Inglorious fallacies and arrogant nuclearisms: Praful Bidwai on the 1998 N-tests

India defiled, Indians diminished | Frontline, The Hindu


The BJP has inflicted nuclear humiliation upon the nation, while compromising India’s security and jeopardising popular welfare.

MAY 11, 1998, will go down as one of the darkest days in India’s history, comparable to December 6, 1992. The three nuclear tests conducted on May 11 with the clear purpose of developing and refining awesome weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) have defiled this land and diminished all Indians. One of the tests involved a thermonuclear weapon, possibly in the megatonne range, or the equivalent of 100 Hiroshimas. New Delhi has firmly put itself on the inglorious path traversed by the five declared nuclear weapon states (NWSs), and opted for the supercynicism that goes with brute power and hegemonism. Indeed, it further compounded the damage through the two additional tests of May 13, which carry it in the direction of deployment of nuclear warheads.

The BJP-led coalition’s decision to conduct the tests is strategically irrational, politically outrageous and morally repugnant. It marks a violent, razor-sharp doctrinal break with New Delhi’s stated nuclear policy of 50 years. If there was one thread of continuity in that policy, it lay in the forceful rejection of the view that nuclear weapons are legitimate, and that they are essential for the security of any state. The six-week-old coalition has wantonly ruptured that thread in one fell swoop, without reason or explanation.

The Pokhran tests are devoid of a strategic-military rationale. There has been no perceptible adverse change in India’s security environment in recent years that can justify a radical shift of India’s military posture. If anything, India is today militarily more secure than at the beginning of the decade, with the subsiding of the azadi movement in Kashmir, and improved relations with Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and, most important, China. It is disingenuous to cite Sino-Pakistani nuclear cooperation as a reason for the tests. This is of a sporadic, largely non-strategic, nature. Nor is it new. It is as absurd to speak of a Sino-Pakistan nuclear “alliance” or “axis” as to dub India a client of Russia because it has bought the latest Russian warplanes and wants to import two Russian nuclear reactors. And yet, A. B. Vajpayee has done exactly that in his May 11 letter to Bill Clinton. This focusses entirely on the “threat” from China and Pakistan, and does not even mention the unequal global nuclear order, or the CTBT and NPT extension – the reasons cited by his apologists.

China has not so far treated India as a nuclear adversary: indeed, it recently discontinued its programme to develop the Dong Feng 25 missile with the right range to reach peninsular India. China is a threat in the same sense, that any big power, including the U.S., is always a potential threat to the world. The fact that most of those who invoke “the Chinese threat” conveniently forget American hegemonism, and indeed plead for a “bargain” with Washington despite the menacing nature of American power, only exposes the fatal flaw in their logic and their craven attitude towards Washington.

Even if India faced a tangible nuclear threat, New Delhi has itself long held, rightly, that nuclear weapons are no means of meeting it. They are not weapons of defence. Nor are they good, reliable, deterrents. The notion of nuclear deterrence is fraught with danger: India has always called it “abhorrent”. Deterrence is bound up with an arms race. By its very nature, deterrence has a degenerative, unstable character. To deter the adversary, you must keep on raising the level of credible threat of the damage you can inflict on him. He, in turn, will “logically” raise his counter-threat level, to which the answer must be a further raising of your preparedness. That is precisely what happened during the Cold War when the NWSs amassed arsenals big enough to destroy the world 50 times over.

That is one great lesson which India wisely acknowledged until recently, but which the BJP-led coalition decided to erase. We are being asked to forget that nuclear weapons provide no defence against humiliation in unjust wars (for example, in Vietnam), and that their non-possession does not prevent tiny states from living in dignity. We are also being treated to other bogus arguments for nuclearisation in terms of national “pride”, “self-esteem”, and a place at the international high table. But it is insulting to be told that our self-esteem is dependent solely on weapons of mass destruction. How can gatecrashing into the Exclusive Nuclear Club, which the bulk of the world’s 186 nations distrust, be the best way of promoting our national interest?

Another fallacious argument holds that nuclear weapons are an effective currency of power and a passport to high stature. However, nuclear weapons are at best a devalued currency; they do not provide real power – witness the U.S. defeat in Vietnam, China getting a bloody nose in the same country in 1979, and the USSR beating a humiliating retreat from Afghanistan. Indeed, the mighty Soviet Union could not ensure its own survival despite its awesome nuclear arsenal. Nor could nuclear Britain ensure that it would not get progressively marginalised into a second-rate power.

