India Goes Nuclear: Rationale, Benefits, Costs and Implications

By Malik, J. Mohan | Contemporary Southeast Asia, August 1998 | Go to article overview
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India Goes Nuclear: Rationale, Benefits, Costs and Implications


Malik, J. Mohan, Contemporary Southeast Asia


There is nothing quite like a big bang to focus minds, shatter prevalent myths and draw the attention of the whole world. With three big bangs on the afternoon of 11 May 1998, India - long suspected of being a nuclear weapons state - finally came out of the nuclear closet. Two days later, New Delhi tested two more nuclear devices, all of which was to eventually force Pakistan to follow suit. By blasting its way to self-proclaimed status as a nuclear power, India put a question mark over the widespread view that economic interdependence, globalization in the information age, and international co-operation will override traditional geopolitical concerns or military rivalries in the post-Cold War era. The tests challenged the myth that the world could live happily with the Big Five powers (the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China) armed to the teeth, while others could not. And they fundamentally altered the nuclear balance of power and undermined the global nuclear non-proliferation regime just when it seemed to be in the process of consolidation. India's nuclear tests marked an end not only to ambiguity and uncertainty about India's nuclear posture but also to a 34-year long debate by India's strategic community (which began soon after China exploded its first nuclear bomb in 1964) over the pros and cons of going nuclear. No other nuclear weapons state (NWS) had ever agonized for as long as India has over whether it should or should not be a nuclear power. There are two important questions in this context. Why did India publicly decide to go nuclear? And what are its implications?

Rationale

There were several reasons behind India's decision to blast its way into the exclusive nuclear weapons club. Those reasons are rooted in broad geopolitical issues and extend far beyond the narrow confines of the Indian subcontinent. Seen from New Delhi's perspective, these constituted compelling reasons for it to acquire nuclear weapons.

The year 1995 marked a turning point in India's policy towards nuclear weapons. India had all along championed the goal of nuclear disarmament, as opposed to nuclear non-proliferation. For this reason, New Delhi refused to sign the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) on the grounds that it perpetuated a "nuclear apartheid" of haves and have-nots, with the five haves failing to commit themselves to disarmament. From India's perspective, the indefinite and unconditional extension of the NPT in 1995, which divided the world permanently into the nuclear haves and the have-nots, demonstrated that the five NWSs - which also happened to be the five permanent members (P-5) of the United Nations Security Council - were unwilling to negotiate, in good faith, nuclear disarmament. Then came the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) of 1996 with its controversial "Entry Into Force" clause. This clause, inserted primarily at China's insistence, was strongly resisted by India, which required New Delhi to sign the CTBT by September 1999 or face the prospect of UN-imposed trade sanctions similar to the ones against Iraq. The utility of the CTBT lies in its ability to permanently freeze the perceived strategic and technological advantages of the NWSs while forever foreclosing the nuclear option to any other state. The discussions leading up to the CTBT shattered New Delhi's "misplaced hope in nuclear disarmament" in the post-Cold War world.(1) Wedged between a nuclear-armed China and a nuclear-capable Pakistan, India defended its right to build nuclear weapons on national security grounds. The NPT and CTBT were seen as "instruments of surrender" and "unequal treaties", accession to which would have amounted to relegating countries like India into the ranks of second-grade nations.(2) Confronted with the cruel choice of "use it or lose it" on the long-held nuclear option, India resolved to break out of the straitjacket stipulations of the CTBT and thereby end the monopoly of the five NWSs.

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