US naval call gives India sinking feeling
The port call of a US nuclear-powered aircraft carrier to Chennai in southern India has provoked strong protests from a spectrum of political parties, trade unions, peace groups and environmentalists.
It has also exposed a yawning gap between India's stance of non-alignment and foreign-policy independence and its practice of cultivating a close military and political relationship with the US.
The carrier USS Nimitz arrived on Monday for a five-day "friendly" call to Chennai at the invitation of the Indian government.
Indian leftist and centrist parties such as the All India Anna Dravida Munnettra Kazhagam, the main opposition in Tamil Nadu, held demonstrations in the state capital Chennai on Monday. So did transport and port workers' unions and civil-society organizations, including the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (CNDP), a broad-based umbrella organization of more than 250 groups.
The carrier arrived in India's territorial waters from the Persian Gulf region, where it had been dispatched two months ago as part of a 50-ship armada.
"It is entirely possible that the aircraft carrier carries nuclear weapons on board," said Deepak Nayyar, a distinguished economist and, until recently, vice chancellor of Delhi University. "In that case, it would flagrantly violate India's well-established, often-reiterated policy of disallowing foreign nuclear weapons into its territorial waters."
Nayyar is one of 11 public intellectuals who last week signed a statement protesting the ship's visit, including celebrated writers Arundhati Roy and Mahashweta Devi, former civil servants S P Shukla and Sudeep Banerjee, and social scientists Romila Thapar, Prabhat Patnaik and Amit Bhaduri.
The statement points to the contradiction between the Indian government's claim that the Nimitz is "not known to be carrying nuclear weapons" and the United States' well-reiterated policy neither to deny nor confirm the presence of nuclear weapons on its warships under any circumstances. The statement expresses dismay at the fact that New Delhi "gratuitously granted this certificate to the US, when Washington itself does not do so", and said this speaks poorly of India's foreign and security policies.
If it indeed carries nuclear weapons, the Nimitz' port call marks a reversal of India's past policy opposing the transit of nuclear weapons in its neighborhood. In the 1970s and 1980s, India campaigned against the United States' naval base at Diego Garcia in the Chagos Archipelago and wanted the entire Indian Ocean to be declared a "zone of peace".
New Delhi has rationalized the carrier's visit by saying that at least 10 other nuclear-powered foreign warships have called at Indian ports in recent years. These include five other US naval vessels, four French ships and one British ship.
"These precedents cannot justify the present visit," argued Anuradha Chenoy, a professor of international relations at Jawaharlal Nehru University. "It is deplorable that India allowed these port calls in the first place without sharing the reasons for the underlying policy shift with Parliament or the public. Besides, the Nimitz is visiting India just when public opinion in West Asia is highly polarized because of the occupation of Iraq and the US's threatening gestures towards Iran."
The carrier's visit has special symbolic significance because of its role in the Iran crisis. The US has been mounting pressure on India to drop a proposed natural-gas pipeline from Iran to India through Pakistan.
There is a good deal of lobbying on Capitol Hill in Washington to get the US administration to drop the nuclear-cooperation deal with India, which was initiated two years ago and is under negotiation. Last week, The Hill newsletter reported that several senators and congress members want the nuclear deal, which would make a special one-time exception for India in the global non-proliferation regime, to be made conditional on a cancellation of the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline project.
"The visit of the Nimitz is clearly no routine or innocent affair," said Chenoy. "India is aware of and has always been sensitive to the importance of symbolic gestures, including subtle and not-so-subtle forms of US gunboat diplomacy."
During the Pakistani civil war in 1971, the US dispatched another aircraft carrier, the Enterprise, to the Bay of Bengal. This was widely seen as signaling Washington's opposition to the continuation of the war after the Pakistan Army surrendered to Indian troops in Dhaka and East Pakistan became independent as Bangladesh.
"The political message of the current visit of the Nimitz is unmistakable. It is to tighten the India-US strategic embrace at a time when the US is engaged in its disastrous occupation of Iraq, which has destabilized West Asia," said N D Jayaprakash, a CNDP activist.
"India-US relations have turned a full circle," said Jayaprakash. "Now India is willing to indicate its uncritical support for the US military and to enter into an unequal strategic relationship with Washington. This is a shameful departure from India's independent strategic and foreign-policy orientation. It also means that the India-US strategic partnership is being strengthened at the expense of third countries."
Jayaprakash is appalled that some of the Nimitz' 5,000-plus personnel will engage in a public relations exercise by doing community service in Chennai, including visits to people affected by the tsunami of December 2004.
"This is sanctimonious posturing," he said. "After committing horrendous crimes in Iraq, US military personnel are trying to pretend that they have a humanitarian mission as well." (In fact, such community-service work has long been a routine part of every US naval port call to virtually any foreign country and predates the Iraq war.)
Trade unionists and environmentalists have also objected to the carrier's visit on the ground that it is liable to present another hazard, in the form of radiation from its two nuclear reactors. The Indian government said it will periodically monitor radiation levels; in any case, the Nimitz is anchored 2 nautical miles outside Chennai port proper.
However, the protesters are not satisfied given that India's own nuclear program has a poor safety record and its navy's ability to monitor radiation hazards is not independently established.
"What is galling is that Indian officials are bending over backwards to speak on behalf of the US and allay the public's apprehensions," said Jayaprakash. "That is completely out of order."
In recent years, the US and India have held high-level military exercises, including some that involved US nuclear submarines. But the Nimitz visit even lacks such a strategic rationale.
"The docking of USS Nimitz is not a neutral or normal affair, but a strong political-strategic statement," said Chenoy.
The statement runs counter to the promise of the ruling United Progressive Alliance to correct the strongly pro-US bias in India's policy under the previous government led by the right-wing pro-West Bharatiya Janata Party, and to fight for a balanced, multipolar world free of nuclear weapons.
IPS correspondent Praful Bidwai is a committed anti-nuclear activist and the author of several books on peace and disarmament.
© 2007 Inter Press Service