SUCH irrational reasoning in favour of overt nuclearisation is meant to obscure the fact that by conducting the five tests – involving a panoply of weapons – India wantonly, cynically, violated the welcome political norm against nuclear testing. The world has expressed its strong disgust with nuclear tests; these are deeply unpopular. By conducting the tests, India tried to blow a hole through the healthy post-Cold War global momentum favouring nuclear restraint. This was not done in the interest of a higher principle, but for utterly crude, Machiavellian considerations of power. This momentum is admittedly weak, uncertain, unsteady, and fully reversible. But it is nevertheless new, real and important. Thus, three nuclear weapon-capable states (South Africa, Argentina and Brazil) opted for abstinence, three others (Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan) voluntarily disarmed, and over 20,000 nuclear weapons have been decommissioned or de-alerted.

A new moral-political norm has evolved against nuclear weapons. The NWSs have come under increasing pressure to live up to their disarmament commitments under the NPT and other treaties. Opinion against nuclear armaments has been growing in numerous forums – from the International Court of Justice to the Conference on Disarmament, from the Canberra Commission to the December 1996 statement of 61 Generals, including Lee Butler of the U.S. Strategic Command. This remains the case despite the indefinite, but not quite unconditional, extension of the NPT.

Over the last three years, India has gradually moved in the opposite direction, resisting all proposals for nuclear restraint. Regrettably, some of the reasons it cited for doing so – for example, that the CTBT is a mere “charade” and a “conspiracy” to perpetuate the NWSs’ hegemony – were harnessed by strong pro-bomb lobbies in and outside the government to hack away at nuclear ambiguity. The result was a significant shrinking of the “middle ground”, which wanted the nuclear option to be kept open but not exercised. The BJP seized on this, and violently pushed its own hawkish agenda with the utmost recklessness. Had the “middle ground” been more assertive, and defended non-exercise of the option more energetically and on principled grounds, May 11 may not have happened.

Today, the “middle ground” has ceased to exist. You are either for the bomb or against it.

WHAT impelled the BJP to cross the Rubicon, through a series of preparatory steps right from the insertion of its manifesto’s formulation of exercising “the option to induct nuclear weapons” into the National Agenda for Governance, the re-induction of Raja Ramanna into the Atomic Energy Commission, and upping the ante against China with George Fernandes’ help? The reasons were largely domestic. In some ways, Pokhran-II was directed not so much at an external security threat as at the BJP’s own allies. It was the BJP’s wholly cynical way of countering their pressures by resorting to a dangerous manoeuvre itself.

The BJP is trying to win cheap popularity by drumming up macho, jingoistic, hate-driven notions of nationalism and self-esteem – the nuclear analogue or counterpart of the anti-Babri mindset, itself linked to its National Security State syndrome. Nothing can explain the timing of the explosions other than this despicable manipulative logic. Fernandes’ anti-Chinese rhetoric served that logic. The same sinister mindset was at work behind the attempt to use the perverse ‘Buddha smiles’ symbolism to legitimise weapons that can cause insensate violence, an attempt that has deeply offended neo-Buddhist Dalits.

The crowning absurdity of all is that the ruling coalition, which barely survived the confidence vote, has no democratic mandate whatsoever to effect a fateful policy change. The BJP commands no more than a quarter of the popular vote. But it just decided to be shameless and brazen.

This raises serious moral issues. Nuclear weapons are ethically, as well as legally, indefensible. They kill massively – 140,000 died in Hiroshima alone – brutally – through shock waves, incineration, vapourising firestorms and radiation – and indiscriminately – they do not distinguish between combatants and non-combatants. They are incompatible with international law. Even the threat of use is unconscionable and violates the criteria of justice in war. As India argued, before its loss of nuclear innocence, their possession should itself be declared “a crime against humanity”. Now India has committed that crime.

THERE is yet another immorality involved: the abuse of science to military nuclear ends. This bears serious reflection and discussion. A number of leaders and parties, including President K.R. Narayanan, have congratulated the scientists and engineers responsible for the Pokhran tests, and felicitated them on their mastery of many technologies, including computer simulation. There is a lot of bragging about how Pokhran-II puts India leagues ahead of China and Russia.

