The Nobel Peace Prize, 2017, has just been awarded to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). Had India joined 122 other member-states of the United Nations in voting for the resolution, we too could have shared in that glory. By running away from the conference, as we did so pusillanimously, we missed the opportunity of showing ourselves to be consistent champions of the total abolition of nuclear weapons, alienated ourselves from a sizeable majority of the international community and overwhelmingly from the non-aligned nations, and betrayed our adherence over the past 10 governments to the Action Plan for a Nuclear-Weapons-Free and Non-Violent World Order presented by India to the Third United Nations Special Session on Disarmament in June 1988.
These 10 past governments include those of Rajiv Gandhi, V.P. Singh, Chandrashekhar, Vajpayee I, H.D. Deve Gowda, Inder Kumar Gujral, Vajpayee II, Vajpayee III, UPA I, UPA II and, as far as the public record goes, even that of Narendra Modi. Indeed, our national pledge to “universal, non-discriminatory, time-bound, phased and verifiable” multilateral (not unilateral) nuclear disarmament goes back to Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi, with the full backing of what in those days used to be our consensual national foreign policy cutting across party lines. It is also germane to note that this was the consensual national policy even after we became a declared nuclear power in 1998.
Although Jawaharlal Nehru was pragmatic enough to instruct Homi Bhabha to develop our nuclear capacity for other purposes also, the primary thrust was on peaceful purposes to enable him to pursue with unmatched vigour what, in the immediate aftermath of the dropping of the first atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was a universal recognition of the need to quickly move through negotiation to the abolition of nuclear weapons. This was reflected in the very first resolution ever passed by the UN, Resolution 1(1), sponsored, ironically enough, by the United States. The failure to observe that pledge has led to the deadlock in the permanent Conference on Disarmament (CD) these past 20 years. That is why the ICAN conference was convened outside the CD but under the aegis of an UN General Assembly resolution. That it is not being convened in the wholly moribund CD is the legalistic reason given for our cowardly cop-out.
After the sabotage of 1(1), and even as all the permanent members of the Security Council became nuclear weapon powers, India, in line with the thinking of the Father of the Nation, became the leading champion of disarmament and did not go nuclear even after a hostile China went down that path just two years after the India-China war of 1962.
In 1968, India kept out of the wholly discriminatory Non-Proliferation Treaty which sanctified the possession of nuclear weapons by a few but sought to stop any acquisition of such capacity by the huge majority of others. While refusing to be party to such an unequal treaty, and despite demonstrating through Pokhran I in 1974 that there were not only the twin categories of “nuclear weapon” and “non-nuclear weapon” powers but also a third category of “threshold nuclear weapon powers”, India under Indira Gandhi continued to be an impassioned advocate of ridding the world of these weapons of mass annihilation. This process reached its climax in 1988 with the presentation to the UN by the Indian PM, Rajiv Gandhi, of the only detailed Action Plan for the progressive, phased but time-bound abolition of nuclear weapons ever presented by any head of government/state to the international community. No successor Indian government, not even after Pokhran II, has repudiated the 1988 Action Plan.
The ICAN resolution proposing a Treaty to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons reflects both in essence and, in very large measure, in detail, the initiative we took in 1988. Instead of welcoming, contributing to and finally endorsing the most widespread world-wide initiative ever taken to bring our own goals to fruition, we have just kept away. Our preference has been to hide under the wings of the non-participating de jure nuclear weapon powers despite their keeping us on a leash by refusing to accord us the same status. We have thus denied ourselves the opportunity of becoming the only Nuclear Weapon Power to unambiguously continue the ardent championing of this noble (now Nobel) cause. “The hood of the cobra is spread and the world waits in frozen fear,” as Indira Gandhi said in her inaugural address to NAM, 1983.
The basic, underlying reason we shy away from advocating “multilateral” disarmament is our fear of opening ourselves to “unilateral” disarmament. As we have acquired nuclear weapons and public opinion is almost unanimously in favour of our continuing to retain and further improve them, governments have allowed, even encouraged, public opinion to treat multilateral and unilateral disarmament as one and the same thing. We have done nothing to clear the confusion that multilateral nuclear disarmament does not apply to India alone but also to Pakistan, China and all others, including the US and Russia, to rid themselves of these dreadful weapons, as has already been achieved, through multilateral negotiation and under enforceable international law, with chemical and biological weapons.
It is the folly of universal suicide through weapons of mass destruction that Gandhiji spotted immediately on hearing of Hiroshima. It led independent India to global moral leadership. Public pride in being the leader of the global peace movement has now dimmed. We are instead being overtaken by a blind jingoistic nationalism, fed by militarism and a misplaced confidence in war as the way to peace.
Had the wisdom of the first 67 years of consensual national foreign policy in the disarmament domain continued till the ICAN conference, the world today would be acknowledging us, as they did the Mahatma and newly independent India, as a major force for peace. Instead, we are seen as an also-ran in the nuclear race, quite unworthy of even being considered for a Nobel peace prize.