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The search for a nuclear umbrella

Having decided against a nuclear bomb,Shastri embarked on a quest for nuclear guarantees from the US and the Soviet Union

Written by Inder Malhotra |
October 29, 2012 2:57:22 am

Having decided against a nuclear bomb,Shastri embarked on a quest for nuclear guarantees from the US and the Soviet Union

HAVING stemmed the tide of popular demand for going nuclear to meet the Chinese challenge and mollified his critics somewhat by agreeing to a quiet exploration of a peaceful nuclear explosion,Lal Bahadur Shastri embarked on a “half-hearted,diffident and ultimately futile” search for nuclear security guarantees from the United States and the Soviet Union “against possible nuclear threats from China”. Significantly,the derogatory adjectives about the prime minister’s initiative were penned years later by one of his most trusted and respected confidants,L.P. Singh,then Union home secretary,who rose to even higher positions afterwards. Singh knew that Shastri had acted without the benefit of consultation with his cabinet colleagues or even of bureaucratic analysis. Other critics of the quest were harsher in their comments.

The most curious feature of the exercise,however,was that although Shastri always talked of nuclear security guarantees by only the two superpowers,he never approached either Washington or Moscow. His lone international interlocutor on this subject was his British opposite number,Harold Wilson,whom he visited in the first week of December 1964. Apparently,he presumed that Wilson would take up the matter with the US and the Soviet Union.

Evidently,the news of Shastri’s search was leaked by British sources because it first appeared only in London newspapers. The Indian PM,the report said,was seeking a “nuclear shield” for his country. Agitated Indian journalists understandably sought clarification. Shastri told them that he had indeed raised the guarantee issue but firmly denied having used the expression “shield”. Indeed,he claimed that he had “merely floated the notion” to Wilson.

Wilson’s version was that Shastri had “not actually requested protection against possible nuclear blackmail”,and that he,Wilson,hadn’t made “any commitment”.

Later,when many in India protested that the PM’s idea would compromise India’s basic policy of non-alignment,Shastri declared that he did not seek protection for India alone,but for all non-nuclear nations. “The central point”,he emphasised,“was the responsibility of the United States and the Soviet Union to prevent the spread and use of nuclear weapons,preferably by eliminating all nuclear arms”.

While Shastri’s search for the superpowers’ guarantee for nuclear security was still under discussion,the Congress held its annual session in January 1965,at which the PM and the Congress leadership were again taken by surprise because the sentiment for an independent Indian nuclear deterrent against China was still very strong. Advocates of building the bomb argued that,at the Cairo Conference of the non-aligned,Shastri had been unable to persuade a single Asian or African country to send a mission to China to impress upon it not to produce nuclear weapons. Nor had any non-aligned nation criticised China (see ‘The Chinese bomb’,IE,October 1). Under these circumstances,how could the government be sure that others would give it the guarantees it wanted? Bibhuti Mishra,general secretary of the Congress Parliamentary Party,was blunt. He said that India’s prestige had suffered because of the 1962 war and was now “plummeting” because of the aftermath of the Chinese nuclear test. If Indian leaders saw fit to increase the overall defence budget to deal with China,he saw “no reason not to extend the same logic and produce nuclear weapons”. Warming up to his theme,Mishra added that the public wanted India to not lag behind China in nuclear capability,and that if the government did not move accordingly,“the people would remove us from power”.

In the end,however,Shastri,again helped by Morarji Desai and Krishna Menon,the staunch anti-nuclear duo,“steamrollered” their pro-bomb colleagues,powered largely by the authority of the prime minister’s office. How this was done is very interesting but,strangely,was reported only by The New York Times. “Each delegate who had proposed an amendment to the official resolution was asked publicly and individually to withdraw it. Most of those present did so. Those who failed to reply were regarded as having done so.”

Soon thereafter,attention was diverted from nuclear policy to unexpected and grim developments. In the last week of January,the southern state of Tamil Nadu went up in flames over the official language issue,with repercussions across the country. Hardly had the situation been brought under control,though the language issue was still unresolved,when Pakistan started an armed conflict in the Rann of Kutch,a marshy plain shared by India and Pakistan. The complexity of this dispute and how it was handled would have to be discussed at an appropriate stage. For the present,it would suffice to say that shortly after a ceasefire was arranged in Kutch — through the mediation of Wilson,who had become rather close to Shastri by this time — there followed the bigger 1965 war for which the Kutch operation was clearly a rehearsal.

Busy coping with these grim challenges,India failed to notice that by simultaneously continuing its senseless search for nuclear security guarantees it was producing just the opposite result. Two days after the Chinese test in October 1964,US President Lyndon Johnson had offered non-nuclear countries like India America’s “strong support”,in case they were faced by any threat of nuclear blackmail. But a year later,he had rejected all suggestions by members of his administration for “helping our friends threatened by China”. The White House,the State Department and the Pentagon had all agreed on a strict policy of nuclear non-proliferation. The NPT followed and was to be India’s bane and pain until the 2008 Indo-US civilian nuclear agreement. To a limited extent it still troubles us.

Shockingly,no Indian policymaker paid any attention to President Charles de Gaulle’s decision to make France a country with nuclear weapons and to his argument that no nuclear power would unleash a nuclear war for the sake of someone else’s security.

Our search for nuclear guarantees continued right up to 1967 when two top officials,both named Jha — L.K. Jha,secretary to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi,and Foreign Secretary C.S. Jha,required to travel from one world capital to another — realised that they were on a wild-goose chase.

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator

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