March 11, 1998 The Rediff Interview/Zia Mian
'It is a matter of life or mega-death'
Zia Mian, lecturer of Public and International Affairs
at Princeton University, has made the institutional,
technological, and political motivations of nuclear
power and nuclear weapons in South Asia his speciality.
In his emailed reponses to Assistant Editor P
Rajendran's questionnaire, he feels the BJP has made
India's people nuclear hostages by conducting last
week's atomic tests.
Would you say last week's tests are part of a
muscle-flexing exercise -- provoked largely by domestic
compulsions -- rather than a reaction to the external
threat posed by the China-Pakistan nexus?
After all, the Bharatiya Janata Party says it wanted to
conduct the test the last time it was in power (May
1996), but could not because the DAE scientists wanted
the government to prove its majority first.
I believe it is a mistake to see these tests in such a
narrow perspective. There is not only domestic and
external, but also past, present and future.
There is some evidence of attempts by various Indian
governments to carry out tests in 1981, 1983, 1984 and
in 1995, that is well before the BJP ever dreamed of
coming to power. Each time the preparations were halted,
suggesting the costs were considered too high for the
gains that were expected at that time.
Since the BJP has always wanted India to be a nuclear
weapons state, its coming to power meant that the
decision to test would be thought about and followed
through in a more determined way.
India's relations with Pakistan have been uneven and
often poor through the 1990s, but sporadic efforts were
made to start some kind of talks, trade etc. India's
relations had shown signs of improving with China -- as
seen in the 1996 agreement on confidence building
measures along the line of actual control at the border
which reduced military forces and heavy weapons there.
The BJP has a different sense of what kind of relations
India should have with its neighbours.
The real reason for the nuclear tests is political in
all meanings of the word, combining domestic and
external, past present and future. It was given, I
think, by Vajpayee in his speech in Parliament on March
25, when he said "Our party feels India should have the
bomb since it will place this country in a strong
position vis a vis the outside world." The BJP wants a
certain kind of India and a place for that India in a
certain kind of world.
There is a view backed by Frank von Hippel of your
university that India may have faked a nuclear explosion
using a larger fission device to look like a
thermonuclear device. What is your call on this?
I am not aware of this claim. I had understood him to
say that it was possible the relatively low yield of the
largest May 11 test was consistent with a test of a
boosted fission weapon which relies on a small amount of
fusion to dramatically increase the power of a fission
explosion. This is normally the second stage in the
evolution of nuclear weapons programmes.
There is a discrepancy at this time between the yields
of the May 11 tests announced by Indian nuclear weapons
scientists and those inferred from seismological data
gathered around the world. But there seems no point in
doubting the statements made by (Atomic Energy
Commission chairman R) Chidambaram that a thermonuclear
device of tens of kilotons was tested on May 11.
Professor von Hippel concurs with this judgement.
India has always aspired to moral authority, especially
when issues like disarmament are discussed. How will the
current tests affect India's long term standing in the
The moral authority assumed by India and conferred on it
by large parts of the world was a legacy of the
remarkable nature of the struggle for independence and
the role of Mahatma Gandhi. This was significantly
eroded in 1974 by the first nuclear test. It is now
largely gone, probably for good, unless a future Indian
government decides to follow the example set by South
Africa and renounce nuclear weapons after having
Signing the Test Ban Treaty, agreeing not to deploy
nuclear weapons, relations with its neighbours in the
near term etc may allow for some shading of that
opinion, but even that may be optimistic. I believe that
it is profoundly immoral to have tested these weapons.
But the BJP, and those who support the tests, uses a
different criteria for what is moral.
India now has the same moral authority as the other
nuclear weapons states -- except, of course, the US,
which is in a class of its own by its use of nuclear
weapons in 1945. They share the morality of the
The belief in India is that these tests confer
superpower status on the country. Do you agree with this
assumption? If not, why not? What attributes do you
think make a nation a superpower?
The term superpower is a twentieth century euphemism for
a state with an empire. This has always been constructed
and maintained by aggression towards and domination over
neighbours, one thinks of central and south America for
the US and the former eastern Europe for the Soviets.
The BJP's ideas of Akhand Bharat may point to imperial
ambitions. But superpower has also meant the power to
influence events around the world. It is hard to see
India having a global reach -- superpower also means
acceptance by others that you have that status and are a
India will now certainly be a target in the nuclear war
plans of the other nuclear powers, but it is unlikely to
be seen as an equal by them. A nuclear India is more
likely to be seen as an unwelcome but regrettably real
"honorary white" in the nuclear apartheid world that it
used to condemn.
What about Pakistan? Would it need to go for a nuclear
option as a security measure? If it does, would it be
better not to hastily put together a set of N-tests and
try to immediately make a point and opt for a more
carefully planned set?
No one needs nuclear weapons, and no one needs to test
nuclear weapons. Need has nothing to do with it. It is a
matter of deciding whether you want the power to commit
nuclear mass murder.
If Pakistan tests, it will be because its military have
decided they need to maintain their credibility in their
own eyes, and in the eyes of a population they have
systematically incited and educated to think as they do.
As for a delayed test because of the need to plan for
one, it is more reasonable to presume that, like their
Indian peers, they have been preparing for possible
tests for years.
