Thirty years ago on this day, the then Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, presented the most comprehensive proposal for global nuclear disarmament at the United Nations. In line with India’s decades-long pursuit of a world free of nuclear weapons, the ‘Action Plan for a Nuclear Weapon Free and Non-Violent World Order’ sought a universal, comprehensive, and legally-binding commitment to the staged elimination of nuclear weapons within a defined time-frame.
In his historic speech at the UN on June 9, 1988, Rajiv Gandhi termed 'nuclear deterrence' as the “ultimate expression of the philosophy of terrorism, holding humanity hostage to the presumed security needs of a few.” It remains, till date, the only available plan of action on the subject of nuclear disarmament ever presented by a head of government to the UN.
In principle, the proposal opposed nuclear arms on three counts – these weapons are inherently immoral and abhorrent as they do not distinguish between combatants and non-combatants and have consequences far beyond the time and scope of any war; they make international politics undemocratic by holding it hostage to inhuman threats; and the global nuclear arms race diverts the planet's precious resources away from humanity's most pressing needs to weapons and their delivery systems which are inexcusably expensive. It also stressed that all these implications become even more significant when it comes to developing nations.
Rajiv Gandhi’s proposal at the UN sought to infuse much-needed sanity, as the sun was setting over the world-order underpinned by the Cold War. Today, it serves as a reminder that Rajiv Gandhi was way ahead of his times in thinking of a cogent response to the challenges of the nuclear age that imperils human civilisation as we know it.
Not only did subsequent scientific revelations attest to the irreversible and unacceptable human as well as environmental consequences of nuclear weapons that Rajiv Gandhi articulated so eloquently at the time, but his assertion that there was a need for a legal instrument which would go far beyond the existing Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), has also found resonance in the most recent international disarmament initiatives. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) received the Nobel Peace Prize last year precisely for advancing the new treaty outlawing the use, production, possession, and deployment of nuclear weapons.
Through the relentless pursuit of nuclear disarmament, which went beyond the dichotomy of nuclear-haves and have-nots created by the NPT, not only did India command moral leadership, but this also served a crucial strategic purpose: India’s security interests were better served in a non-nuclear environment. A world free of nuclear weapons reinforces India’s edge in conventional security in South Asia, provides far greater stability in the subcontinent, and ends the nuclear-blackmail by big powers that holds the international community hostage to nuclear threats.
Modi government embarrassed India when the country’s diplomats in Sweden abstained from the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony on the pretext that they were ‘traveling’. India skipped the historic negotiations last year when the UN adopted the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons
Once a champion of critical global causes such as nuclear disarmament, democracy and equality, India’s global stature has been severely undermined by the present dispensation. Passing off theatrics and public relations as 'foreign policy', the Modi government has shed the principled diplomacy that had earned India respect and global standing stemming from its moral authority, which was far greater than what a country like India could have expected to command, emerging as it was from the yoke of colonialism.
India skipped the historic negotiations last year when the UN adopted the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Even after conducting nuclear tests in 1998, India maintained a moral posture stating that if a comprehensive proposal for nuclear disarmament was negotiated, India would put its weight behind it and would pursue other nuclear weapons states to disarm. However, the Narendra Modi government has marked a complete shift from the earlier principled and independent foreign policy, and India is now seen standing on the wrong side of history along with other possessors of nuclear arms, reluctant to disarm.
Earlier this year, once again the Modi government embarrassed India when the country's diplomats in Sweden abstained from the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony on the pretext that they were 'traveling'. At the ceremony, ICAN and Hiroshima’s bombing-survivor, Setsuko Thurlow were jointly awarded the coveted prize and they called upon all countries to sign the new Nuclear Ban Treaty.
From being internationally recognised as a force for peace, India is now yet another nuclear weapons state harbouring the same delusions that it once labeled 'hypocritical' and 'discriminatory'. Its exhortations about other threshold nuclear states like North Korea or Iran, or for that matter its rhetoric against ‘nuclear weapons falling into wrong hands’ echoes exactly those of other nuclear-haves. While championing itself as a ‘responsible’ nuclear weapons state, it has dumped its own dictum – there is nothing 'responsible' about innately 'evil' nuclear weapons.
By obfuscating the difference between unilateral and multilateral disarmament and bandwagoning with nuclear possessing states, Modi government has missed a historic opportunity – of ensuring a total abolition of nuclear weapons, including those of its adversaries and global hegemons. Only by promoting peace and furthering the cherished values of its freedom struggle, can India achieve a leading stature in the comity of nations.
The author is the Editor of DiaNuke.org, and has been associated with the International Coalition to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN)