The toxic terms of discourse of the nuclear debate have insidiously intruded into the public’s mind and distorted its moral perspective.

Whatever the final fate of the India-United States nuclear deal, it is undeniable that the media-driven debate over it has had a profound impact on public consciousness. Thus, not just television anchors, but even college students, are mouthing phrases like the “historic opportunity” (the agreement offers to India to become a world power) through a “strategic partnership” with the U.S., and promoting India’s “national interest” (which self-evidently lies in superpowerdom and in containing China) and “energy security” via nuclear power development (as if there were no alternatives).
One notion that is rapidly becoming part of middle-class commonsense is that the deal undoes the iniquitous technology-denial sanctions imposed on India since the 1970s and rewards it as a “responsible” nuclear weapons state (NWS), or, as the July 2005 agreement put it, “a responsible state with advanced nuclear technology”.
“Responsible” nuclear weapons state? Can this be anything but an oxymoron? NWSs not only possess the ability to kill millions of non-combatant civilians instantly but are prepared and willing to use that capability in cold blood. Indeed, they make their security dependent upon keeping scores of these weapons of terror ready to be fired at short notice.
All NWSs, regardless of intent or the size and lethality of their arsenals, and despite their professed faith in nuclear deterrence, have doctrines for the actual use of nuclear weapons to incinerate whole cities — that is, to commit unspeakably repulsive and condemnable acts of terrorism against unarmed civilians. The world’s greatest terrorist act was not the Twin Towers attack (which killed 3,600 people), but Hiroshima (where 140,000 perished).
Yet, those who erase this terrible, yet fundamental, truth from their consciousness still justify the idea that India is a “responsible nuclear power”. They advance six claims in support. First, India has an impeccable non-proliferation record and has never diverted civilian nuclear materials to military use or participated in clandestine nuclear commerce. Second, India practices exemplary nuclear restraint through its “minimum deterrence” doctrine and its policy of no-first-use.
Third, India has always responded positively to, if not advocated, proposals for non-discriminatory and equal treaties for arms control and disarmament. Fourth, India’s foreign policy orientation is strongly multilateralist; New Delhi rejects collusive bilateral agreements in favor of multilateral, universal treaties leading to disarmament. This derives from the view that the nuclear threat/danger is global.
A fifth claim is that India abhors any policy or action that will start or aggravate a nuclear arms race, especially in its neighborhood. It has not triggered such a race and will never do so. Finally, India is a peaceful, mature, stable and law-abiding democracy, which respects human rights and can be trusted to act with restraint – unlike, say, Pakistan.
All these claims are questionable, if not altogether specious. True, India has never run an A.Q. Khan-style “nuclear Wal-Mart” or willingly proliferated nuclear technology. But, India has been an active proliferator and has participated in clandestine as well as open nuclear commerce with a host of countries to develop its military and civilian programs.
Right from its very first nuclear reactor, Apsara, to the latest pair under construction (at Koodankulam), India has bought, borrowed and both overtly and covertly procured nuclear technology, equipment or material from states as varied as the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and later Russia, France, China, and even Norway.
The basic design of its mainline power generator is Canadian – the pressurized heavy water reactor named CANDU (Canada Deuterium Uranium). India’s very first power reactors, at Tarapur, were donations from the U.S. Agency for International Development and were executed as a turnkey job by General Electric and Bechtel. The much-touted Fast Breeder Test Reactor, the only such reactor to operate in India, was developed with French assistance.
India used spent fuel from CIRUS (Canada-India Research Reactor, to which the U.S. supplied heavy water, adding to the acronym) for military purposes by reprocessing plutonium from it. This was used in the 1974 Pokhran blast. CIRUS was designed and built by the Canadians.
A condition for Canadian and U.S. assistance was that the products of CIRUS would only be used “for peaceful purposes”. India blatantly violated this and, to evade legal liability, declared Pokhran-I a “peaceful nuclear explosion”.
