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How India surrendered the nuclear advantage

By S Raghotham
July 26, 2006 17:15 IST
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First, our prime minister and our foreign secretary said India was only required to present a nuclear separation plan in accordance with its own national interests.

Then the Americans told them, hey guys, that won't do, here is our draft of your nuclear separation plan. Take it with you and come back with a 'transparent and credible' separation plan that we can certify as 'defensible' from the non-proliferation point of view.

Shyam Saran, our foreign secretary and negotiator with the US, accepted.

First, our Prime Minister said India would offer its facilities for international inspections voluntarily, just like the other nuclear weapons powers. Then the Americans said, hey guys, you know what, we don't recognise India as a nuclear weapons state. So we can't let you offer your facilities for safeguards voluntarily. It is mandatory for you.

Mr Saran accepted.

First, our prime minister said India would get the same rights and bear the same obligations as the other nuclear powers. Then the Americans said, no guys, you can't have the same rights. Again, we don't recognise India as a Nuclear Weapons State. So we can't let you have the same rights, but we will certainly give you more obligations to fulfill.

Put all your civilian facilities under permanent safeguards if you want to buy nuclear fuel. Unlike us NPT-recognised Nuclear Weapon States, you will not be allowed to change your civilian facilities into military facilities ever.

Mr Saran accepted.

First, our prime minister assured the nation that the fast breeder reactor programme would not be in the civilian facilities list. Then when the Americans started demanding that they be included, instead of rebutting them, Saran sought to justify those demands with a nonchalant remark. 'It makes no sense,' he declared, 'for India to deliberately keep some of its civilian facilities out of its declaration for safeguards purposes.'

Alarmed at the attitudes prevailing at the highest political levels, Dr Anil Kakodkar found it necessary to go to the media to get his message across to the only boss he reports to -- the prime minister -- and to pre-empt Saran.

Even so, in the end, Saran and his boss managed to drag several research institutes into the civilian list and hand it over to the Emperor who had come visiting from Washington DC.

For over 50 years, the one thing that India has been saying defiantly is that it will never compromise its research and development activities at any cost. But who cares for such things these days? At least not the prime minister-with-a-PhD nor his foreign secretary.

First, our prime minister said the moratorium on nuclear testing was only a voluntary commitment and that India would be able to exercise its strategic autonomy, which it had guarded so zealously and with so much sacrifice for over 50 years, with regard to testing. He even gave assurances to the Indian Parliament on this issue.

This was the Bush administration's understanding, too, of the July 18, 2005 agreement until at least September 8, 2005. At the Congressional hearing on the nuclear deal that day, Undersecretary Robert Joseph stuck faithfully to that line.

But this changed at the November 2 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing. Joseph told the committee that India's 'pledge' to maintain its nuclear testing moratorium contributes to non-proliferation efforts 'by making its ending of nuclear explosive tests one of the conditions of full civil nuclear cooperation.'

Saran and his boss kept quiet.

The Bush administration presented to the US Congress legislation in which it specifically included the clause that all nuclear cooperation would cease if India tested a nuclear device again. This is the draft that the US Congress is bent on tightening even further.

During a Q&A at the Heritage Foundation think-tank on March 30, Saran said nonchalantly, 'Well, that's part of US law... that if there is a State which is exploding a nuclear device, then that would trigger off an end to cooperation with that country…so, as part of US law that's fine. It is not part of Indo-US treaty or understanding.'

What an astonishing assertion to make! What the foreign secretary actually said in a proud and bold voice was that he and his prime minister had meekly accepted this condition.

Therein lies the story of another aspect of the Singh-Saran diplomacy's abject surrender to the Americans.

First, the Bush administration promised India that it would propose a piece of legislation that would make India an 'exception' to domestic American non-proliferation laws.

What it actually presented, instead, was legislation that does not make India an exception, but merely exempts or waives India from one particular requirement under the US Atomic Energy Act -- that of having to have full-scope safeguards on its nuclear programme if it wanted nuclear cooperation.

India will still be required to be on its best behaviour -- notably by never conducting a nuclear test again, or even attempting to change the posture of its small, non-threatening nuclear arsenal -- in order to receive nuclear 'cooperation'.

Mr Saran has accepted!

Had India been granted an exception to the US Atomic Energy Act as promised in the early days after the July 18, 2005 Joint Statement, India would have been exempt from Section 129 of that law, which stipulates the same condition.

Not only was an exception not granted, but the Bush administration has sought to be doubly sure that India does not test again by specifically writing down the same clause into the India waiver legislation too.

In any case, does it matter whether the US stops nuclear cooperation citing its domestic law or it stops cooperation citing the agreement with India? The bottomline is 'if India tests, its civilian nuclear programme will be left high and dry with billions of dollars in losses to count.'

Does the foreign secretary even understand that it was US domestic law that was applied all these days to India and that that's what in fact he was negotiating to be excepted from.

But the story of Saran's surrender does not end even there.

Just before Manmohan Singh 'made history' (or shall we say, 'repeated Indian history') with George Bush on March 2 this year, Indian nuclear scientists managed to draw some consolatory guarantees from the US delegation.

By now resigned to the fact that nuclear cooperation would cease if India dared to conduct a nuclear test again, the scientists insisted on guarantees that even if the US stopped fuel supplies, it would still help India get the fuel from other sources (does anyone remember Tarapur?) and that the US concede India the right to take 'corrective measures' in case of a breach by the US.

One wonders what 'corrective measures' India would have a right to take if it conducted a nuclear test and the US and NSG countries stopped fuel supplies.

Will India take them to an international court? Will India wage war against the US or other NSG countries and get the fuel supply reinstated as part of war reparations? Or, will India withdraw from the safeguards agreement, in which case too it won't get any further fuel?

Anyway, this was what the Singh-Saran duo later triumphantly presented to the nation as 'ironclad guarantees' that they had wrested from the US. Well, it seems that the Americans have since been busy trying to find a way to wrest back from the Singh-Saran duo what they had conceded to the Indian nuclear scientists.

As a result, the two key US congressional committees have now both drawn up drafts of the nuclear cooperation approval bill that have given a new twist to the 'ironclad guarantee' – the 'ironcladding' is for India, and the 'guarantee' is for the US that they have not left any loose ends in tying up the Indian nuclear programme.

One of the clauses of the bills passed by the House International Relations Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is that if the US finds some reason to stop nuclear fuel supplies, it should also stop other NSG countries from making such supplies to India.

What's worse, the American delegations that visited India to negotiate the actual nuclear cooperation agreement (or the so-called 123 agreement) reportedly insisted that that if India conducts a nuclear explosive test again, it would have to return all the fuel and materials obtained through the nuclear cooperation agreement.

Forget the guarantees and the right to take 'corrective measures', India will be penalized with retrospective effect if it dares to exercise its sovereign right to test.

Doubtless, Mr Saran will accept this too.

After all, first the Americans said, the nuclear agreement was for building a 'strategic partnership' with India. Saran applauded. Then the Americans said it was meant to achieve their own non-proliferation goals. Saran accepted that too. To him, it does not make sense not to accept American conditions.

Those seeking enlightenment surrender to the Buddha. Manmohan Singh and Shyam Saran, seekers of 'enlightened national interest', are surrendering India's 'smiling Buddha' itself.

Complete coverage: The Nuclear deal | Chats

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S Raghotham