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The New Hullabaloo over Nuclear Testing

The squabble over the quality of the test of a thermonuclear device in 1998 punctures once again the sheer hubris of India's elite, which, in the era of "nuclear-weapons status India" and "India shining", has been prone to disengage periodically from the realities of its status, only to be rudely brought back to earth in fairly short order.

COMMENTARY

“’

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Subsequently on being challenged pub

The New Hullabaloo over
licly he has added several technical details

in support, primarily in an article in The

Nuclear Testing

Hindu of 17 September 2009, co- authored

with Ashok Parthasarathy, Science and

Technology Adviser to Prime Minister T Jayaraman Indira Gandhi. Among them are: (i) the

The squabble over the quality of the test of a thermonuclear device in 1998 punctures once again the sheer hubris of India’s elite, which, in the era of “nuclear-weapons status India” and “India shining”, has been prone to disengage periodically from the realities of its status, only to be rudely brought back to earth in fairly short order.

T Jayaraman (tjayaraman@gmail.com) is at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

T
he fallout of the mini-Pokhran in nuclear policy, set off a few weeks ago by no less a person than a former head of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), K Santhanam, shows no sign of abating.

In a series of media statements, interviews and writings, Santhanam has mounted a comprehensive challenge to the official position of the government of India and the scientific leadership of the atomic energy and defence establishments that the nuclear weapons tests conducted in 1998 at Pokhran were an unqualified success. The impact of his statements stems, of course, from the fact that he himself is a card-carrying member of India’s nuclear weapons establishment, closely associated with the tests themselves on behalf of the DRDO, and honoured for his work with a Padma Bhushan in 1999.

Santhanam, in his initial media interventions, claimed the following: (i) the thermonuclear device tested at Pokhran was a “fizzle” and not a success; (ii) that the thermonuclear device was incapable of being weaponised; (iii) that India required further nuclear testing to develop a reliable and usable thermonuclear weapon; and (iv) that as a consequence of the above, India’s minimum credible deterrent completely lacked credibility.

October 3, 2009

seismic data recorded by the DRDO was at variance with those recorded by the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE); (ii) that the DRDO data implied that the yield of the thermonuclear test was well below the claims of the DAE; (iii) that contrary to the DAE’s claims, the radioactivity measurements of isotopes of particular elements offered no proof that fusion had indeed taken place; and (iv) the size of the crater formed subsequent to the explosion was not of the size expected for the yields that have been claimed; and (v) the structure erected over the mouth of the shaft used to enter the ground and bury the device, the so-called “A-frame”, was not damaged, leading one to suspect the reported yields, which should have destroyed the device.

Santhanam’s initial revelations would not have had the credibility that they have retained so far if his allegations and claims had not been reinforced by the statements of three former heads of the DAE, Homi Sethna, M R Srinivasan and P K Iyengar. While all of them have not entirely supported all the specific details of Santhanam’s claims, they have been unanimous in calling for a re-examination of the official position that India possesses a minimum credible deterrent that includes thermonuclear capabilities. More fuel was added to the nuclear policy fire with the former army

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chief, Gen V P Malik, also calling for clarifications on the yield of India’s nuclear weapons and stating that “Our Army needs to be satisfied with what is given to us”.

The initial official response was mostly confined to reiteration of the success of the tests while dismissing Santhanam’s questions out of hand, together with a good bit of name-calling (the National Security Adviser, M K Narayanan, referring to him in an interview as a maverick). Both Abdul Kalam and Brajesh Mishra, key players in the runup to and the fallout of the tests also weighed in immediately, defending the Vajpayee government’s assessment that the tests were successful and that India possesses a nuclear deterrent with thermonuclear capabilities. The political leadership including the prime minister and home minister also followed soon after in defending the official position.

However, when questions regarding Santhanam’s competency to comment on nuclear matters drew a sharp response from him based on more technical issues, the official response has shifted to more detailed and serious efforts to counter his claims on the same terrain. The most recent of these efforts was the joint press conference of 24 September, addressed by Anil Kakodkar, the current head of the DAE, and his predecessor, R Chidambaram, currently principal scientific adviser to the government of India, under whose leadership the nuclear weapons tests were conducted in 1998.

