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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 1, December 26, 2009 - Annual Number 2009

Needed: India’s Positive Role for Universal Nuclear Disarmament

Saturday 26 December 2009, by Sailendra Nath Ghosh


Recently the DRDO’s former senior scientist, Dr K. Santhanam, raised a controversy that the Pokhran-II test for thermonuclear device was unsuccessful and that fresh nuclear tests were necessary to face the threat from China. Two former Chairmen of the Atomic Energy Commission, Dr P.K. Iyenger and Dr Homi Sethna, supported his contention. Whether Pokhran-II was successful or not is a question of science and technology. But whether fresh nuclear tests are necessary to meet the defence needs is basically a question of policy, which should be informed by science and technology but not wholly determined by it. Even if Dr Santhanam’s assessment is accepted—despite strong evidences to the contrary—there is no warrant for fresh nuclear tests in the context of (i) the carefully and very correctly formulated India’s Nuclear Doctrine, (ii) the changed global political situation, and (iii) some consideration basic to survival of life on Earth.

India’s Nuclear Doctrine

The Nuclear Doctrine drafted in 1999, was subse-quently formalised, with some modification, in 2008. It decided not to embark on a nuclear arms race as is done by countries ready for a massive first strike on the adversary country’s offensive weapons in strength (in kiloton yield) or number, but just develop arms as the instrument of minimal nuclear deterrence. What is enough for effective deterrence is a matter for judgment. In response to some other country’s first—even if massive—attack on us, our capacity to inflict an order of damage which the attacking country will find unacceptable, cannot be precisely quantified. But a realistic calculation is possible. The simple uranium-based 15-kiloton atomic device which was dropped on Hiroshima killed about one lakh people.1 The plutonium-based 20-kiloton atom bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki killed a somewhat lesser number (about 80,000) because of the latter’s hilly terrain. Those bombs were “mere firecrackers” compared to today’s—including India’s—smallest atom bombs; and the cities—ours as well as theirs—are also more populous than in those days. Therefore, in case of a nuclear attack by an adversary country, India’s capacity to inflict “unacceptable damage” need not be in doubt. What is more important is the capacity of our early warning system and the efficiency of our delivery system. Fresh tests are irrelevant for both purposes.

Vastly Changed Global Context

The world has been changing fast. The world’s foremost nuclear hawks of yesteryears are now campaigning for a nuclear-free world. Henry Kissinger, George Shultz (two former US Secretaries of State), William Perry (former US Secretary of Defence), and Sam Nunn (former Chairman of the USA’s Senate Armed Services Committee) have been playing leading roles in this campaign. They have found a large number of prominent public figures in their country as fellow-participants. Twenty of them held positions of policy-makers in the US Adminis-tration. As many as 79 religious organisations representing Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims in the USA registered their protests against George Bush’s plan to reactivate the US nuclear weapons manufacturing plants.

The above-mentioned “gang of four” (Kissinger et al.), in an article in the Wall Street Journal, dated January 4, 2007, said that nuclear weapons, far from promoting security, are bringing more insecurity. With the cessation of the Cold War between the USA and Russia, that is, between the two largest possessors of nuclear arsenals, these weapons have become obsolete for deterrence for them. However, “deterrence continues to be a relevant consideration for many states with regard to threats from other states”. But in their case, too, “reliance on nuclear weapons for this purpose is becoming increasingly hazardous and decreasingly effective”. Increasingly hazardous because the new nuclear nations do not have the benefit of years of step-by-step safeguards to prevent nuclear accidents, misjudgments, and unauthorised launches. Decreasingly effective as deterrence because the plethora of weapon states, harbouring various sources of conflicting interests, will always tend to push headlong into war. “The need today is to take the world to the next stage—to reversing the reliance on nuclear weapons globally, and preventing proliferation into potentially dangerous hands.” (’Potentially dangerous hands’ mean fanatical states and non-state terrorists.)

In the UK, another “gang of four” – Lord Douglas Hurd, Sir Malcom Rifkind, Lord George Robertson, Lord David Owen, who were earlier among the staunchest supporters of British nuclear deterrence—started campaigning since 2007 for “ditching the nuclear bomb”. They noted that “there is a powerful case for dramatic reduction in the stockpile of nuclear weapons” and called upon Britain and France to join in renewed multilateral efforts to reduce the number of nuclear weapons in existence and to consider what further contribution they might make to “achieve a non-nuclear weapons world”. “Nuclear weapons are security problems—not a solution.”