If Pakistan conducts tests, there are reports that
sanctions will affect Pakistan worse than India. Is that
Economic sanctions will be more damaging to Pakistan
than India. Pakistan is heavily in debt, and engaged in
a major IMF adjustment programme. It is dependent on the
World Bank and the IMF to keep its economy afloat. India
is not. Pakistan's economy is also much smaller and,
therefore, more susceptible to shocks.
Can pressure from industrial lobbies get the US Congress
to withdraw punitive steps? How likely is this?
Industrial lobbies here (in the US) have great power to
affect Congress. It is a question if enough of them will
want to take a stand on India. This will depend on the
particular industries that are interested in Indian
markets. As far as I can judge many of them are also
interested in China.
The new opening with China -- Clinton was to visit China
before India and Pakistan -- may mean that they will
just pay more attention to China in the near term. After
all, who wants to invest in places where there are
nuclear weapons and may soon be two nuclear armed states
with a history of conflict and war, with rising military
spending and increasingly nationalistic populations?
Monitoring techniques detected only one of the five
tests conducted at Pokhran. Would this jeopardise the
complex international N-test monitoring system proposed
by the Clinton administration?
No. It was already known that seismographs cannot detect
very small tests. The CTBT verification procedures and
instruments were internationally agreed, and are based
on the presumption of consent and the possibility of
What reasons do you attribute for most nations not
coming down heavily on China's 45 N-tests, sanctions,
blockades, whatever, but quickly attacking smaller
nations like India and Pakistan when they move into this
area? Do you think the NPT and/or the CTBT is
discriminatory and unfair in these respects?
China started its nuclear tests in the middle of the
Cold War. There were tests all over the place, the US,
Soviets, French and UK. Most nations condemned all of
them, but could do nothing given the Cold War. After
China's 1996 nuclear tests, some countries did impose
If the implication of the question is why the US behaved
differently, then the answer is that the 1994 law used
to impose sanctions on India only applies to non-nuclear
weapons states. This should come as no surprise since US
policy on nuclear weapons as based on the NPT is
inherently discriminatory -- there are two classes of
states recognised by it.
But it is important that unlike law within nations,
international law and treaties are consensual. The
discriminatory aspect where it exists in such treaties
is accepted by the states that sign.
The CTBT, however, is not inherently discriminatory. The
CTBT simply does not address the existing differences in
nuclear weapons science, testing capabilities, data from
earlier tests, or resources to maintain and build on
these capabilities to design new weapons.
It is equivalent to a law that forbids robbery -- it
does not affect the rich since they have no need to
steal (they have already acquired their ill-gotten
gains) but those among the poor with criminal tendencies
are more directly constrained.
Do you see an arms race beginning in the region? Some
Western analysts see the threat of nuclear conflict in
South Asia; other analysts based on the sub-continent
believe nuclear tests by both India and Pakistan may
actually establish the ground for a lasting peace. Which
view are you inclined to go with? Do you think both
nations must sign a non first-use treaty?
An arms race is not beginning. It has been going on
since Partition. A nuclear arms race has been run in
slow motion since at least the early 1970s. The missile
race has been going since the 1908s. The recent tests
only make it more dramatic and dangerous.
I do not believe that peace ever follows from an armed
stand-off and certainly not one with nuclear arms. There
is not even peace now between the US and Russia, even
though the Soviets are gone, and Russia is not
The existence of the nuclear weapons themselves is an
obstacle to peace. The US fears not so much Russia as
its nuclear weapons. The same will hold for India and
Pakistan if both become nuclear.
Signing a treaty of no first use is not so much a step
forward as a step sideways. No-first use, only means
second use. Does it matter whether you kill millions of
people in an attack or as revenge? They will be dead
nonetheless. But given the dangerous ground we are all
on it is better to move in any direction than forward to
deployment, and first strike and second strike forces.
What is need is for one or both to declare not to deploy
nuclear forces and try to build on that a process of
unilateral, bilateral and mulilateral nuclear
Since a drastic shift in the hitherto ambivalent
Indo-Chinese ties is likely, what do you expect will the
changes involve, considering there is also a border
dispute to consider? Also what do think are the effects
of the changes in the region on nations without?
Indo-Chinese ties are very likely going to take a turn
for the worse. The slow demilitarisation of the border
will probably stop. Nuclear weapons make border disputes
irrelevant, it becomes a matter of life or mega-death.
China will probably target some of its nuclear weapons
on India's cities and begin to treat India as a
strategic enemy more actively. The BJP has offered
India's people up as nuclear hostages.
The other nations in the region have been concerned
about India for a long time. An assertive BJP intent on
imposing a new found authority in South Asia may lead to
India being surrounded by powerless neighbours who feel
threatened and may become hostile.
Do you think it is likely India will back down from its
current belligerent stand and agree to all the
international community suggests? Do you think the
Indians will actually go ahead and sign the CTBT?
The BJP have taken India a big step along the road it
wants India to go. It is by no means close to its
destination however. There is no evidence that the BJP
government will consider moderating its tone in the
foreseeable future. They have already said they will not
sign the CTBT as it stands. It is clear the BJP want to
be wooed by the nuclear weapons states.
It is important to draw a distinction between what the
international community wants and what the US wants. The
international community overwhelmingly wants to abolish
nuclear weapons. This is clear at every international
The US wants to construct a structure of treaties and
regimes with which it and its allies along with the
other nuclear weapons states can manage international
security and threats to its hegemony. The declaration by
Vajpayee that India is now a nuclear weapons state shows
India is only offering to consider becoming part of the
Source: The Rediff Interview