India also clandestinely imported heavy water from Norway and, later, from China. We do not know what price was paid for these transactions, but it is unlikely to have been purely monetary in the Chinese case.
None of this speaks of “responsibility” or strict adherence to legality, leave alone of India’s “clean hands” as far as dubious nuclear trade goes. In truth, nuclear materials are among the world’s well-traded/transferred commodities. Many countries have participated in such trade. India is no exception and cannot pretend to be Simon-pure.
Second, the restraint claim is belied by India’s official nuclear doctrine, which commits it to a large triadic (land, sea and air-based) nuclear arsenal with no limits whatsoever on technological refinement. This super-ambitious plan sits ill with the profession of “minimum nuclear deterrent”, which is generally understood as a few dozen weapons. (How many does it take to flatten half-a-dozen Chinese or Pakistani cities?)
India has also diluted its no-first-use commitment by excluding from it states that have military alliances with NWSs and including retaliation against other mass-destruction weapons. In practice, given the lack of strategic distance from Pakistan, it is doubtful if no-first-use has much meaning.
Besides, the nuclear deal will allow India to expand its nuclear arsenal substantially by stockpiling huge amounts of weapons-grade plutonium.
Third, India has refused to sign any multilateral nuclear restraint/disarmament agreement since the mid-1960s. In the 1980s and 1990s, India also turned down at least seven Pakistani proposals for regional nuclear restraint or renunciation, including mutual or third-party verification — without making a single counter-proposal to “call Pakistan’s bluff”.
Fourth, the very fact of India’s signature of the bilateral nuclear deal with the U.S. puts paid to its professed multilateralist commitment. The deal marks a major departure from New Delhi’s earlier insistence on international and universal non-discriminatory treaties on arms control/disarmament. But this bilateral agreement is now meant to be imposed upon the multilateral International Atomic Energy Agency and the plurilateral Nuclear Suppliers 7; Group for their approval — a procedure that India would have strongly objected to in the past.
India has taken a parochial course, which in future could mean giving the go-by to multilateral approaches in favor of expedient bilateral ones.
Fifth, a considerable likely expansion of India’s nuclear arsenal, which the deal facilitates, will inevitably escalate the regional nuclear arms race. There is evidence that in response to the India-U.S. deal, Pakistan is building at least one (and probably two) plutonium reprocessing plants, which will help it maximize the production of weapons-grade material with its limited uranium reserves. That is what a nuclear arms race is all about.
More worrisome, as India builds up its arsenal to the same level as the lower range of estimates of China’s nuclear weapons (250 or so), Beijing can be expected to make more warheads and missiles. This spells a dangerous nuclear arms race. Yet, as U.S. strategists see it (see Ashley Tellis’s quote in Frontline, August 10), a major purpose of the deal is precisely to help India amass more nuclear weapons to deter China — via an arms race.
Finally, it stretches credulity to contend that India’s behavior towards its neighbors has been exemplarily benign and peaceful. India’s past record of belligerence towards Sri Lanka, Maldives and Nepal (on which it imposed an economic blockade in the late 1980s) negates that claim, as does its annexation of Sikkim in 1975.
India is, of course, a democracy, but it is by no means a rule-of-law state. India’s human rights record is deeply flawed — not just in Kashmir and the northeastern region, but also in respect of religious minorities, Dalits and Adivasis, and more generally, numerous underprivileged groups. One only has to recall the 2002 Gujarat carnage, the 1992-93 Mumbai communal clashes, the savage repression under way against the tribals of Chhattisgarh through Salwa Judum, and police brutality against mere suspects in countless terrorist attacks.
Our history of strategic misperception and miscalculation (for instance, during 1987-88, 1990 and 1999) also bears recalling. At any rate, having a democratic government is no guarantee that a country will not use mass-destruction weapons.
The only state to have ever used nuclear weapons was the democratic U.S. It would be tragic if our citizens look for Washington’s recognition of India as a “responsible” nuclear power while deadening their own moral sensibilities against weapons of terror.