Late one night in October 1963, US President John F Kennedy received a phone call from then India President S Radhakrishnan, asking that Kennedy stop Pakistan President Ayub Khan from taking advantage of the massive Chinese attack on India, along its northern border.
Kennedy, looking into the future, perceived China's aggression as the march of Communism further into Asia; stemming from that, his response to his Indian counterpart was 'We will defend India.'
The US was, at the time, even prepared to use nuclear weapons, should China embark on a large-scale attack. Whether this stand by the US President was responsible, or no, we cannot say for sure -- the fact however is that China soon halted its offensive, and Pakistan did not interfere.
In his testimony to the House Committee on Armed Services Defense Review Panel on September 26, 2005, Dr Stephen Cohen of Brookings Institute, a leading scholar on India and Pakistan, raised several issues of concern to the United States. This particular review is however limited to issues that concern South Asia.
The area is significant in that its major nations, and all neighbouring states, are of great importance. Russia is yet a great power; Japan is an industrial nation with nuclear capability; North Korea, though impoverished, has acquired nuclear capability and hence, importance.
For now, China, India and Japan are the only three nations in the region that are major economic powers with comparative military capability. These three largely depend on import of arms from the West and from Russia. Of the three, Japan is highly industrialised; China and India however find it easier to buy weapons from the world market, rather than speed up their own arms-manufacturing capabilities.
In his recent testimony to Congress Dr Cohen echoed the refrain of the Western alliance, that Pakistan and India are comparable. This ignores the fact that Pakistan is only a military power by Western design, and that it survives on an aid-driven economy. It is worthwhile to observe that a combination any of India's two larger states are, in many respects, wealthier than Pakistan.
Cohen used a diagrammatic approach to present a comparative threat trajectory. We do not think it a suitable technique for the purpose; elsewhere, his critics have said it is an intentional approach to equalise India and Pakistan. It offers a wrong picture to the American public, and raises false expectations on part of Pakistan. These q uotes from his testimony are indicative:
1. ' hurled nuclear threats at each other ' raises the questions, when and where? India needed to balance China for obvious reasons. Where, however, was the need for Pakistan, a member of CENTO, to make a bomb touted initially as an Islamic bomb?
2. 'There are allegations that India made purchases from the far-flung Khan Network'-- is this an affirmation by Cohen that India had penetrated the Khan network, which was monitored and patronised by the Pakistan army?
3. 'Afghanistan fell under control of Taliban' -- surely this is glossing over the fact that the Taliban was raised, and propelled to power, under the direction of the then Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, and the ISI?
Absent from this testimony was the threat to the US, consequent to the continuous infiltration of terrorists into India's Kashmir, which will impact American economic and military interests.
Cohen questions that India is the dominant military power in South Asia, and refers to India's external lines of maneuver against Pakistan's internal lines. This was not even true when there was an East Pakistan; now, both nations have internal lines including in the northern regions of Kashmir.
The balance of nuclear weapons by the two armies is about equal. Regardless of the label nuclear ayatollahs apply to the subcontinent, the fact is that India is committed to non-first use. If Pakistan decides to use the bomb, it could hurt India badly -- but such use of a nuclear option by Pakistan would in a word be suicidal. India's declared policy, and expected agreements with the US and members of the nuclear club, should provide necessary checks and balances.
Thus, with its stated policy on the use of nuclear weapons, India is most unlikely to bring another country under its nuclear umbrella. What Cohen's testimony lacked was the process of guarding nuclear weapons. While Pakistan is proven to be the largest proliferators of such weapons, including to Iran, there is no record of such activity on the part of India.
The reasons behind the US attitude towards Iran are understandable. The 444-day-long crisis beginning November 4, 1979, when 65 Americans were held hostage by the revolutionary government of Iran, is still fresh in everyone's minds.
India, however, views Iran through a different prism -- it has the second largest population of Shia Muslims after Iran.
The concerns expressed by Congressman Tom Lantos and his associates on Capitol Hill, about the possibility of an Iranian bomb, are valid -- especially in context of the security of Israel. However, the unparliamentary language used by some of the lawmakers in their critique of Indian leaders criticism based on unconfirmed facts what is more has drawn unfavorable comment both in India and in the US.
In his exuberance to criticise India, Lantos presented an exaggerated version of the Indo-American nuclear pact. America, along with the four other nuclear nations, will remain unaffected because India will become a non-NPT State possessing nuclear arms, and will freeze for all time to come in this category. In its pursuit of peace, India has demonstrated its responsible willingness to deter its historical friend Iran by voting against it, and cautioning it publicly on committing any violation of the NPT provisions. In the light of this, Lantos' anger was unnecessary and uncalled for.
There is, right now, turmoil in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, as Cohen pointed out in his testimony -- but why not State responsibility? Islamist hardliners such as the Taliban, with the support of like minded people from Pakistan and with some connection to Al Qaeda, are known to have unfiltered Bangladesh society to convert them to their way of life. This is a growing conflict, with consequences for neighboring Indian states.
As to Sri Lanka which is a dominant Buddhist society, Tamils, mostly Hindus, sought self determination to survive. These Tamils enjoy the support of their fellow Tamils of South India. Such sympathy is no different to the support of Irish Americans for the Irish in Northern Ireland, or for that matter the American Jews for Israel.
Notwithstanding the occasionally self-contradictory views of Cohen or Lantos, the nuclear pact gives America a lever over India -- it can influence India's foreign policy, besides giving enormous control over India's nuclear capability.
If this bill is passed, will India be answerable to the US? Not necessarily, though as we pointed out, America will be able to bring some measure of influence to bear on India. And if it is not passed, will it be harmful to India? Again, not necessarily -- the saving grace for India is that its energy comes from coal, not nuclear -- a nay vote in Congress might thus impede the pace of India's progress, but it cannot stymie it altogether.