Britain’s former Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett proposed that the country’s expertise in nuclear weapons establishment be used to become a “disarmament laboratory”.

In Germany, both at the government and people’s levels, there is a strong sentiment not only against nuclear weapons but also against nuclear power generation for civilian use.

In Australia, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has set up an International Commission for Non-proliferation and Disarmament with Gareth Evans, a former Foreign Minister of Australia, and Yariko Kawaguchi, a former Foreign Minister of Japan, as co-chairs—for reviewing the NPT in 2010 and to begin the process of abolishing nuclear weapons.

Evidently, the former nuclear hawks’ change of mind came from the realisation that the world has become a powder keg. Whereas till the end of 1948, the USA was the lone possessor of nuclear weapons technology, all the five big powers came to possess it in the 1960s. Later, Israel and India, facing encirclement by hostile countries, came to acquire it. Thereafter, Pakistan, with aid from China, developed its own bomb. In recent years, North Korea, frightened by the USA’s “regime change” rhetoric and its concomitant actions in Serbia and Iraq (and unable to rely wholly on the Soviet nuclear umbrella), developed nuclear weapons, even though on a modest scale. Iran, described by the USA as a member of “axis of evil”, is frantically trying to develop its nuclear arms and seems to be considerably progressing. Besides, countries such as Brazil, Argentina, Syria, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Japan, South Korea, Egypt, Taiwan and South Africa are capable of producing nuclear weapons in less than a decade. Of these, South Africa alone has voluntarily decided to abstain from it while the others have been kept under varying degrees of pressure to desist from it. But the world saw that the small North Korean state, armed with small amounts of nuclear arsenal, has been able to keep the USA at bay. Therefore, the urge for acquisition of nuclear weapons will keep on working in all nations afraid of being bossed over by powerful states. This will inexorably push towards nuclear disasters, either from accidents or by ill-thought-out actions. Besides, when the production of nuclear fissile material is widespread, there can be no fool-proof system against its falling into the hands of non-state actors (the terrorists).

This raises the question: what is the level of people’s awareness in today’s powerful countries and in the world as a whole.

The people’s sentiment for peace is always ahead of the elite’s. But until this sentiment takes the form of sustained mass movements, it does not become visible to the people of distant lands.

Lord Douglas Hurd and his fellow-campai-gners have revealed that a majority of the British people are against the nuclear stockpile. Within Britain—as the votes in the Scottish Parliament showed—the overwhelming majority of Scottish people are firmly opposed to nuclear weapons. They believe the warheads are more likely to cause accidents and destroy their own people. The accidents can happen in storage or in the warheads’ movements in military transports on public roads or in sea lanes. In Europe, skepticism about safety by the USA’s nuclear umbrella is widespread. In Germany in particular, the demands for removing all nuclear weapons from their country and removing the US nuclear umbrella from Europe is quite strong. A large segment of the German population is opposed to nuclear power generation for civil use as well. In Japan, the latest opinion survey showed that 58 per cent of the people are for removal of the US nuclear umbrella. They also demand that the US take a vow for “no-first-use”. In our own country, the government makes occasional pronouncements desiring universal nuclear disarmament but no political party has any programme for attaining this objective, even though this country was the pioneer in demanding this in international fora. In the USA, as the opinion polls over the last decade have consistently shown, at least 70 per cent support the global abolition of nuclear weapons. But the situation there is more complex than in any other country. This is the country that is the most advanced in nuclear technology-related offensive as well as defensive systems. American people have been conditioned to thinking that theirs is the “divine duty” to be the world’s policeman and that this can be done by the “peace-through-assertion-of-strength” approach. This is the country which has the largest nuclear weapons-making industry employing a large percentage of its people, and making substantial gains from arms exports. Hence, even though many members of the militarist culture have renounced their nuclear war commitments, the nuclear complex has remained undented.

See-saw between Conflicting Pulls in the USA

The pulls between people’s opinion and the militarist complex was evidenced in the see-saw between two conflicting policies over the decades following America’s resolve to salve its guilt-complex (for bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki) through Eisenhower’s “doctrine of peace”. This doctrine was sincere but misguided. Peace was sought by disseminating the nuclear power generation technology throughout the world “for the benefit of the people”. Of course, this supposed benevolence was not without the desire for establishing the USA’s leadership. The following facts will show the strengths and weaknesses of the contrasting pulls in the USA and the consequential shifting policies of the world’s greatest nuclear weapon possessing nation—and their corresponding influences on the rival power, namely, the USSR (later Russia):

a) In the early 1960s by which time the USSR—and the UK and France—had built sizeable nuclear arsenals, the USA’s accent was mainly on defence. For building defences against missiles, it developed anti-satellite weapons. (Some of sky-based defence weapon systems could, however, be used for offensive purposes.)

