How land of Gandhi came to love the bomb

Tim McGirk on New Delhi's opposition to an all-out test ban

During the Cold War, when the United States and the Soviet Union were building up atomic arsenals capable of destroying the Earth 50 times over, India was a sane voice urging nuclear disarmament. But now India alone among the 60-odd nations at the Geneva Conference on Disarmament has killed an historic treaty banning nuclear tests.

Has it veered so far from its Gandhian principles of non-violence? Inder Kumar Gujral, the Indian Foreign Minister, says not. The Geneva pact, which had taken over two years of debates, haggling and compromise painfully to construct, was, in Mr Gujral's words, a "flawed text". He added: "It is a sad fact that the nuclear- weapon states show no interest in giving up their nuclear hegemony."

India's motives in blocking the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) are twofold: altruistic and selfish. First, its Geneva negotiators argued that the pact does not go far enough down the road to free the world from the threat of a nuclear holocaust. The treaty is flawed, according to New Delhi, as it fails to stop the existing nuclear powers - Britain, China, the US, Russia and France - from either dismantling their arsenals or inventing new weapons of mass destruction.

Secondly, insist the Indians, the treaty would leave the country vulnerable to a possible nuclear attack from its occasion- ally hostile neighbours, Pakistan and China.

Military experts estimate that China has more than 200 nuclear warheads, while Pakistan is advanced in the development of its own nuclear programme and may have clandestinely exploded a device several years ago at Lop Nor, the Chinese test site.

With the CTBT in force, India would be unable to test new devices, locking China into a dangerous position of superiority, according to diplomats in New Delhi.

"We cannot accept constraints on our option as long as nuclear-weapon states continue to rely on their nuclear arsenals for security," said the Indian Foreign Minister. However, billions of extra pounds must be siphoned off development projects for India even to attempt to catch up with China's more advanced nuclear programme.

In India, the debate over the test ban treaty has aroused old nationalistic and anti-colonial sentiment. Often in the Indian press the treaty has been portrayed as a clever dodge by the superpowers to keep developing nations such as India out of the elite nuclear club.

India's recently elected Prime Minister, Deve Gowda, is preoccupied with trying to keep his fragile coalition government of leftist and regional parties from becoming unglued and if he were to reverse India's opposition to the CTBT, it might lead to his demise. From the Communists across the spectrum to the right-wing Hindus, all political parties are united against the test ban treaty. They tend to see themselves as David standing up to the the nuclear Goliaths.

As one Indian defence expert, Jasjit Singh, wrote recently: "Why is it unrealistic to expect firm movement towards disarmament? What is the rationale for Britain, for example, to continue maintaining a more modern arsenal, and against what threat?"

India's refusal has also brought sharp words from Washington, which backfired, making the New Delhi government all the more obstinately opposed to the treaty. The Clinton administration moved to ease the growing rift with India.

A State Department spokesman on Thursday assured India that "This is not about punishment, and the objective is not looking at the ways we can strong-arm India. We prefer to try to convince the Indians of why it is in their interests to support the text."

Defenders of the test ban treaty, inside India and out, argue that its veto could brake the momentum among countries to press on with nuclear disarmament. Even if the CTBT draft is sent on to the UN General Assembly without Geneva's seal of approval, it may become so scissored and altered with amendments as to become meaningless.

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