India must play a larger role in global nuclear discourse

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, writes C Uday Bhaskar for South Asia Monitor  
C Uday Bhaskar Jan 31, 2019
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

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