b) In the absence of political reconciliation by diplomatic efforts, the deployment of anti-missile defence meant provoking the adversary to improve its capacity to penetrate the defence system by more lethal weapons of attack. In turn, the USA itself had to engage in making its improved offensive versions. Since both the USA and USSR found it destabilising, the two rival powers signed an Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 1972.

c) Meanwhile, the US-led Non-Proliferation Treaty (NTP) was formalised in 1968 and signed by 181 countries. It envisioned the elimination of all nuclear weapons as its final goal. But its programme was opportunistic. It provided (i) that states which did not possess nuclear weapons as of 1967 agree not to obtain these, and (ii) that states that do possess them agree to divest themselves of these over time. It did not, specify the time-horizon of the process of divestment. It did not say by how many stages this divestment would take place and what would be the percentage of reduction in each stage. In actual practice, the ban was only on non-possessors; they would not try to obtain nuclear weapons. The possessors, while paying lip-service to the ultimate goal, went on increasing their military budgets, manufacturing more weapons, enhan-cing their own nuclear arsenals, and engaging in more arms exports.2 Thus, the USA’s arms manufacturing firms and China’s political-military leadership became the greatest proliferators.

d) In 1978, President Jimmy Carter announced that the USA would not go for the first strike against any non-nuclear state unless the latter was acting as an ally of a nuclear state.

e) Ronald Reagan, who held the US presidency from 1981 to 1989, considered nuclear weapons “totally irrational, totally inhumane, good for nothing but killing, possibly destructive of life on earth and civilisation” and called for “abolishment of all nuclear weapons”. Mikhail Gorbachev, the then President of the USSR, was also of the same view. They, therefore, met at Geneva in 1985 and at Reykjavik (in Iceland) in 1986. Even though they failed to get rid of all nuclear weapons, they, in Kissinger’s language, “did succeed in turning the arms race on its head. They initiated steps leading to significant reductions in deployed long- and intermediate-range nuclear forces, including the elimination of an entire class of threatening missiles.” In the joint communique following the Geneva summit, they clearly said: “A nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought.”

Reagan mistakenly thought that the most efficient defence system against missiles—that is, space-based defence—would be nearest to nuclear weapons abolition. It was called a “star war” plan whereby nuclear lasers and other power-driven devices would detect and destroy missiles fired from any direction during the missile’s trajectory. Specialists felt it was more hazardous. Strong opposition from the US people and USA’s allied powers made him quietly shelve the plan. To Reagan’s credit, it could be said that he was willing to share the anti-missile defence techno-logy with the USSR, much to the dislike of the US nuclear establishment.

f) Several times the USA committed itself, at least notionally, to nuclear arms abolition. It signed six arms control treaties that established general and complete disarmament as its goal. Its Arms Control and Disarmament Agency was given the task of preparing comprehensive peace alter-natives. Later, the Agency was allowed to shift its focus to piecemeal arms control treaties.

g) During Bill Clinton’s presidency (1993-2001), the size of the USA’s nuclear arsenal was reduced from 18,290 to 12,500 warheads. None can deny that it was a significant achievement. Negotiations started at that time for drastically reducing both the USA’s and Russia’s strategic arsenals.3

h) After Pakistan’s intrusion into Kargil in 1991, when Islamabad sought to hold on to its surreptitiously occupied status by using nuclear weapons against India, there was a stir in the USA about the global dimension of a nuke strike anywhere. There was the realisation that it would deplete the ozone layer, make the White-skinned people of the north latitudes vulnerable to skin cancer and also derail the economies of the world. The USA’s intervention saved the day. Even then, there was no advance towards general disarmament.

i) The weakness of the US people’s sentiment for nuclear abolition became manifest during George W. Bush’s (junior Bush’s) time. The US seemed to move in the reverse direction. Bellicosity was at its peak. The US not only continued to maintain an arsenal of 10,000 warheads but also added other “tactical nuclear weapons”. In 2002, it “reserved” the USA’s right to use nuclear weapons in a pre-emptive strike against “the rogue states”. It withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and also announced its plan to allow the critical agreement, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), to expire in 2009. Besides, it announced a programme called “Complex 2030” and planned to spend $ 150 billion for plutonium production and to design a new generation of warheads which might need fresh nuclear-testing. Thus, by the end of 2008, the world teetered on the brink of a nuclear holocaust. Fear and despondency was writ large all over the world. Luckily, the US people voted Bush’s party out. His plan to let START lapse and his “Complex 2030” plan would now remain unimplemented.

