India takes the lead once again in global nuclear disarmament

June 28th, 2008 - 6:17 am ICT by IANS  

A file-photo of Manmohan Singh
By Pranay Sharma
Twenty years after then Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi presented his Action Plan to the United Nations with a fervent appeal for a nuclear free world, disarmament is back on the global agenda - in a large measure due to India. “Nuclear war will not mean the death of a hundred million people. Or even a thousand million. It will mean the extinction of four thousand million, the end of life as we know it on our planet, earth. We come to the United States to seek your support. We seek your support to put a stop to this madness.”

On June 9, 1988, when Rajiv Gandhi made this appeal to the world, there were few takers for it.

The decades-long Cold War approaching an end would perhaps have made Rajiv Gandhi more optimistic about a positive response from the world leaders. But he did not get the response he had expected.

“Rajiv Gandhi presented his plan as a world statesman and did not adopt a parochial, Indian view,” says India’s leading strategic commentator K. Subrahmanyam.

The plan, which talked about a phased manner in which the nuclear arsenal in the world should be eliminated, was an attempt to strike a balance between non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and disarmament.

He had offered that India would not cross the nuclear threshold if his plan was adopted, But even after eight months when he failed to get a positive response from the world leaders, particularly, the five declared nuclear weapon states - the United States, the Soviet Union (Russia), France, the United Kingdom and China - he realised that India too would have to go nuclear.

But it took another 10 years before India finally went nuclear in May 1998. Meanwhile, two important developments forced its hands further. First was the indefinite extension of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1995 and the second the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) which was negotiated a year later.

The fact that the NPT was indefinitely extended without a timeframe for the elimination of the nuclear arsenals was a major disappointment for India.

Soon the CTBT was brought in which, despite India’s strong objections to provisions of the treaty, tried to rope it in with the caveat that unless New Delhi signs and ratifies it, the treaty could not be implemented.

“There was no serious attempt to address vertical proliferation of nuclear weapons,” says an official from South Block, the seat of India’s Ministry of External Affairs. “The stress was always on horizontal proliferation.”

Today, as India marks the 20th anniversary of Rajiv Gandhi’s Action Plan for universal disarmament and the 10th anniversary of the Pokhran II nuclear tests in the Rajasthan desert, some would still argue that there is a paradox in India’s call for disarmament and its decision to go nuclear.

But there is no contradiction in the Indian stand. India has been consistent in its appeal for a world free of nuclear weapons from the time of its first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

Successive Indian prime ministers have never digressed from this stated position. Even when India conducted its first nuclear test at the Pokhran site in 1974, it was called a “peaceful nuclear explosion” by the Indian government.

It was the fast deteriorating security situation in its immediate neighbourhood, with proliferation of nuclear weapons and technology passing from one country to another, the total lack of response to its concerns and the inability of the international community to agree to a timeframe for the elimination of nuclear weapons that led to the Pokhran II tests.

But soon after the tests India made it clear to the world that it will pursue a doctrine of “no-first use” and not use its weapons against any non-nuclear country. This stand was strengthened by yet another reiteration by the Indian government that it still believed in a nuclear weapons-free world and would be the first one to join in if any serious move was undertaken by the international community in that direction.

Two decades later the Action Plan offered by Rajiv Gandhi has become the new mantra, especially to those who had rejected it when it was fist made.

Former US statesmen Henry Kissinger, George Schultz, William Perry, and Sam Nunn - known as the Big Four - while launching their initiative for “A world free of nuclear weapons” last year have quoted generously from the former Indian prime minister’s speech.

They now acknowledge that nuclear weapons do present the world with “tremendous dangers” as well as “an historic opportunity”. The four have made no bones about the fact that the “US leadership will be required to take the world to the next stage - to a solid consensus for reversing reliance on nuclear weapons globally as a vital contribution to preventing the proliferation to potentially dangerous hands, and ultimately ending them as a threat to the world.”

A number of developments in the world might have played a crucial role in bringing about this change in the approach of many of those who were earlier reluctant to see its merit.

The decision of North Korea to come out of the NPT and renew its nuclear weapons programme, Iran’s controversial nuclear programme that many in the world fear is for making bombs, and the spread of a global terrorist network that came to the fore in the wake of 9/11, have all perhaps contributed to bringing about this change.

But a simple message that India has consistently been trying to tell the world is now making some impact. The existing non-proliferation regime could not be made effective unless there is a serious commitment by the international community to a plan for the elimination of the world’s nuclear arsenal.

As the disarmament debate stages a comeback on the global stage, India has yet taken the initiative to build up a worldwide opinion in favour of an early timeframe for the elimination of nuclear weapons in the world.

It recently organised a two-day conclave in the capital to evolve a “new global consensus” on universal disarmament and non-proliferation architecture by inviting diplomats and leading scholars and experts from different parts of the world to debate the issue.

“It is not too much to say that India today is at the crossroads and holds the global future of nuclear weapons,” Douglas Roche of Middle Powers Initiative said at the conference.

Expressing similar sentiments, Jonathan Granoff, president of the Global Security Institute, summed up why the Indian stand on global disarmament was so important to the international community.

“India is uniquely positioned to advance this route. It has the political arguments, the national interest, the cultural and moral calling and historical moment.”

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made it clear there was no dilution in India’s stand on disarmament.

“The only effective form of nuclear disarmament and elimination of nuclear weapons is global disarmament,” he told the experts at the conference.

This might well be the historical moment for which India had been working for decades. But to realise it fully, it would need the same commitment from the rest of the world.

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