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India and the Non-Proliferation Regime: Looking Beyond the Nuclear Deal

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  • September 12, 2008
    Fellows' Seminar
    Only by Invitation
    1030 to 1300 hrs

    Chair: G Balachandran
    Discussants: K C Singh & R R Subramanian

    The India-United States civil nuclear cooperation agreement, announced through the July 18, 2005 joint statement, besides opening the doors for global nuclear commerce, is seen as a means to facilitate India’s greater integration with the global non-proliferation regime. India was always credited to be an adherent of the regime’s norms, but was deemed an outsider owing to its non-membership in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which is seen as the cornerstone of the regime. Through the nuclear agreement, the U.S. had volunteered to assist this assimilation process, the latest development being the India-specific exemption at the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG).

    The emergent global nuclear order and the NPT

    As a Cold War arrangement, the NPT sustained one of the most established international bargains whereby states without nuclear weapons pledged not to acquire them, while existing nuclear weapon states committed to eventually give them up. However, in the past four decades, the Treaty had attained the tag of being a system with unfulfilled objectives outnumbering its achieved goals, and failures accumulating as each of its articles were being violated with impunity. The Treaty was no longer seen to have the capability to address newer security threats arising out of a post 9/11 world, influenced by non-state actors and an increasing number of threshold states. What looked more portentous was the imbalance a non-state actor would inflict on the non-proliferation regime and the NPT, which were equipped only to handle the proliferation problem arising from states. Forty years later, the Treaty might pride on its record of restricting new weapons states to three or four. But as of today, the instances of non-compliance and likelihood of more threshold states emerging on the scene have increased, partly due to the security deficit created by current geo-politics.

    India’s rendezvous with the non-proliferation regime

    From its early days of disarmament activism, India had envisioned a third world leadership role for itself in the evolving non-proliferation regime, and vociferously advocated the non-dissemination of nuclear weapons technology. In the early 1960s, as a member of the Eighteen Nation Disarmament Committee (ENDC), India influenced the debate for a Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and argued for a credible bargain whereby weapon powers would give up their arsenals while ensuring that others refrained from developing or acquiring such weapons. But when the grand bargain became discriminatory, India decided to stay away from the NPT. India’s decision to conduct a Peaceful Nuclear Explosion experiment was seen as the first challenge to the non-proliferation regime, which invoked new mechanisms like the NSG to add to what the Zangger Committee had already initiated.

    India and the NPT: Towards Convergence or Drifting Apart?

    The genesis of India’s confrontation with the NPT can be traced to the political power play enacted during the negotiations for the Treaty. Even before Ireland submitted a draft resolution to the General Assembly, India had launched its campaign calling for steps to stop the spread of nuclear weapons and exhorted weapon states to take the initiative, failing which non-nuclear nations would be tempted to acquire nuclear weapons. India was upset that the Irish draft talked of prohibiting acquisition of nuclear weapons, but imposed no restriction on its continued manufacture and maintenance. Later, India joined seven nations in the ENDC to submit a resolution (GA 2028 [XX]) with five principles of which the key ones were:

    - The Treaty should be void of any loopholes for countries to proliferate;

    - It should embody an acceptable balance of responsibilities and obligations;

    - It should be a step towards complete disarmament.

    The Other Challenges

    Though India could be prodded to think of campaigning for reforms in the NPT, there are other areas like the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), on which India would have serious reservations in its current form.

    CTBT: India had vociferously argued for a test-ban, along with a fissile production cut-off, as part of its campaign to stop the production and development of nuclear weapons during the initial NPT debate. This was in consonance with its 1954 proposal calling for end to nuclear weapons testing. At the 1996 Conference on Disarmament, India, along with members of G-21, proposed a Programme of Action for the phased elimination of nuclear weapons by 2020. However, during the CTBT negotiations, weapon states refused to agree to any commitment on disarmament and pushed for a test ban while insisting on the Entry into Force clause (XIV), which required India along with specified countries to join the Treaty before it became operational.

