India’s Approach to Nuclear Disarmament at Crossroads

India’s approach to nuclear disarmament is going through a definite shift. India has been calling for global nuclear disarmament since independence. Although, at present, India continues to express its support for any initiative that can lead up to the complete elimination of nuclear weapons, the factors that contributed to its strong support for nuclear disarmament are gradually evolving. Consequentially, this will require India to reconsider its position on nuclear disarmament, a task that New Delhi continues to evade for now. But this change of factors and its consequential impact on India’s commitment to nuclear disarmament is not really a new development. An examination of the development of India’s nuclear weapons programme captures situations that question India’s commitment to nuclear disarmament.

For instance, since independence, India has taken a “‘public and vocal stance against nuclear weapons.” It was Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, who proposed the idea of a complete ban on tests of nuclear weapons. India’s call for a ban on nuclear testing in 1954 led to the Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT). However, in the 1960s, with the security situation deteriorating in its neighborhood, many Indian politicians and bureaucrats felt the need to acquire nuclear weapons in order to deter external nuclear threats. Even Jawaharlal Nehru, who strongly opposed nuclear weapons, considered the role of nuclear deterrence for Indian national security, if the efforts to nuclear disarmament failed. When the NPT was opened for signature, India underlined the lack of a clear plan for nuclear disarmament as a reason to not sign the treaty (Frey 2006, 169). Although Article VI of the NPT mentioned that “each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith of effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control,” no concrete plans were discussed to take up the task of nuclear disarmament. This simultaneously implied India’s greater inclination towards developing its own nuclear weapons, considering the threat India perceived in its neighborhood and the fact that neither Washington nor Moscow appeared to be willing to provide any form of extended deterrence to cover Indian security concerns. Thereafter, though India continued to remain vocal on the agenda of nuclear disarmament, it went ahead with what was labelled as a ‘peaceful nuclear explosion’ (PNE) in 1974.

Similarly, while Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi pitched in for a ‘Nuclear-Weapon Free and Non-violent World Order’ at the third special session on Disarmament at the UN General Assembly in June 1988, three critical events occurred around the time that greatly influenced India’s nuclear weapons policy in the following decade. First, by the late 1980s, it became clear that Pakistan had made significant progress in its own nuclear weapons program. George Perkovich specifically mentions the “oblique nuclear threat issued by Islamabad in the wake of Brasstacks crisis in 1986-87” which convinced the then Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, into authorizing the process of weaponization of India’s nuclear capability. Second was the negotiation at the Conference on Disarmament (CD) for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). While India had been involved in the negotiations, it got a setback after seeing that the final draft of the treaty failed to act as a stepping stone towards nuclear disarmament and was made into a mere non-proliferation measure that served the national security interests of the nuclear weapon states (NWS) well. The third and perhaps most critical development happened in 1995 when the NPT was extended indefinitely. As A. Vinod Kumar assesses, India had been calling for the termination of the NPT after 1995 and was hoping for the NPT to be replaced by another treaty that would lead up to the elimination of nuclear weapons. The same was also recommended in the Rajiv Gandhi Action Plan, wherein there was a “call for a treaty which would give a legal effect to the binding commitment of Nuclear Weapon States to eliminate all nuclear weapons by the year 2010.” However, after the NPT was extended indefinitely without the NWS having to commit to the elimination of their respective nuclear arsenal in a given timeframe, India decided to conduct nuclear weapons tests in 1998.

Both of these instances capture the setback that India experienced in terms of the support it received from the NWS on nuclear disarmament. Thus while India continued to see nuclear disarmament as the only way it could undo what it considered to be an unfair categorization of states into the “haves” and the “have-nots,” it went ahead and developed its own nuclear programme, seeing that efforts for nuclear disarmament were failing. This puts a big question on how far India can now follow up on its commitment to nuclear disarmament, considering that its nuclear arsenal figures are now an imperative in its national security apparatus.

Another development that should question the sanctity of India’s commitment to nuclear disarmament has been its gradual integration into the global nuclear architecture. India received a waiver from the NSG regarding the requirement to put its entire nuclear programme under IAEA safeguards in 2008. Following the separation of its weapons and civilian energy programmes, that waiver in effect captured an informal acceptance of India as a nuclear weapon state. Meanwhile, there have been efforts led by the United States and other like-minded countries to get India into the NSG and other similar export control bodies. India remains far away from being recognized as a NWS. But this gradual shift closer to the group of nuclear haves will definitely make the politicians and bureaucrats in India reconsider their traditional view of nuclear non-proliferation regimes as discriminatory and will therefore require them to reconsider India’s position on nuclear disarmament.


Image: Mario Tama-Getty Images News, Getty

Posted in , Arms Control, Disarmament, India, NPT, NSG, Nuclear, Nuclear Weapons, Policy

Arka Biswas

Arka Biswas

Arka Biswas is a Junior Fellow at the Strategic Studies Programme of the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He is a Physics Graduate and has a Masters in International Relations from the University of Bristol. His dissertation was a critique of the Global Zero campaign. His research interests include nuclear security, global nuclear doctrines, nuclear deterrence, nuclear non-proliferation regimes, Iranian nuclear programme, and tactical nuclear weapons in South Asia.

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2 thoughts on “India’s Approach to Nuclear Disarmament at Crossroads

  1. Arka:
    Excellent post.
    States that acquire nuclear weapons are quite purposeful in this pursuit. To me, India is the exception. As a westerner, I find Indian ambivalence about the Bomb during its long, long gestation phase to be quite remarkable. That ambivalence is still expressed in Indian nuclear doctrine, but as you write, Indian views are shifting.

  2. MK: Thank you for your comment. It indeed has been an uncomfortable journey. Probably the view in India on disarmament still remains the same. But the gradual integration of India within the global nuclear architecture, while it is allowed to retain its weapons, will surely address its complaints on the architecture being discriminatory. Yes, it would still be discriminatory but will not be against Indian interests. May be it is too early to say the views are shifting, given India’s long history of loud calls for disarmament. To me, however, it is the right time for the Indian government reconsider how it should approach disarmament.

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