How India learnt not to hate the bomb

June 30, 2006

The relationship between politics and religion will take centre stage at this year's Anglo-American Conference of Historians, University of London, July 5 to 7

Religion and politics came together when India's Hindu rulers tested the bomb. The example may hold lessons for Iran, says Priyanjali Malik

As the dust at Pokharan in Rajasthan settled after two days of nuclear tests in mid-May 1998, several observers, especially those outside India, were quick to conclude that the Bharatiya Janata Party had given in to electoral and domestic political compulsions to demonstrate a Hindu bomb. After all, the BJP rose to prominence in Indian politics by advocating a militant, particularly Hindu vision of a resurgent, muscular India. The nuclear tests, subsequently named Shakti (or cosmic power), were of a piece with that vision.

Some Hindu chauvinists from the BJP and its sister organisation, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, added ballast to this theory by calling for a temple to be built at Pokharan. Others wanted to distribute sand from there throughout India in a somewhat perverse interpretation of a devotional offering.

This religious explanation, though appealing, is simplistic. Whatever the BJP's motives for the tests, Prime Minister Atul Behari Vajpayee's announcement of India's nuclear weapon capability was widely received with great enthusiasm for reasons that transcended domestic politics and, for many, had little to do with religious symbolism.

India's nuclear weapons are no more a manifestation of a Hindu vision of Indian security or status than the Pakistani nuclear weapons capability signifies an Islamic interpretation of atomic muscle. This may turn out to be as true for the other "Islamic bomb" that many fear is in the making in Iran.

Legend has it that on May 18, 1974, the Buddha smiled. This, it is claimed, was the code used to inform Indira Gandhi of the success of India's first nuclear test, though all in the small circle of decision-making denied it.

The story retains its appeal - how else could India, the first to call for a complete nuclear test ban, the self-appointed warrior for equality fighting against the atomic apartheid legitimised by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), have repudiated its Gandhian and Nehruvian past? On May 11, 1998, the Buddha smiled again as three nuclear explosions broke India's self-imposed moratorium on testing. This time the BJP did little to qualify weaving together Buddha and the bomb with nuclear tests on the anniversary of the apostle of peace's birth. Not that the date mattered; for the BJP, a declaration of nuclear capability had become an article of faith.

Ninety per cent of India, however, did not celebrate the Hindu bomb and certainly did not subscribe to the BJP's vision of Hinduism. Nor were they encouraged to by official rhetoric. From his first announcement, Prime Minister Vajpayee focused attention on the achievement of national science represented by the tests, which, he later explained to Parliament, allowed India to address her strategic requirements. He also called the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty "discriminatory" and an example of unwarranted Western pressure on India. Discrimination, national security and scientific achievement; these were potent ingredients roped in to explain India's reasons for overturning a 24-year policy of ambiguity in matters nuclear.

Unofficially, large swaths of India also celebrated the explosions of May 11 for having scored one over on the US. Perceptions of Western non-proliferation pressure had mounted since the early 1990s, reaching a furious crescendo during the CTBT negotiations.

The main culprits in the CTBT debates were probably the British and the Chinese, who pushed through an agreement that did not address India's concerns about a truly comprehensive ban on testing. Even worse, in some eyes, they put in a clause requiring India and others to accede to the treaty before it could come into force. The Entry into Force (EIF) clause threatened to decide for India what it should do about the nuclear capability it had demonstrated 24 years ago. The challenge fluttered like a red rag before a bull as official India swung into action to demonise the document.

Ironically, until then, nuclear policy had not been the main theme in the Indian narrative. A December 1994 poll ranked it seventh on the list of national priorities above commercialism, economic stability and terrorism.

Yet less than four years later, official policy had been reversed, India had declared itself a nuclear weapons' power and polls conducted after the tests in the six largest metropolises showed overwhelming support for the BJP's decision.

Elite opinion, though more qualified, proved strongly favourable as well.

In the months that followed, and once Pakistan tested its nuclear weapons and the inevitable sanctions were imposed on India, that enthusiasm declined, but most people remained strongly positive.

Arguably, the sustained public campaign mounted by the Government in late 1995-96 when it decided it might want to pull out of the CTBT and by the pro-bomb lobby of security analysts and nuclear scientists had much to do with the change in attitudes. Initially, the Government had cited concerns with the lack of movement on disarmament and the inequality enshrined in the technical provisions of the treaty and, later, in the EIF clause.

However, the reasons that resonated most concerned the defence of sovereignty. Even if the treaty presented to India was an unequal one, India had acquiesced in unequal treaties before. But EIF pushed the nuclear question to the foreground, holding out the threat of sanctions if New Delhi did not accede within three years.

For many in India, EIF overturned international legal norms in requiring New Delhi to accede to a treaty it did not consider in its national interest. The debate began to shift from the language of national security to the discourse of discrimination and coercion. As a result, unofficial India rejected the CTBT - not because those who participated in the debate wanted nuclear weapons but because they needed to repudiate any hint of coercion or suggestion that its sovereignty was somehow subject to compromise or negotiation. In the run-up to the Golden Jubilee of Indian independence, these were not insignificant concerns.

That said, there was nothing inevitable in the tests conducted in May 1998.

The BJP, however, came to power at a time when national opinion had been conditioned by external and internal events to imbue India's nuclear capability with an almost mythic defence of sovereignty. Without any dramatic nuclear developments, no government could have unilaterally renounced India's nuclear capability and survived. Yet any other national party in power might not have tested or declared India a nuclear weapon power. The Congress Party had not done so until then, although it had nurtured the "option". For the Left, the only thing worse than an Indian atom bomb was the perception of external pressure on the country's security, economic and foreign policies. But the BJP had advocated the declaration of India as a nuclear weapon state for years. Debates over the CTBT created a sympathetic atmosphere for its stance.

In the absence of any immediate, overt nuclear threat, all the reasons for the test and for India's nuclear weapons boiled down to an assertion of India's right as a sovereign nation to decide for itself how to address security concerns.

From the start, India had fought for the right to access to nuclear technology.JNew Delhi pulled out of the NPT after framing its resistance to international controls as a fight against a nuclear apartheid. Even though these arguments ostensibly concerned peaceful technology, the language of discrimination blurred the distinctions between peaceful and military research.JOver time, the reasons for developing civil nuclear technology melded with the right to develop nuclear weapons in an unequal world regulated by a discriminatory treaty.

It took seven years from the tests of 1998 for the US and India to come to an agreement that might allow Washington with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to lift restrictions on the supply of technology for India's civilian nuclear power plants. India was being brought into the fold. For many international observers, including some in Iran, however, New Delhi was being rewarded for its bad behaviour. Indians, of course, do not see it that way. In their opinion, they have demonstrated exceptional responsibility in matters nuclear for six decades. They still claim to want a world free of nuclear weapons, but in the meantime, they will retain their atomic muscle as it seems to be the only effective antidote to unwelcome pressure and advice on New Delhi's foreign and security policies.

Tehran may well be taking note.

Priyanjali Malik is a DPhil candidate in international relations at Merton College, Oxford.

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