Monday, 30th October 2017

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  • Published 8.09.00
If nuclear weapons are so vital for a nation's defence, why did South Africa dismantle its own nuclear arsenal 10 years ago? India's nuclear hawks don't mention South Africa because it weakens their position on nuclear bombs. But Atal Behari Vajpayee on the eve of his United States trip must ponder over why India embraces nuclear bombs when 182 of the world's 185-odd nations have rejected them by signing the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. Since India's nuclear position has been consistently aberrant, we can learn a lot from why South Africa built up a nuclear arsenal and why it chose to dismantle it. India saw nuclear bombs not in India-Pakistan or even India-China terms but as a race issue. It resented nuclear bombs being a near-white monopoly of the US, Britain, France and Russia and wanted its own bomb to challenge this. Pretoria's decision to develop bombs in the late Seventies flowed from immediate self-interest based on three reasons. One, South Africa was an international pariah thanks to its apartheid regime. Two, those were Cold War days and South Africa's immediate neighbour, Angola, contained an estimated 50,000 Soviet-armed Cuban troops out to spread communism and to destabilize South Africa. And three, neighbouring Zimbabwe had got black majority rule. Energy redirected Feeling encircled, South Africa used its uranium reserves to build a small nuclear arsenal consisting of six nuclear bombs by 1970. India's nuclear policy was confused. It declared its threshold nuclear power status by its 1974 Pokhran explosion, but qualified that by saying that though it wouldn't develop a nuclear arsenal, it reserved the right to do so. South Africa adopted a policy of strategic ambiguity. It never confirmed or denied that it was a nuclear power for the 10 years it possessed bombs. But unlike India, for whom reverting to non-nuclear power status is unthinkable, South Africa dismantled its bombs in the 1990-91 period, the first country in history to do so. South Africa's decision stemmed from the fact that with the end of the Cold War, its nuclear deterrent had become superfluous. So it dismantled its six nuclear bombs and ensured that highly-enriched uranium from each bomb was returned to the atomic energy commission by early July 1991. South Africa joined the NPT on July 10, 1991, concluded a safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Administration, and give it access to all the facilities previously used in the nuclear programme. India's nuclear hawks would attribute Pretoria's nuclear policy reversal to the fact that its white rulers didn't want their bombs to pass to a successor black government. But nothing prevented Nelson Mandela from going back on South Africa's reversed nuclear policy. No government can be bound by an earlier regime's decisions. Pride misdirected India's nuclear hawks enact a lie of omission when they evade talking about Pretoria's nuclear rollback. The truth is that not just South Africa, several other nations have also embarked upon nuclear weapons programmes that they have given up. During the Eighties, Argentina and Brazil built uranium enrichment facilities and acquired the potential to manufacture nuclear arms. But in December 1990, they agreed to place all their nuclear facilities under bilateral inspection. It was something like India and Pakistan visiting each other's nuclear facilities. India goes against the world tide with its peculiar belligerence on nuclear weapons. It turned down an Islamabad proposal that the two nations sign a pact declaring South Asia as a nuclear weapons free zone. Latin American countries are signatories to a treaty which prohibits the testing, use, manufacture, acquisition or storage of nuclear weapons in Latin America. Similarly, the island nations of the south Pacific have signed a treaty which forbids nuclear weapons in the area. Unlike India, these nations don't feel their pride is hurt when they renounce nuclear weapons. But we are dead against the NPT and the comprehensive test ban treaty. If India's objections to the NPT are so sound, why has the NPT been the most widely accepted pact worldwide? Are the 182 signatories to the NPT stupid and are we the sole repositories of the world's wisdom?