However, we should not congratulate the scientists. Indeed, as citizens, we should urge them to take a good hard look at science, not just as a set of techniques unrelated to social purpose, but as inseparable from that purpose, especially when it is destructive and violent. Even more so when the scientific activity produces mass destruction weapons. Regrettably, in our scientific community, there are few voices of sanity, dissent and conscience. There are no Albert Einsteins, no Leo Szilards, and no Robert Oppenheimers who can counsel sanity and restraint, or at least have pangs of guilt, and who dare to speak the brutal truth about the horrors that nuclear weapons can cause, even to the point of invoking cosmic and mystical images (for example “brighter than a thousand suns” from the Gita, or ‘Trinity’ from Christian theology).

Worshippers of the state, of raw power, and supplicants to militarism dominate our scientific community. They are largely untouched by serious, well-thought-out considerations of ethics and morality, and the social purposes of science and technology and their potential for abuse. Surgical science can be used to save precious life, but it can also be used to amputate limbs as a form of punishment. Surgeons must take a stand against such barbaric punishment.

Similarly, scientists must take a stand against working on WMDs or on inhuman weapons. Unless scientists think critically and with social compassion about the science-society relationship, there is a danger that they will get sucked into a jingoistic mindset which celebrates militarism. Lavishing praise upon the creators of Pokhran-II is no way of encouraging a serious discussion of science and ethics.

INDIA has shocked and outraged the world. The Pokhran tests have earned India opprobrium, suspicion, resentment and hatred, not respect – not just from the major powers, but smaller non-and anti-nuclear states. India is seen by many small states – which once regarded it as a leader and an exemplary moral force – as a treacherous, deceptive, and hypocritical state with hegemonic ambitions. India may have won the admiration of some super-hawks in the Pentagon, especially those with a viscerally anti-China agenda. But globally, it has lost stature among ordinary people who believe in decency.

The BJP’s actions have attracted U.S. sanctions. These are, of course, questionable: a state that has not decided to eliminate its own nuclear weapons has no moral authority to preach disarmament to others. But this only means that the Indian people will have to pay the price for the BJP’s misadventure, especially if the U.S. decides to invoke all the provisions of its domestic acts and lobbies the World Bank and the IMF along with the European Union. This could badly affect the economy and cause grave hardships to the people.

Even greater would be the damaging impact of increased military spending due to nuclearisation. Contrary to hawkish propaganda, nuclear weapons do not substitute conventional armaments. Rather, they are an additional burden, especially if they are deployed. (The costs of deployment, that is, through a command, control and communications infrastructure, can add up to half or more of the cost of a nuclear weapons programme.) Even without a nuclear arms race, the cost of a “minimal nuclear deterrent” (a problematic concept, this) has been conservatively estimated to be 0.5 to one per cent of GDP. This will add about 25 to 40 per cent to India’s military budget, which is already unconscionable and twice as high as Central spending on health, education and social services!

A major nuclear arms race would aggravate matters further. But India now risks not one, but two, nuclear arms races – a secondary one with Pakistan, and a primary one with China, a far more advanced NWS, with an economy three times larger. This could be ruinous.

With Pokhran-II, India has degraded its security, turned friends and allies into enemies, and diverted resources away from urgent priorities. In return, it has got no real strategic advantage. At the global level, India will be guilty of sabotage of the nuclear disarmament agenda, in which precisely its real security lies. Only grotesquely insane reasoning can justify Pokhran-II.

Some of the damage can still be contained. New Delhi should avoid the temptation of looking for devious bargains that soften the blow but perpetuate NWS hegemonies and legitimise machtpolitik. It should solemnly pledge never to use, further test, or deploy nuclear weapons. It should sign the CTBT, and work to tighten its prohibitory provisions at a review conference scheduled for 1999. And it should return to the global disarmament agenda with sincerity and fervour while supporting every measure of nuclear restraint and step-by-step disarmament. This is where India’s security – and the path to sanity – lies.

But to do this, the ruling coalition must be made to abandon its macho nuclear fixations, its arrogant nuclearism and its delusions of grandeur. It must be denied a consensus. Political leaders and citizens of liberal and Left-wing persuasion have a special role here. They must take the plunge, and stand up and speak out, even if that is criticised as a non-conformist position.

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