j) In 2009, the election of Barack Obama to the US presidency has rekindled hopes. He rejected Reagan’s outer space-based missile shield plan and also Bush’s ground-based “missile shield for Europe with interceptors in Poland and the linked radars in Czechoslovakia” plan, both of which had been seen by Russia as threats to its own missile shield and overall security. The Obama Administration’s new sea-based missile shield plan has been considered by Russia as not too objectionable. It leaves scope for the East European countries to build a more pragmatic relationship with both the USA and Russia. Russia is also collaborating with the USA in arresting the hostilities in West Asia and mitigating the vulnerabilities of both Iran and Israel. The new US President’s belief that without Russia’s cooperation, shielding Europe is impossible is a great positive factor favouring the world

The question is: will he succeed against the deeply entrenched business-military complex in the USA which has a vested interest in perpe-tuating the “Cold War” atmosphere, and about which President Eisenhower had issued a warning as far back as in the 1950s?

President Obama, presiding over a recent UN Security Council meeting, gave a call to all nations to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). This shows he has not realised that the discriminatory NPT itself has become a major cause for proliferation. Since the NPT’s blatant misuse by the officially recognised nuclear weapon states has been the cardinal sin, the President has to strive to remove this root cause by amending the NPT first. All nuclear weapon possessor states must declare their nuclear weapon-related stocks including the warheads, the delivery vehicles and the “tactical weapons”. The UN must appoint an impartial broadbased team (by enlarging the IAEA), capable of inspiring international confidence, to periodically inspect and verify the stocks. The possessors must commit themselves to destroying 60 per cent of their stocks within the next three years and the remaining 40 per cent within five years from now. And the UN must, right now, outlaw the use, and even the threat of use, of nuclear weapons against any nation.

Arguments will be raised that deactivating 60 per cent of the large, accumulated stock within three years is not practicable. That is a false argument. There is no reason why this cannot be done. Those who advance the plea of impracticality have an imperfect knowledge of the process of deactivating the weapons and an inadequate understanding of its urgency from the non-possessor countries’ viewpoints.

Nuclear Weapons are Destructive of the Planet and All Life

Nuclear weapons, especially of the latest varieties, are not for waging wars in which some party expects to win. These are weapons for destroying the planet and all living species. To use a nuclear weapon is a crime against the whole of humanity and all creatures and their life-support systems. Therefore, there is no reason why the UN should not, or cannot, right now outlaw its use, or threat of use, against any country. Fortunately, some countries are aware of the nuclear weapon’s un-usability. To illustrate the point. In the Asian continent, if Pakistan decides to drop bombs on Indian spaces and, for its own safety, chooses the farthest point from its own borders, say the easternmost region of India, their fall-outs will even then inflict “unacceptable damage” on Pakistan itself. If China drops nuclear bombs on the westernmost parts of India, still their fall-outs will inflict unacceptable damages on China itself. (India is committed to “no first use”. Moreover, its civilisation and culture have bound it to “no aggression”, not to speak of nuclear misadven-ture.)

Even though the amendments suggested above are all cogent and practicable, the reform seekers will face tough opposition from vested interests —the nuclear weapons manufacturing industries, their ancillaries, and their representatives in the corridors of power. Even the Presidents of the USA and Russia, with their vast constitutional powers, will need the support of people’s movements in their own countries and in the world.

For initiating a world people’s movement for nuclear disarmament, the Indian people are the freest, un-snared by the arms industry and military forces having no hold over the political process. India’s ancient as well as recent heritage is favourable for this. Even if we leave out India’s civilisational characteristics and Mahatma Gandhi’s legacy, post-independence India’s legacy is a beacon light for this initiative.

Recalling this, the International Commission for Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, in the very first paragraph of a recent article, says: “India’s great founding Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, worked energetically to defuse global tensions during the cold war, commissioned the first study of the human effects (read “effects on humans”) of nuclear explosions and campaigned tirelessly to eliminate what he termed ‘these frightful engines of destruction’. It is our ambition to carry forward Nehru’s vision in the 21st century.”

Henry Kissinger and his co-authors, too, in their article in Wall Street Journal, referred to another Indian Prime Minister’s address to the UN General Assembly delivered on June 9, 1988. Rajiv Gandhi was the first to appeal to the world people through the UN forum for the abolition of nuclear weapons. He said then: “Nuclear war will not mean the death of a hundred million people. Or even a thousand million. It will mean the death of four thousand million, the end of life as we know it on our planet Earth. We come to the United Nations to seek your support. We seek your support to put a stop to this madness.”

