Growing Uncertainty in India About Nuclear Testing


May 28, 1998

NEW DELHI, India — Only two weeks after India detonated the last of five underground nuclear tests to popular acclaim, the Hindu nationalists who lead the government ran into a storm of protest in Parliament Wednesday that reflected growing disquiet among Indians about the risks and costs of acquiring nuclear weapons.

“The nuclear tests are a great achievement for India, no doubt, but we can’t even supply ordinary drinking water and electrical power to the people of this country,” said Indrajit Gupta, a Communist who was interior minister in the coalition government that ruled for 20 months until March, when a new, 14-party coalition headed by the Hindu nationalists was voted into power. “Where does all this lead to, how does it all add up?” he said.

The scene in Parliament, meeting for the first time since the tests, appeared to dismay Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and other senior Hindu nationalists, who listened in stony-faced silence. Other signs that the wave of support for the Hindu nationalists since the tests might be breaking have included several incidents in the capital in which angry crowds in areas deprived of electrical power for days attacked electricity sub-stations, smashing equipment and beating employees.

In one attack on Monday that was reported by many Indian newspapers Wednesday, a mob in a northern district of New Delhi that had gone without power for 15 days, in temperatures above 115 degrees, ransacked a local office of the main Hindu nationalist organization, the Bharatiya Janata Party, whose parliamentary leader is Vajpayee. The attack came 24 hours before the United States, implementing economic sanctions announced after the nuclear blasts, forced a delay in $865 million in World Bank loans for the upgrading of India’s badly outdated, vastly underpowered electricity grid.

Vajpayee entered Parliament in a subdued mood that contrasted with the triumphalism displayed by many Hindu nationalists after the tests. He noted that his government had declared a “voluntary moratorium” on tests, and renewed an earlier offer by India to sign a pact with Pakistan that would bind each nation not to be the first to use nuclear weapons against each other. He also repeated a longstanding Indian offer to foreswear nuclear arms as part of a global pact binding the United States and other nuclear powers to abandon their arsenals.

“India is now a nuclear weapons state; this is a reality that cannot be denied,” the Indian leader said. “It is India’s due, the right of one-sixth of human kind. Our strengthened capability adds to our sense of responsibility. We do not intend to use these weapons for aggression or for mounting threats against any country; these are weapons of self-defense, to insure that India is not subjected to nuclear threats or coercion. We do not intend to engage in an arms race.”

Immediately after the tests, with polls showing popular support for the blasts running at more than 90 percent, opposition politicians offered only mild dissent. But in today’s speeches, carried throughout India on live television, they accused the government of abandoning Gandhi’s legacy of nonviolence, of isolating India in the international community, and of courting economic disaster because of the trade, banking and aid sanctions imposed by the United States and other nations.

The opposition leaders also accused the Hindu nationalists of “inventing” the threats posed to India by Pakistan and China to justify the tests, and to artificially increase their popularity with a view to holding a new election. In so doing, several opposition spokesmen said, the Vajpayee government had forged an anti-India axis of three nations, the United States, China and Pakistan, that had all shown signs of wanting stable, friendly relations with India.

“Before the mushroom cloud had died down, you and your ministers were talking about nuclear weaponization, about mounting warheads on missiles, about unfinished agendas, and about a fourth war with Pakistan,” said Palianappan Chidambaram, a Harvard-educated lawyer who served as finance minister in the previous government. “And if anybody asks why, where is the threat, they are branded as a traitor. That is the depth of your political cynicism.”

In the March vote, the nationalists registered their best result in 50 years of campaigning. But they won only 26 percent of the popular vote and a little more than a third of the seats in Parliament, forcing them to round up a dozen smaller parties in a ruling coalition. Their minority status made them vulnerable to parliamentary maneuvering by the Congress Party and other long-established groups that oppose the nationalist creed of Hindu supremacy, considering it a threat to India’s minority groups, especially the country’s 120 million Muslims.

In today’s debate, leading opposition figures even accused the government of risking war through a spate of aggressive warnings about India’s enhanced military power that leading Hindu nationalists, including Lal Krishna Advani, the interior minister, have issued to Pakistan.

Advani said last week that the tests had “brought about a qualitatively new stage” in relations between India and Pakistan, and that India would adopt a more “pro-active” policy in its dealings with Pakistan, especially over the long-running war that Indian troops have been fighting with Pakistan-backed insurgents in the disputed territory of Kashmir.

Chidambaram, the former finance minister, spoke of “people in this government who would travel down the road to war.” And Natwar Singh, a senior Congress Party leader who is a former foreign minister, noted that one of Vajpayee’s ministers had suggested that India was prepared to send troops on “hot pursuit” operations into the part of Kashmir that has been held by Pakistan since the partition of British India in 1947.

“Do you know what the consequences will be?” Singh said. “The United Nations Security Council will be summoned within minutes, and mandatory sanctions will be imposed on India.”

But the central theme of many attacks was that the Hindu nationalists have betrayed the interests of the 350 million Indians who live in dire poverty, as well many others in this nation of 980 million people who struggle with the daily consequences of India’s economic backwardness. While some speakers dwelled on the possible cost of sanctions to India, which some Western economists have put as high as $20 billion, others cited the huge costs involved in developing, deploying and maintaining an arsenal of nuclear missiles.

Singh quoted from an Indian newspaper commentary describing India after the tests as “a poor country with a few troublesome toys,” and said that the Hindu nationalists were inviting the same fate for India that befell the Soviet Union. “The Soviet Union had 10,000 nuclear warheads; you have, what, 5, maybe 6?” Singh said. “And yet the Soviet Union disintegrated. Why? Because the economic cost of nuclear weaponization was too great.”

Copyright 2004 New York Times Company

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