Uncommon India

Am I the only one who was troubled by this recent suggestion, from a well-respected Member of the Indian Parliament, that Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s decision not to attend the upcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Perth may not be—as reported—due to more pressing engagements in the form of G20 and SAARC summits, but rather a rebuke of Australia’s refusal to supply enriched uranium to augment India’s civilian nuclear program?

India has consistently refused to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT)—the cornerstone of international efforts to curb the spread of nuclear weapons—categorically stating that the treaty amounts to political apartheid by permanently dividing the world into nuclear haves and nuclear have-nots. India has also rejected the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT)—intended to prohibit any nuclear explosion on the planet—again on issue of principle.  While the CTBT does not explicitly contain the NPT-style divisiveness in its text, India’s principled stance emerged from the fact that the treaty lacks a clear commitment from nuclear weapon states to disarm existing nuclear arsenals within a time-bound framework. The CTBT cannot enter into force until signed and ratified by 44 states listed in Annex 2 of the treaty. To date, nine of these 44 countries have yet to ratify the treaty. India, in good company with Pakistan and North Korea, has not even signed the treaty.

There is no denying that India’s moral song became a little harder to hear after it became a de-facto nuclear weapons state. Some suggest that this is because the credibility of the country’s minimum deterrent is questionable and further tests are necessary to augment its capability, others that acceding to the CTBT in its current form would contradict India’s historic stance on disarmament and weaken its standing in the international community. Whatever the case, expressing contempt for the shortcomings of an international instrument without facilitating the work that needs to be done to reach a solution does not exactly smack of enlightened moral leadership.  If India is truly as committed to global nuclear disarmament as it was in the days of determined leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru and Rajiv Gandhi, it must re-assess its stance on the CTBT.

Instead of criticizing Australia’s decision not to “emulate the United States in recognizing that India merits an exception on nuclear supplies,” both India and the United States would do well to take a page from Australia’s book, one of the earliest ratifiers of the CTBT. India’s long-touted ‘impeccable record of non-proliferation’ does not provide a moral warrant for it to circumvent internationally established instruments of law and co-operation. Moreover, when India has already declared a unilateral moratorium on nuclear weapons testing, what is the profound difficulty in making this commitment legally binding? A no-first-strike policy appears to translate to a no-first move-policy too, as India refuses to lead—as it has before—an active, committed and urgent initiative to achieve global nuclear disarmament.

It would also be prudent for “energy-starved” India to explore less controversial, more environmentally-friendly forms of energy for its burgeoning population, especially in light of disasters like those at Chernobyl and Fukushima, growing issues with the secure disposal of nuclear waste, and decisions by some countries to phase out nuclear power entirely.  The Indian people are, perhaps, more attuned to these concerns than their government, judging by ongoing protests against proposed nuclear power plants, ranging from Jaitapur in the West to Kudankulam in the South.

Perhaps the author’s most surprising remark was this: “In fact, India has all the uranium it currently needs from other suppliers; the issue is one of principle.” If India already has all the uranium it needs—must it hold a petulant grudge against those who deny it the unnecessary? India has already built and tested nuclear weapons, declared and been recognized as a nuclear weapons state, and acquired a  country-specific waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers Group that grants it full civil nuclear cooperation in spite of not being party to the NPT.  Acknowledging all this, can it not now instead prioritize shared concerns, capitalize on similarities with the nations of the Commonwealth, and contribute to building a world based on inclusiveness instead of pettiness?

At a time when much of humanity is re-discovering commonality and rising in co-operation, it seems that India once again revels in being the exception. Insular interests of state sovereignty and national security continue to push India to retreat to its safe seat on the fence in most every important international issue that is not seen to directly impact it. From the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street, it is clear that even non-violence is no longer India’s baby.  It is high time for India to get off its moral high horse and start working in the trenches, offering its vast moral and spiritual legacy and resources to heal the wounds of a hurting world. I should like to think that “rumours” of the Indian Prime Minister’s reasoning regarding his decision not to represent the country at the Commonwealth Meeting in Perth are just that—rumours. Otherwise, it bears noting that in this regard Mother India is, unfortunately, acting like a child.

Nidhi Zak-Aria Eipe is a writer who has previously worked as a Research Fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey and a Postgraduate Scholar in Peace and Conflict Studies at Bjorknes College in association with the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo. Read other articles by Nidhi Zakaria.