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India's Nuclear Anniversary

India's Nuclear Anniversary

By J. Sri Raman
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

May 11 will mark the tenth anniversary of an event that represented a turning point in the history of modern India. On that date in 1998, the largest South Asian state turned away from a long-pursued path that had taken it to a place of pride in the region and in the international arena.

Even after the three nuclear weapon tests on that scorching day in Pokharan, a desert site in India's scantily developed State of Rajasthan, and two more blasts at the same spot two days later, official India has continued to call for nuclear disarmament everywhere. The call, however, has little credibility, especially after New Delhi's strident declaration of India as a nuclear weapon state.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government has discreetly made it known though a ministerial aside that no official celebration of the anniversary is in the offing. This, it has been made clear, does not mean that the government considers the tests any less glorious than anyone else. It does not, even if the tests were carried out under former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee of the far-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and invited trenchant criticism from at least a section of Singh's Congress Party.

As Minister of State for Defense M. M. Pallam Raju told a television channel the other day: "I think when we are talking about India's nuclear program, we have every reason to be proud of what we have achieved. Being proud of Pokharan itself is a reason for celebration, but I don't see any further reason to celebrate the (1998) detonation."

Raju argued that the tests "demonstrated India's capability," but had "detrimental effects" in terms of sanctions "which have affected our strategic ... programs...." He added: "So I do not see any reason why it (the anniversary) should be advertised loudly." The minister was manifestly wrong on the sanctions and the strategic program, as we shall see presently. But why are all sections of India's political spectrum, except the left, so proud of Pokharan?

None of them, of course, would like to identify nuclear militarism as part of their ideology. Every one of them, therefore, answers the question with ironical claims. The first of these claims is that the Pokharan tests, along with the Pakistani ones conducted in the Chagai hills of Balochistan on May 28, 1998, have actually served the cause of India-Pakistan peace. Another claim is that May 11 actually helped India stand up to the mighty US and other nuclear powers under Washington's influence.

The absurdity of the first claim is obvious. Those who advanced it even asserted that, with India and Pakistan becoming nuclear-armed rivals, even a conventional war between them was ruled out. They were proven wrong within a year of the tests. Hostilities erupted in the Kargil sector over the Himalayan heights on May 8, 1999, with the two sides trading nuclear threats for the next two months. And the subcontinent was pushed to the brink of a nuclear war in the summer of 2002, with the neighbors massing a million troops on the border. The subsequent India-Pakistan peace process has been conducted in such a way as to ensure that no serious advance was made on the nuclear issue at all.

Not far less obvious should be the absurdity of the second claim, to those following the post-Pokharan developments. The May 11 detonations marked no defiance of Washington. On the same day, before explaining the rationale of the tests to India's parliament and public, Vajpayee hastened to send a communication to President Bill Clinton. The message defended the tests by citing threats from both China and Pakistan. It also promised India's cooperation as a nuclear weapon state to the US in the campaign against nuclear proliferation and nuclear disarmament! It was no assertion of national sovereignty, but a knock on the door of the nuclear club.

Tributes to the tests in India were particularly appreciative of the supposed fact that they were conducted without the knowledge of US snoopers. On this subject, it should suffice to quote Ranjan Goswami, a security expert specializing in South Asia: "One aspect of the tests is striking: The US did not detect India's tests until after they occurred, whereas in 1994, when Indian Prime Minister (P.V.) Narasimha Rao ordered nuclear testing ..., US detection of the movement at the ... site was leaked to the press, forcing India to cancel the tests. Could this be the US tacit sign to New Delhi that the US desires rapprochement with India and that a nuclear-capable India will be condoned for a variety of reasons - one being to counter China?"

Seen this way, the subsequent and swift development of a strategic India-US partnership was no surprise. The first major sign of the new relationship came on the third anniversary of May 11, in 2001, with Vajpayee extending a warm welcome to the missile defense program of the George Bush administration. On September 23 of the same year, Bush announced a waiver of sanctions against India as well as Pakistan, introduced after the 1998 tests. A White House memo explained that the sanctions were "not in the national security interests of the United States." Washington followed up this step with "defense cooperation" deals with both India and Pakistan.

The "strategic partnership," as we all know, culminated in a US-India nuclear deal being struck between President Bush and Prime Minister Singh. India's peace movement opposes the deal primarily for the boost it will give to a nuclear weapons program costing billions that the poverty-stricken country is burdened with. The political price India's establishment is prepared to pay for the deal makes it more than acceptable to Washington and its Western camp.

The price tag is prominently displayed in the Henry J. Hyde United States-India Peaceful Atomic Energy Cooperation Act of 2006, which enables the bilateral deal. The Act calls upon the US government to secure India's "full participation in the Proliferation Security Initiative" (by which Bush seeks to empower the US Navy and other friendly fleets to intercept and search ships for anti-proliferation purposes).

The Act also asks the administration to secure "India's full and active participation in United States efforts to dissuade, isolate and, if necessary, sanction and contain Iran for its efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction, including a nuclear weapons capability and the capability to enrich uranium or reprocess nuclear fuel, and the means to deliver weapons of mass destruction."

It remains to be seen whether the Singh government succeeds in operationalizing the deal in the face of stiff opposition from the left, on whose support it depends on survival. Neither New Delhi nor Islamabad, meanwhile, has made any secret of nuclear intent.

The missile race between India and Pakistan has been carried a significant stride forward on the eve of the May 11 anniversary. On May 7, India test-fired the 3,500-km range surface-to-surface nuclear-capable Agni-III missile from the Wheelers' Island site on its eastern coast. The very next day, Pakistan hit back by test-firing a nuclear-capable Haft-VIII air-launched cruise missile of 350-km range, which the military said would enhance its capability to strike at targets on land and at sea.

Official non-observance of May 11, obviously, does not mean that the nuclear threat to South Asia has been averted to any significant extent. The anniversary will be an occasion for peace-loving people to protest the warmongers of the region and their patrons in Washington.


A freelance journalist and a peace activist in India, J. Sri Raman is the author of "Flashpoint" (Common Courage Press, USA). He is a regular contributor to Truthout.

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