view of nuclearisation. The
newspapers did not carry, as they earlier did, a spate of articles
glorifying nuclear weapons and their supposed contribution to making
India a great power.
From Pakistan too comes some good news. Replicas of the Ghauri
missile and the Chagai mountain have been quietly removed from Lahore.
All this is welcome indeed. The new climate in India is explained
partly by a sense of relaxation that many citizens feel thanks to
improved relations with Pakistan, and partly by the fact that
economic issues and concerns about the poor state of public services
are displacing the middle class's obsession with security and the
international "prestige" that nuclear weapons are supposed to bestow
upon their possessors. After all, North Korea-which has recently
suffered a colossal number of starvation deaths under an
extraordinarily brutal and predatory dictatorship-is hardly a
candidate for high global stature.
However, none of this means that a change of policy is imminent in
New Delhi, or that the elite's preference for nuclear weapons has
greatly abated. Nor has the establishment's faith been shaken in the
doctrine of nuclear deterrence or the utility or efficacy of nuclear
weapons as a currency of power. The elite's psychological dependence
on the "nuclear fix" continues.
As things stand, India under its first non-BJP government since
Pokharan-II is unlikely to go slow on its nuclear weapons programme,
including the making and stockpiling of fissile material, production
of bomb assemblies, and acquisition of delivery vehicles like
aircraft, missiles and submarines. Accompanying these will be
auxiliary programmes to develop command and control systems, with
"Permissive Action Links" (codes authorising the arming of nuclear
weapons) and to protect nuclear weapons and those who can authorise
And yet, a small aperture of opportunity may have opened, in which it
becomes possible to question the wisdom of relying on nuclear weapons
for security, and to urge a return to the global disarmament agenda,
along with radical proposals for regional nuclear restraint, nuclear
risk reduction and disarmament. This has happened for many reasons.
First, each one of the assumptions and predictions made by the Bomb
lobby in 1998 stands falsified. Nuclearisation has not imparted
stability or maturity to India-Pakistan relations. These relations
have improved, but in unsteady, precarious and reversible ways. The
improvement owes nothing whatever to nuclear weapons.
The prediction that nuclear weapons would reliably deter conventional
conflict has been proved dangerously wrong, not once but twice-in
Kargil, and again, in the 2002 eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation. In
fact, nuclear weapons have encouraged crass adventurism in both
countries. Some of our generals and admirals regard them as a shield
or cover behind which to indulge in harassment of the adversary.
Second, the operation of nuclear weapons programmes has proved that
nukes not only don't replace conventional weapons, but are themselves
extremely costly to make, transport, store and deploy.
India's military budget has more than doubled in absolute terms since
Pokharan-II. Pakistan's spending on defence has risen by a similar
amount. This is just for starters. As their nuclear programmes
proceed towards deployment and hair-trigger alert, military spending
will skyrocket. With an arms race-in the Indian case, two races, the
other being with China-, it could spiral out of control, ruinously,
for all concerned.
Third, there is a new government in New Delhi, which pledges a
commitment in its National Common Minimum Programme to global nuclear
disarmament. It is updating the Rajiv Gandhi Plan of 1988, which
recommends strong regional restraint in the early stages of a 15-year
process. At the same time, President Musharraf has argued for a
nuclear weapons-free South Asia at least four times before the global
These conditions favour an expansion of the peace constituency and a
better dialogue on regional nuclear restraint. In India, the Left has
(after a lot of hesitation) embraced the regional nuclear abolition
agenda. So there is a well-regarded political agency to advance it.
However, the peace constituency should know it faces several
constraints and hurdles, besides its own small size. The official
response to it in India and Pakistan will depend greatly on what
happens internationally, especially at the NPT (Nuclear
Non-Proliferation Treaty) Review Conference in session right now
(until May 27). This is the second such conference being held after
the NPT's indefinite extension in 1995.
The first review pledged an "unequivocal" undertaking to eliminate
nuclear arsenals and agreed on 13 steps to this end, including early
entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, talks on a
fissile material cutoff, the principle of irreversibility for nuclear
disarmament, and establishment of a subsidiary body in the Geneva
Conference on Disarmament to deal with nuclear disarmament.
But today, the United States wants to repudiate the 13 steps. It says
the resolution is merely "a historical document"; the NPT can only
work if it allows the nuclear powers to keep their weapons, but
strictly prevents non-nuclear weapons-states from having them!
The present Conference has taken 10 days even to agree on an agenda.
If it reiterates a genuine commitment to disarmament, and
successfully addresses some new concerns, it will be a big success.
(These concerns include the apparent ease of withdrawal from the
treaty, its strict implementation, nuclear doctrine and disarmament,
and safety and security of nuclear weapons.) If the conference ends
without resolving any issues, it will generate widespread despair and
cynicism, lowering the chances of any regional-level progress in
A positive outcome in New York will halt the process of "creeping
acceptance" of India and Pakistan as members of the Nuclear Club. It
could create incentives for regional-level elimination of nuclear
To use that opportunity, peaceniks in India and Pakistan must gear
themselves up to intervene at the policy level, through advocacy and
lobbying among Members of Parliament, bureaucrats, ministers and even
armed forces personnel. If they can show small victories, they will
gain a great deal.
One potential area for a good campaign is the "No-No" idea proposed
by none other than Musharraf: India does not buy F-16s/F-18s from the
US, and then Pakistan won't acquire any missiles either. This is a
worthy demand to make and win. Such small victories could give the
peace constituency the strength it needs to fight the menace of
nuclear weapons in South Asia.-end-
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