The core of the technical response from the atomic energy establishment has been to defend their interpretation of the seismic data while pointing out that the data from the independent DRDO accelerometers were not reliable and the data had to be rejected. The Kakodkar-Chidambaram interview has also countered Santhanam’s allegations on other issues including the results of the radioactivity measurements and the nature of crater formation due to underground testing that would explain all the apparent anomalies pointed out by Santhanam.

Spectacular Falling Out

While differences at the top in the leadership of India’s defence and atomic energy establishments is not unknown, the current public falling out amongst its members is spectacular compared to the past. It is not as yet as entirely clear what

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October 3, 2009

prompted Santhanam's revelations and

his apparent urge to keep pushing the is

sue. Nor is it clear why the other members

of the club have also chosen to go public

subsequently with their differences.

The timing of Santhanam’s outburst

certainly suggests a nexus with the Indo-

US nuclear deal that has been dogged by

increasing uncertainity ever since the

Barack Obama administration came to

office. Pressure has mounted again on

India to fall in line with international non

proliferation requirements for non-nuclear

weapons states. There is a possibility that

the US may again take seriously the ratifi

cation of the Comprehensive Test Ban

Treaty, which would, in turn, mount pres

sure on India to follow suit. At the same

time, it is increasingly clear that India will

not get any access to enrichment and

reprocessing technology as claimed in the

government of India’s interpretation of the

Indo-US nuclear deal. This is a consequence

of the recent G-8 ban on such technology

transfer to the non-signatories of the

nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The atomic energy establishment was

clearly divided over the merits of the Indo-

US nuclear deal in its final form, with some

former leaders of the atomic energy estab

lishment clearly opposed to the deal. Even

the current leadership, that eventually

backed the deal fully, had reservations in

the earlier phase of the negotiations, relat

ed to keeping the fast breeder programme

initially out of safeguards and securing en

richment and reprocessing rights, even if

under safeguards. A certain section of stra

tegic analysts and scientists have also had

hawkish reservations over India’s assur

ance of the indefinite con tinuation of its

moratorium on nuclear tests and the provi

sions of the Hyde Act that mandate the ces

sation of peaceful nuclear energy coopera

tion in case of nuclear tests.

These considerations are quite likely to

have had their influence in the timing of

Santhanam’s outing of what he claims is

the insufficiency of India’s nuclear weapons

capabilities and the prompt backing that he

has received from several other scientists.

However, the task of the current govern

ment in defending the official position has

been made easier by the fact that the

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) opposition has

little room to make political capital out of

vol xliv no 40

Santhanam’s statement as it would put the Atal Behari Vajpayee government itself squarely in the dock. But even if the main parliamentary opposition does not raise the issue, clearly there is a basic question of accountability that needs to be settled. After all, if after the expenditure of several crores from the public exchequer, the government has announced that certain policy goals have been attained and then a key government functionary announces that the goals have not been attained, some explanation is owed to the nation. It is clear that the issue merits a detailed investigation with the involvement of scientists external to the atomic energy and defence establishments.

Worrying Feature

Another worrying feature of the timing of Santhanam’s allegations has been their emergence at a period when there has been a considerable talking up of the tensions in Indo-Pak and Sino-Indian relations. A few weeks prior to the allegations confusions had emerged over the content of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s talks in Egypt with his Pakistani counterpart, leading to the government reiterating a more aggressive stance towards Pakistan. Predictably, Pakistan has reacted negatively to media discussions in India regarding the need for further testing. Simultaneously, there has been a consistent attempt in the media to play up tensions with China, based on unconfirmed reports of Chinese incursions into Indian territory. This talking up has involved retired senior military figures as well as some of the more aggressive talking heads in the Indian media.

But beyond the role of the hawkish elements in the Indian polity and public spheres, le affaire Santhanam brings into focus once again the extraordinary lack of transparency and double speak that has characterised the making of nuclear policy, both in the energy and weapons sectors, over the past decade. The trend was initiated by the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government with its sudden, coup-like transformation of India's nuclear policy with the tests of 1998. The Strobe Talbott-Jaswant Singh talks initiated negotiations that were notable not only for their lack of transparency but also for the fact that it initiated a sudden move into the foreign policy and strategic

COMMENTARY

orbit of the US, undermining some of the key principles that had till then underpinned India's foreign policy. A twin-track strategy of hanging on to nuclear weapons status and easing the bite of sanctions while conspicuously demonstrating a readiness to cooperate with the US in every foreign policy misadventure was inaugurated.

