How much Indian civilian nuclear activity is safe?

Published: April 28, 2015
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India is not an NPT member and terms it discriminatory. PHOTO: AFP

Once again, democracy is open for renovation, and frosty relations are back on track after prolonged negotiations. Earlier, only Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) signatories and the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) were allowed to carry out nuclear trade. As a student of nuclear and strategic studies, I feel India has been able to strike a nuclear deal without abiding by the rules set out for other countries by the international non-proliferation regime.

While democracy remains but a show, and power but a spectacle for the people to behold but not wield, this nation will remain handcuffed by favouritism. The Harrods sale of the Indo-US deal was signed in 2008 by the United Progressive Alliance government (UPA). Since the implementation of the NSG waiver, India has signed numerous nuclear deals with several countries including the likes of France, United States, Mongolia, Namibia, Kazakhstan, Canada, Australia and United Kingdom.

India amusingly continues to embrace nuclear energy, claiming its inability to tackle severe power shortage, and bows to the interests of their foreign private counterparts, all the while the world is actively doing away with nuclear energy. The risk of embracing nuclear power is becoming clear with the Indo-US nuclear deal and the recent news about Canada agreeing to sell uranium to India. Phew! It really is a scorcher, since India developed its bomb using nuclear material from a reactor it had acquired from Canada for ‘civilian use’.

NSG was created in response to the nuclear testing India conducted in 1974, and the purpose was to prevent nuclear material from reaching rogue nuclear states.

But where are these rules when history is repeating itself again? Are these rules meant to be applied only to specific countries with a good track record of diplomacy?

It seems that regimes like the NPT and the NSG are in tatters since they seem to be sacrificing nuclear non-proliferation principles and objectives for other benefits.

Gregory Koblentz of George Mason University in Washington stated that even if Canadian uranium is used for civilian purposes,

“Whatever uranium India produces domestically will now be freed up for a military program.”

The India-Canada agreement will let India become a member of the United Nations Security Council, whose arsenals are recognised and grandfathered by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NNPT) — a treaty that India has not signed as yet.

Global efforts have been invested in preventing Iran from obtaining one nuclear weapon in the fear of nuclear proliferation in South Asia. The West has been attempting to bring in the rules-based system for countries such as Iran. The Iranian problem has exposed significant vulnerabilities under the NNPT, especially the absence of a clear divide between civilian and nuclear programs. But the question that arises is, did India separate its civilian and military nuclear programmes?

Some argued that Iran is a special case, given that it has proven to be ‘particularly untrustworthy’ regarding its nuclear program.

But is India really trustworthy, keeping in view its current and past track record? What makes them so sure that they can trust India, especially when we are talking about materials that are so dangerous?

I think if a ban was to be imposed on Iranian re-processing, it would at least raise the question of why other countries should not be subjected to it as well. Therefore, another question that arises is, how much Indian civilian nuclear activity is safe?

I remember when Canada sold a CANDU reactor to India, which was later turned into a nuclear weapon. At the time, it was considered a ‘huge mistake’ but I guess when you live long enough, you get to see the same mistakes being repeated.

University of Findlay and other experts warn that the special treatment for India shows that certain governments can be an exception to the rule, build a bomb, tough it out for a few decades and emerge as an accepted nuclear state. As long as someone somewhere is making money, why care about world security, nuclear proliferation, or ties between democracies? We are continuously making the world a more dangerous place, only in exchange for money.

Daniel Green, deputy leader of the Green Party of Canada, said,

“India is not a signatory to the International Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It would be unacceptable for Canada to renege on its commitments to this treaty, which is indispensable to our global security.”

Worth noting is the bedrock principle of international security, which states that no new nation should be allowed to join the nuclear weapons club. The subcontinent is currently considered to be one of the most likely flashpoints for a future nuclear conflict because of the Indian blast that set off an arms race, compelling neighbours to safeguard their national security interests.

At the bottom of this entire debate is a vexatious secrecy.  A disturbing fact emerges concerning how International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguard inspections are carried out in India. Have the facilities in India been inspected? Were any accounting discrepancies detected?

But national governments refuse to provide such information and the IAEA itself only releases aggregate information on the number of inspections carried out across India.

In a linchpin, keeping in mind South Asia’s current and past situations in terms of nuclear deals and the democracies working in close collaboration with each other, a huge dichotomy is clear. The vested national interests of major powers who call to shower nuclear blessings on a de facto nuclear weapon state (India) and at the same time, these very international players universally call to counter and display concerns regarding nuclear proliferation.

Why are they not adopting an official global standard which takes de facto matters into account?

Why are we hiding behind the bush of duplicity, showcasing different attitudes towards twin nuclear weapon states (Pakistan and India)?

Why is it that only the legal standard or the norms of non-proliferation are stated to us, which paint an incomplete picture?

The complete picture is the global order of who gets what and who does not.

I am disheartened to discover that the Indian government has undemocratically and quietly succumbed to the powerful nuclear lobbies in the West. Alas! Everyone knows that national interests and major power politics are highly manifested in Indian proliferation moods, where Pakistan is an unprotected victim that carries no threat of revenge.

Someone very aptly pointed out,

“The deed is done. But the real tragedy, for actors and audience alike, may lie in mistaking the beginning for the end of this drama.”

Usman Ali Khan

Usman Ali Khan

Has done his Master’s in Defense and Strategic Studies from Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad and is currently pursuing his studies in the same field. He tweets as @shau_ni (twitter.com/shau_ni)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.