    FMCT: A key element of the July 2005 joint statement was India’s cooperation in negotiations for concluding a Fissile Materials Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT). India had strongly advocated a fissile production cut off in the NPT debate, but later on resisted an FMCT owing to its potential impact on its own nuclear weapons programme. Differences over issues like time-bound disarmament had led to stalemate in negotiations. After initial opposition arguing that an FMCT would curtail its nuclear weapons programme, India announced in 1998 its willingness to participate in the negotiations. There are some issues to be factored in India’s policy towards FMCT: (a) Does India have sufficient fissile material for its credible deterrent? (2) If not, can it be mobilised before the Treaty is ratified? (3) Would the Treaty benefit disarmament or would it be used to curtail the strategic capability of countries like India?

    MTCR: Another commitment of similar character was compliance with the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). Though India has updated its national controls lists with that of MTCR Annex, it is still treated as an outsider by the MTCR community for its defiance in pursuing its guided missile development programme. However, the merit in India’s case is that it had managed to develop its missile systems indigenously and also resisted transfer of missile systems to another country.


    With the nuclear deal and NSG waiver, India is moving towards greater integration with the non-proliferation regime. By doing so, it would join ranks with the United States in evolving a new nuclear security order. However, the more India’s proximity with global non-proliferation objectives, the more would be the policy challenges on crucial issues connected with anti-proliferation. Irrespective of the success and acceptability of a new order, the instruments of the old order would continue to hold significance in nuclear politics. As an active member of the non-proliferation regime, India would have to initiate a dialogue with these instruments to ensure that its bonding with the regime is sustained.

    The NPT continues to be the cornerstone of the global non-proliferation regime, despite its many shortcomings. Being a near-universal mechanism, the Treaty would continue to hold its primacy in global nuclear affairs. Though India managed to resist calls for membership all these years, its stakes and responsibilities would increase with its weapon power status and greater access to nuclear commerce. On the other hand, India has to realise that the driving spirit that motivated it to advocate the NPT and CTBT are still relevant. For decades, Indians have seen NPT as discriminatory so much so that even a rethink is now seen as blasphemous.


    A. Vinod Kumar presented this paper as part of the IDSA Weekly Fellows’ Seminar series. The seminar was chaired by Dr. G. Balachandran, Visiting Fellow at IDSA. Discussants in this seminar were Dr. R. R. Subramanian, former Senior Research Associate at IDSA and a renowned strategic analyst and Mr. K. C. Singh, IFS (Retd.). Mr. Sujit Dutta, Senior Fellow at IDSA and Dr. Rajiv Nayan, Research Officer at IDSA, also offered special comments as Discussants. Important points flagged during the discussion were:

    • A favourable balance has to be struck between pragmatism and idealism on issues related to non-proliferation.
    • Ideological and practical aspects are an important dimension of the debate on NPT.
    • There should be a degree of caution in the way the nuclear deal is looked at. US posturing may be different from action and the idea might be to target India’s strategic programme. US is no longer a superpower but a hyper power; and it has no friends but only allies. Therefore there should be an element of scepticism in the way the nuclear agreement is perceived. One has to keep in mid the ‘trade offs’ in such arrangements.
    • There is a debate on moralism versus pragmatism as India has been an over-moralising country in the past due to the Gandhian and Nehruvian legacy. Moralising kept India away from realpolitik for a long time. However, the moral strategy also helped in some ways and India introduced the concept of ‘Atomic Apartheid.’ There is a dichotomy between moralism and practicality. India is shedding its moralistic stand and taking a more holistic view of the nuclear agreement.
    • The best thing about the deal is that India can trade with France and Russia
      India is the largest supplier of thorium (almost 60% of the total supplies).
    • India is already a Nuclear Weapon State. There is no need therefore for enshrining this by India joining the NPT as a weapon state which is not likely in the near term.
    • India is closer to signing CTBT than before.
    • The signing of an FMCT will take time.
    • The India-US nuclear deal is part of an American attempt to balance the strategic interest of making India a stakeholder to strengthen the international order and the American commitment to non-proliferation goals.

    Prepared by Dr. Priyanka Singh, Research Assistant at IDSA.