A New Nuclear Debate in India

A New Nuclear Debate in India

As an anti-nuclear-weapon activist of India, I am abashed to admit this. But
the main nuclear debate in the major South Asian country has not been the one
between nuclear militarists and their opponents. It has been the one between
two schools of nuclear militarism. The debate has acquired a new dimension,
with the hawks of all these years suddenly made to appear doves.

The US has figured in the debate all through. If George W. Bush initiated the
earlier polemics by presenting a nuclear deal to India, the current controversy
has a Barack Obama connection.

India’s nuclear-weapon tests of May 1998 in the desert site of Pokharan did
provoke some serious protests from sections that saw what these presaged for
South Asia. These, however, led to no national debate. The voice of the anti-nuke
agitators was drowned in the high-decibel celebrations of Pokharan II (as the
test series was named, Pokharan I was given as the title of the “peaceful
nuclear explosion” conducted at the same site in 1974).

The nation witnessed its first major nuclear debate after former President
Bush and India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met in Washington in July 2005
and announced their decision to go for a “US-India nuclear deal.”
Right from then, a loud and lacerating political controversy raged in India
over the deal, until July 2008 when the Singh government won a parliamentary
confidence vote on the issue.

Yes, we in the anti-nuke camp declared war on the deal, too. We did so because
the deal gave India the dubiously high status of a nuclear-weapon state, with
which Washington and its allies were willing to do nuclear business. The “civilian
nuclear cooperation agreement,” signed in March 2006, clearly helped and
did not hamper India’s strategic nuclear program. Under the deal, New Delhi
could keep specified strategic nuclear reactors out of the purview of the inspectors
of he International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). And the nuclear commerce, for
which the deal opened the doors, freed up India’s indigenous nuclear fuel resources
for use in its weapon program.

Our case was a cry in the wilderness, only faintly heard in the mainstream
media with headlines reserved for the war of militarists. The main discourse
was dominated by opposition to the deal from a point of view diametrically opposite
to ours. The far-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which was in power 11 years
ago and presided over Pokharan II, decried the deal as an attempt to derail
the weapon program.

A tokenistic Washington position about future Indian testing (which was to
be allowed anyway if a changed strategic situation was deemed to demand it)
was presented as proof that the deal sought to “cap” New Delhi’s strategic
nuclear schemes. Even sections of the left joined this lopsided opposition to
the deal by seeing it as an attack on India’s “sovereignty” in relation
to its strategic nuclear program.

It is over the issue of testing again that the current, second major Indian
nuclear debate has erupted. The sides, however, are not he same.

On the deal, pitted against each other were the BJP and its fiends on the one
hand and Singh’s Congress Party and its allies on the other. The BJP and the
Congress are now on the same aide of the barricades.

Some prominent individuals, too, have switched sides, most notably former President
A. P. J. Abdul Kalam. The BJP first hailed Kalam, scientist operationally in
charge of Pokharan II, as the father of the Indian bomb and helped him into
the presidential palace in New Delhi. It, however, condemned him as a compromiser
of India’s sovereignty when he upheld the deal as the answer to the country’s
need for uranium. But the party and Kalam are making common cause in the current
controversy.

No mystery shrouds their motive. Both of them share a stake in preserving Pokharan
II as a symbol of Indian pride. And the controversy has put that avowed achievement
in question.

It all began when K. Santhanam, a scientist who worked under Kalam in 1998,
was reported on August 27 as trashing the test series. He was quoted as alleging,
in effect, that the leaders of the then BJP-headed government and the nuclear
establishment had lied to the nation about the tests. According to him, as many
foreign experts had said at the time, the thermonuclear or hydrogen bomb tests
had ended in a “fizzle.”

A “fizzle” occurs when the testing of a nuclear bomb fails to meet
its expected yield or falls short by 30 percent or more. The yield is the amount
of energy discharged when a nuclear weapon is detonated, with the amount being
expressed in kilotons (thousands of tons) or megatons (millions of tons) of
trinitrotoluene (TNT).

A hydrogen bomb can produce far greater destructive power than an atom bomb.
The biggest bomb tested by the Soviet Union is said to have produced 50 megatons
of explosive power – nearly 3,000 times more destructive power than the bomb
dropped on Hiroshima, which killed 80,000 people instantly, according to the
most conservative estimate. This is the weapon India has, the BJP and its band
claim. It is what India has yet to acquire, Santhanam and others wail.

Santhanam put the yield at 15 to 20 kilotons, or less than half the officially
claimed 45 kilotons. The pride-puncturing estimate has the predicted reactions
from everyone with a reputation resting on Pokharan II. It has also been rejected
by the reigning nuclear establishment.

Past heads of the establishment, however, have condemned official claims on
Pokjaran II almost in a chorus. One of them, former chairman of India’s Atomic
Energy Commission (AEC) P. K. Iyengar, has also added a political dimension
to the debate that is bound to embarrass the Pakistan-obsessed BJP.

According to Iyengar, the tests were done in haste at the bidding of former
Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government of the day in order to beat
Pakistan to it. He says that, in March 1998, two months before Pokharan II,
India’s intelligence probably found out that the Pakistanis were about to test.
“If Pakistan fired an explosion before India,” asks Iyengar ironically,
“what would a common man in India have thought?”

A more intriguing question is: why are Santhanam and others raising the issue
over a decade after the event? Writes Ramesh Thakur, director of the Balsillie
School of International Affairs. Waterloo, Canada: “The reason for Santhanam’s
revelation may be to put pressure on the government to conduct further tests
for validating the design of India’s hydrogen bomb, before the window is closed
if the Obama administration ratifies the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and pressures
remaining hold-outs to follow.”

The demand by Santhanam and others for more tests, despite India’s voluntary
moratorium on testing, reinforces Thakur’s reasoning.

Added to this, perhaps, is an anti-China angle. The controversy has broken
out around the same time as India is witnessing a media-powered campaign to
create new tensions between New Delhi and Beijing. Santhanam has strengthened
this suspicion by calling for “a series of thermonuclear bomb tests”
in order to “protect the nation’s security” from China. “We are
totally naked vis-à-vis China” and its nuclear might, he adds.

The best answer to this bogey comes, ironically, from a security analyst long
associated with the bomb lobby. K. Subrahmanyam, in a newspaper article co-authored
with scientist V. S. Arunachalam, points out: “… even with 25-kiloton
fission bombs, the damages are going to be far more extensive than what Hiroshima
and Nagasaki suffered, given the higher population densities in the cities of
China and South Asia and the urban development of recent years. Therefore, the
Indian deterrent posture will not lose its credibility if India is compelled
to rely on fission weapons only.”

The article goes on to say what Indian and Pakistani militarists can do to
the people of South Asia with the nuclear arsenals they already have. “In
a nuclear war, once the missiles are launched, entire countries on both sides
become battlefields. It is difficult to control or regulate the firing of the
missiles since both sides are under compulsion to use the missiles before they
are eliminated by the enemy strike. As soon as the first city is hit, populations
of all cities would attempt to empty out into the countryside since there will
be panic that their own city will be the next target in the next few minutes.”

The article adds: “Think of the entire urban population of a country becoming
internally displaced persons in a matter of hours.” The authors, however,
do not argue against strategic programs that can bring no security to the region
and its people.

Participants in India’s main nuclear debate think pretty little about this
and other possible fallouts of their folly. The anti-nuclear-weapon activists,
meanwhile, can only hope at the most to have their say in the alternative media.