Is global nuclear restraint and treaty-obligated regulation likely to unravel in early February? At a time when the global nuclear and missile domain is in considerable disquiet over the United States' decision to suspend its commitment to the INF (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces) treaty with Russia on February 2, India revived its contribution to matters nuclear in a modest but commendable manner.
In mid January the Ministry of External Affairs organized the first Annual Disarmament and International Security Affairs Fellowship program which brought together mid-career diplomats from 30-plus countries for a three-week capsule. It included lectures by Indian experts and a visit to an atomic power station, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) and export-control infrastructure among other facilities.
Envisioned as part of the UN disarmament agenda released in 2018, this initiative by New Delhi marks a welcome revival of India officially engaging with the nuclear issue at the global level through a structured government programme. New Delhi has a contradictory relationship with the complex nuclear nettle and this is reflected in the manner in which India related to the nuclear weapon from Hiroshima to late 2008 when it was accorded an ‘exceptional’ status by the global nuclear community.
In the immediate aftermath of the Hiroshima-Nagasaki atomic devastation in August 1945, Mahatma Gandhi noted that “The moral to be legitimately drawn from the supreme tragedy of the bomb is that it will not be destroyed by counter-bombs even as violence cannot be by counter-violence.” This formed the bedrock of the Indian commitment to global nuclear disarmament that Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru championed in the 1950s and ‘60s and even as a global nuclear arms race was slowly gathering momentum.
Despite its nascent and fragile profile as an emerging post-colonial nation that lacked significant economic and military capability, India made a noticeable contribution in encouraging major-power nuclear restraint. The banning of atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons and the subsequent adoption of the partial test ban treaty (PTBT) in 1963 was championed by India.
However, the US-led superpower attempt to impose a nuclear proliferation treaty (NPT) in 1970 that would have led to a permanent global nuclear apartheid led to India resisting such discrimination and very soon India was perceived as a nuclear outlier. Sanctions were imposed on India and the irony was that while New Delhi was committed to the spirit of nuclear non-proliferation it opposed the arm-twisting and blatant realpolitik intimidation to retain the exclusivity of the five declared nuclear weapon powers – the N5 who are also the P5 of the UN Security Council.
In May 1998 India with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee at the helm carried out its nuclear weapon tests and became a de facto nuclear-weapon state and Pakistan followed suit a few weeks later. However, both states remained outside the NPT framework. Over the next decade there was considerable effort to first ostracize and then accommodate India and finally an exceptional status was accorded to it in late 2008. This was largely enabled by the political resolve of then US President George Bush and the tenacity of PM Manmohan Singh.
It merits recall that India retained its commitment to global nuclear zero and has urged the global community (major nuclear powers) to make good the disarmament clause in the NPT but in vain.
Having become a nuclear weapon state, India has projected itself as a different kind of nuclear power but its voice has been relatively muted over the last decade. Currently, the global community is preparing for a critical Rev Con (review conference) of the NPT in 2020 and, as a non-signatory, India has remained outside the annual preparatory deliberations (Prep Con).
Against this backdrop of relative nuclear insularity, the January initiative of the Indian government acquires greater salience. Currently there is a high degree of discord between the USA and Russia over WMD protocols and the INF dissonance is illustrative. At the regional level, the US decision to re-open the Iran nuclear deal has soured the global consensus arrived at under President Barack Obama.
The global nuclear pot is being stirred more vigorously than appropriate and India could contribute in a modest manner to managing the challenge. New Delhi has the pedigree and should consider donning an observer hat for the forthcoming 2020 NPT Rev Con.
(The author is Director, Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)