India's Nuclear Policy - Steady Objective, Narrowing Options, Inaugural address at the University of California, Los Angeles - October 31, 1998



synopsis of the inaugural address by Mr. T.P. Sreenivasan,
Deputy Chief of Mission, Embassy of India, Washington

(Mr. T.P. Sreenivasn was formerly Indian Ambassador to Kenya and Fiji and
Deputy Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations, New York)




The saga of India's nuclear policy in the last fifty years is the saga of a nation which has tirelessly pursued a steady objective in a world of narrowing options. The objective has always been complete disarmament, particularly nuclear disarmament. The objective remains the same today, even after India exercised its nuclear option. The point to remember is that all other options were explored in right earnest and that India arrived at this particular option only after exhausting all other options in its quest for enhanced national security.


Independent India emerged on the world scene when the world was still reeling under the untold horrors of the nuclear attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The leaders of India who fought the British empire with their bare hands had no fascination for weapons, particularly nuclear weapons. Disarmament became an article of faith for India and we embraced it at a time when we had several other options open. Even though we embarked on a program of developing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, India consciously abjured nuclear weapons and pleaded for cessation of all nuclear tests and for a non-discriminatory non-proliferation regime.


The Chinese invasion of India in 1962 and the emergence of China as a nuclear weapon state in 1964 reverberated through India and set in motion a reappraisal of our options for the first time. We realised that the nuclear genie would not be confined to a handful of nations. The spectre of nuclear weapons on our northern borders loomed large. But the option we exercised was not of turning nuclear ourselves but of reinvigorating our efforts to halt both vertical and horizontal proliferation. India participated actively in the negotiations on the NPT which, we thought, would accomplish our objective. But the options before India narrowed further when the NPT was born as a harbinger of a nuclear apartheid dividing the world into nuclear haves and have-nots.


A signature on the NPT by India would have left India permanently disabled, not being able to exercise its option to acquire nuclear capability for its own defence. One apparent option at that time was to seek a guarantee from the nuclear weapon states against the use of nuclear weapons against India. But this option was closed when India's request for such guarantees fell on deaf ears. India's options narrowed down further after 1968-to keep our nuclear option open, develop nuclear technology for peaceful purposes and press for nuclear disarmament.


India's first nuclear test of 1974 was perhaps as significant to the nuclear non-proliferation regime as the handful of salt Mahatma Gandhi picked up was to British imperialism in India. Both these acts were in defiance of unjust regimes sought to be perpetrated on weaker nations. But the nuclear option still remained an option as India refrained from weaponisation and continued to pursue the objective of nuclear disarmament. The Action Plan presented by India to the UN in 1988 embodied our aspiration to see a nuclear weapon free, non-violent world within a specified time frame. We were still hopeful that a realistic review of the NPT would be possible to make it non-discriminatory and equally applicable to all.


The NPT Review Conference of 1995 dashed these hopes. Not only was the NPT not reviewed, it was made into a Treaty for all times, dividing even the succeeding generations into two unequal categories - one wielding the currency of power of the future and the other eternally deprived of modem technology to defend itself against nuclear attacks. Further, nuclear disarmament ceased to be even a distant dream; it became a virtual impossibility. India's preferred option of pursuing nuclear disarmament without acquiring nuclear weapons closed forever.


To this dismal situation was added the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1996 which was designed to prevent states that required to test weapons underground from acquiring the necessary data to develop a weapon capability. In other words, if India did not test now, it could never test underground. To test in the laboratory, India needed data that could be acquired only by underground tests. The option to keep the nuclear option open disappeared. India tested so that the future generations of Indians were not left vulnerable to nuclear challenge and blackmail.


The exercise of the nuclear option did not mean that we abandoned the ultimate objective of nuclear disarmament. The only difference is that India has to eliminate its own weapons when the other nuclear weapon states reduce their arsenals to our level. India has renewed its offer to negotiate a treaty for the elimination of nuclear weapons. India waited till the very moment when its options narrowed down to one and exercised it, but we have not renounced the objective we had set ourselves when we became independent - a world without nuclear weapons, a world without violence.


The exercise of the nuclear option by India has corrected a major imbalance in the world nuclear picture. India was the only major nation in the world which did not have either nuclear weapons or a nuclear guarantee from another major power. Equal security for all is the temporary alternative to disarmament.


A word about Indo-US relations. We have endeavoured to build Indo-US relations on the basis of shared values like democracy and fundamental freedoms and on the basis of complementarities in commercial and economic interaction. We have seen that these alone cannot guarantee a steady bilateral relationship. Indo-US relations have aptly been compared to a roller-coaster ride. What was lacking was a basic understanding of each other's security concerns. We imagined that the US would renounce its nuclear weapons one day and the US felt that India's legitimate security concerns did not warrant a nuclear deterrent. In the changed scenario of today there are better prospects of recognition of each other's concerns and requirements. Once this is accomplished, Indo-US relations will acquire a new balance which will pave the way for a mutually beneficial bilateral relationship.