This attitude was continued actively by the Manmohan Singh government, with the initial reluctance of the Congress to go the nuclear weapons route being dealt with by the intervention of figures such as the late J N Dixit. The Indo-US nuclear deal could not be rammed through, as the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government owed its existence in office to the support of the Left parties. However, the national debate over the nuclear deal was marked by the violation of parliamentary assurances, the going back on assurances given to the Left parties over pushing the nuclear deal further and an enormous spin campaign based on outright misrepresentation of the terms and details of the agreement.

Even as Parliament prepared to vote on the no-confidence motion against the Manmohan Singh government, it became clear from the former George Bush administration’s own official statements that the Manmohan Singh government’s interpretation of the agreement was substantially at odds in important respects with the US view and that the Left parties’ criticism of the deal, in particular, had substantial merit. The subsequent slow unravelling of the enrichment and reprocessing technology part of the deal has been sought to be underplayed by the government, a strategy undoubtedly assisted by the national focus on more pressing issues such as the global crisis and the partial failure of this year’s south-east monsoon.

The squabble over the quality of the test of a thermonuclear device in 1998 affair punctures once again the sheer hubris of India's elite, which in the era of “nuclearweapons status India”, and “India shining”, has been prone to disengage periodically from the realities of its status, only to be rudely brought back to earth in fairly short order. The boasts of having acheived strategic superiority over Pakistan were undone days after the Pokhran tests by the Pakistani tests. An aggressively drafted nuclear doctrine was immediately put on hold in the need to appease the US. The claim that the tests conferred peace in a nuclearised subcontinent by rendering conventional warfare irrelevant or impossible was exposed by the Kargil conflict just a year after the tests. The tall claims of having obtained strategic independence were belied by the continual efforts at appeasing the US on a wide range of issues including offering to join them in their Iraq misadventure. The claims of having obtained a nuclear deal that “no other country has got” were quickly undone with the clarifications that the George Bush administration provided to the US Senate on the administration’s interpretation of the terms of the deal.

Continuing Challenge

It is now the turn of the claims of the thermo nuclear weapons status themselves to be challenged. This is not the first time that the yields from the nuclear weapons tests have been questioned. P K Iyengar had argued earlier that the boosted fusion device did not detonate properly. The interpretation of seismic data by US scientists have always run counter to Indian claims and there has been a small but steady exchange of challenge and response in the form of scientific papers over the years. However, the latest bombshell from within the ranks of those who conducted tests themselves has upped the debate to a qualitatively new level.

The Indian hubris over nuclear weapons has always manifested itself in two distinct forms. On the one hand, there is the “nukes for defence against all possible aggressors” lobby that has spoken of minimum deterrence but actually sought increased capabilities by redefining the meaning of the adjective “minimum”. The other form is the one that is satisfied with minimum deterrence, but revels in demonstrating their new-found ability to indulge in nuclearspeak, unmindful of both the immorality and the sheer nonsense inherent in dreaming of deterrence in a densely populated subcontinent. Both these trends, though, have always agreed on the need for India to possesses nuclear weapons not only against Pakistan but also against China.

In the 11 years from 1998 we have gone from nuclear bragging to the spectacle of the “gurus” of India's security, defence research and atomic energy establishments and their political masters engaged in an unseemly public squabble over whether the fusion bomb did or did not go off. A strange knowledge, economic and nuclear superpower this, that is unable to quietly and efficiently establish whether its mosttouted technological feat was indeed a feat or a plain dud. As the world around us shows, it takes more than plain tall talk to walk the road to superpowerdom. The Santhanam affair would be laughable if it were not for the fact that calls for further

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nuclear weapons testing are the last thing that the subcontinent and its hapless population need. As in all other dimensions of India’s claims to superpowerdom, whether the economic, the political or the foreign policy dimension, the price will be paid eventually by the people.

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It would appear to be commonsensical that the ordinary fission devices that both Pakistan and India possess, together with their respective missiles is sufficient “minimum” deterrence, if indeed such a thing existed. These fission weapons are a sufficient danger to peace and security in the subcontinent, or a sufficient guarantee of deterrence (if indeed you believe in that sort of thing). The last thing that the subcontinent and its peoples need, whether the yields were correct or not, is more nuclear testing or even ill-thought out calls for the same.

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