The present Government of India has been failing to be their worthy successor. On the NPT question, it has remained content by saying that India would not sign the discriminatory NPT. This is much less than a positive step. It has not bothered to say how the NPT should be amended. The campaign for universal nuclear disarmament should be its top priority.

Universal nuclear disarmament should be the foremost programme for every political party, as eradication of poverty is, may be even higher —because it is vital for the survival of life on this planet. The truth is, both poverty eradication and denuclearisation are inextricably linked. At deeper levels, both need New Deals and will progressively lead to changes in ecological, economic, political and socio-cultural spheres rooted in concepts of universal brotherhood/ sisterhood and unity with the cosmos.


After the above paper was scripted, this author received from Prof Sujay Basu, formerly of the Electrical Engineering Department of Jadavpur University, a paper written by him in 2002. He was one of the few Indian intellectuals who were critical of the Pokhran explosions. He points out that a Pugwash publication of 1993 had shown that a nuclear weapon-free world was both desirable and feasible and that this publication helped in influencing the policy- makers of many nations to shun the nuclear path.

In 1996, the “Statement on Nuclear Weapons” by International Generals and Admirals with 60 signatories said that “long term international policy must be based on the declared principle of continuous, complete and irrevocable elimination of nuclear weapons”! Notably, the signatories included 17 from Russia and 19 from the USA.

The same year, the International Court of Justice gave the ruling that “the threat and use of nuclear weapons will generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflicts and in particular the principles and rules of international law”. The Court also clearly ruled that the threat or use of nuclear weapons against any non-nuclear weapon state is illegal.

The Conventions on the Chemical and Biological Weapons also played a role. These raised the hope that if peace-loving governments and peoples vigorously start the denuclearisation movement, the opposition from vested interests would collapse and humanity would be saved from the scourge of nuclear weapons.

Yet, much progress towards disarmament has not been possible. This is because there are heavy roadblocks. These found expression in two recent happenings. President Obama repeated his call to all nations, who have remained outside the NPT, to sign it. And the Iranian President said that it is the big powers who have done the greatest harm to the NPT. The former shows that the US President is far away from realising the iniquitousness and deception embedded in the NPT text. And the Iranian President, whatever may be his other faults, was correct in this comment. India is the only de facto nuclear weapon possessor state which, despite being a non-signatory to the NPT, has an impeccable record of non-proliferation. Hence it alone could rightfully tell the USA and the other major powers to remove the iniquitous aspects of the existing NPT, bind all nuclear weapon possessors to the schedule of deactivating/ destroying these weapons and to refrain meanwhile from threatening any country unilaterally (that is, bypassing the UN). Short of these, nothing will work. This stance of India may annoy the US, French and Chinese arms traders. But India must not flinch from telling the truth. From the negativity of not signing the NPT, India must rise to positively fight out its iniquitous aspects, enforce its righteous imple-mentation and save the world from nuclear death.


1. According to National Geographic, the dropping of the 15-kiloton uranium bomb killed some 68,000 people instantly; and about 70,000 people died over the next few years. Some other sources estimated that the total casualty reached two-and-a-half lakh people over the years.

2. The same kind of double-dealing was indulged in by the nuclear weapon states in the UN-sponsored Conference on Disarmament in Geneva in 1996, too. This was the Conference which concluded the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). A large number of member states of the Conference sought to go beyond a mere ban on tests and sought to set up a Committee for Nuclear Disarmament to include the decommissioning of the existing weapons, in its terms of reference. Three nuclear weapon states (NWS)—the USA, Britain and France— rejected the idea. Thereupon, India refused to sign this lopsided Treaty which allowed the NWS to retain their privileges. Instead, it persisted in the demand for total elimination. Pakistan said it would sign the CTBT if India signed it. Moreover, the “test ban treaty” did not prohibit “subcritical” tests or tests of such devices which were necessary for retaining the capabilities of the existing nuclear weapons. Taking advantage of this loophole, the USA later conducted at least two tests which the international community considered as violations of the Treaty.

3. These negotiations culminated in the USA and Russia signing on May 24, 2002 the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty to the effect that each agree to cut its deployed strategic arsenal to 2200 warheads by the end of 2012 – that is, after as many as ten years.

The author is one of the country’s earliest environmentalists and a social philosopher. He can be contacted at and

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