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Under a nuclear cloud

Given the public slanging match between India’s top scientists over the success of Pokhran II, the confusion itself calls for keeping our options open for future nuclear testing, writes Swaran Singh.

india Updated: Sep 04, 2009 03:13 IST

Given the public slanging match between India’s top scientists over the success of Pokhran II, the confusion itself calls for keeping our options open for future nuclear testing. In fact, quick and firm responses from the prime minister and a former president have only bolstered the credentials of this controversy, with various other voices joining the polemics. Even the foreign media is widely discussing, if not gloating, over the recent volley of remarks.

If one has followed India’s position on the subject, starting with former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s May 27, 1998, speech to the Parliament up until the Indo-US Agreement for Civilian Nuclear Cooperation signed on October 10 last year, we have gradually but firmly been closing our option for the ‘underground explosions’ type of testing. Surely, the benefits of such a commitment have been calculated, if not yet fully reaped.

The current debate becomes even more revealing in view of US President Barack Obama’s expressed commitment to work harder on his arms control agenda, including getting the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) ratified in the US Senate. Ten years ago, the Senate had rejected the CTBT, thus taking the pressure off India, which had rejected the treaty draft in Geneva in June 1996, emerging as the global villain of nuclear peace.

Most experts, therefore, explain India’s decision to test in 1998 as one triggered by Clause XIV of the CTBT, which mandates that for the CTBT to come into force all 44 countries with nuclear reactor technologies (including India) must ratify it. Much hype centred around how, in case of this condition not being met within three years, a review meeting would be held to take ‘measures’ against defaulting parties.

The threat of ‘measures’, invoked in the early 1990s after North Korea’s withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), essentially implied challenge inspections and sanctions. This clearly left India with no choice but to test before such a review meeting was organised. So, the fact that we conducted our 1998 tests in a ‘hurry’ has been generally acknowledged by the scientific community.

This isn’t the first time that the veracity of India’s tests, especially the one claimed to have been a thermonuclear test, has been questioned. But this is first time that a member of the core team — K Santhanam — has raised his voice. What’s raising tempers is the fact that with the possibility of the US ratifying the CTBT, India is expected to come up with a counter-strategy — a difficult task given its transformed relationship with Washington.

Three moot questions seeking answers are: (a) how quickly and easily might the Senate agree to ratify the CTBT; (b) whether India has the required scientific data from its six tests to confidently move on to laboratory testing; and (c) whether in popular opinion, answers to (a) and (b) are clear, confusing or in the negative? By most estimates, the answers were always going to be confusing, except there now seems to be a perceptible tilt towards the negative, making public perceptions on nuclear issues pivotal to India’s security.

Given that nuclear weapons are primarily political weapons, and nuclear deterrence essentially a mind-game, their efficacy in achieving national objectives depends on what we’re ‘perceived’ to possess. Thus, such avoidable public controversies clearly undermine confidence in our national preparedness to deal with threats from nuclear adversaries. Clarifications also become crucial.

It is instructive to note that even at the height of the non-proliferation rhetoric, both China and France had conducted a series of tests before signing the NPT’s indefinite and unconditional extension in May 1995. Given this backdrop, our obsession with consistency rather than an evaluation of contingencies seems least inspiring.