By Rekha Bhattacharjee
“We can also say the date has been engraved in the history of India as a demonstration of its military power,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in his monthly radio address. Modi was referring to the day on which India conducted nuclear tests at Pokhran in the Rajasthan desert.
Modi was not alone in remembering the events of May 1998 so vividly. Some members of the Indian diaspora in Australia still remember the ferocity with which the Australian politicians slammed India for what was described as the “worst act of nuclear bastardry”.
Ties between India and Australia are experiencing an upswing for the last decade or so. Australia has recognised India as an important strategic partner after a long period of mutual apathy. However, the audacious Indian action at the Pokhran army range was followed by a phase of an unprecedented frostiness in the bilateral ties.
How Australia would react to the nuclear tests under then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA government was evident within a few hours of India making the announcement of the nuclear tests to the unsuspecting world. Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Alexander Downer was the first to react as he called in the Indian High Commissioner G Parthasarathy to convey the Australian government’s “condemnation of the tests in the strongest possible terms”.
More was to follow as Canberra recalled its High Commissioner from New Delhi for consultations.
“India’s action in conducting three underground nuclear tests is an ill-judged step which could have most damaging consequences for security in South Asia and globally,” Prime Minister John Howard said.
“The government has now decided upon further Australian actions in response to the outrageous acts perpetrated by India in conducting no less than five nuclear tests this week,” Downer thundered in a media release soon after further two nuclear tests were announced by Vajpayee government on 13 May 1998.
The opposition and business leaders joined the Liberal government in condemning India’s actions. The choice of words made by the some of these leaders would embarrass Australia for a long time to come. Labour’s Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs Laurie Brereton clearly transgressed all norms of diplomatic civility when he said in a media release “Coming on top of India’s three tests on Monday, this is an outrageous act of nuclear bastardry”.
Indian media outlets were joined by some Australian political commentators in questioning the way India was singled out. Prof. Antonia Marika Vicziany, the then director of National Centre for South Asian Studies at Monash University, was highly critical of the orientalism and patronising attitude displayed by the Australian politicians and media towards India (and, later, Pakistan).
“…western responses to the nuclear tests in South Asia have brought to the fore some of the strongest expressions of ‘orientalism’ that we have seen for some time and India has been shocked by this,” Vicziany told a Senate Committee in August 1998.
He also highlighted another reason that put a serious question mark on the wisdom of those formulating Australia’s foreign policy - the large balance of trade surplus enjoyed by Australia at the time of the Pokhran tests.
It goes to the credit of the former Prime Minister Howard as he was quick to realise Australia’s folly in pushing India a little too far. He sent Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister Tim Fischer to India in February 1999 and followed it up with a visit in July 2000.
Howard visited India again in March 2006 and, in a complete turnaround, expressed Australia’s willingness to sell nuclear fuel to India.
Bilateral relations have improved markedly after that point and now both the Indian Ocean Rim democracies are a part of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue with the US and Japan being the other two partners.
(The author is a veteran Indian journalist based in Sydney. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org )