Nuclear Chickens Come Home

01 May 2006
Praful Bidwai

Nuclear Chickens Come Home
Praful Bidwai
The Hindustan Times, 26 December 2003

Pakistan may be putting its nuclear establishment under the scanner. But can one be sure that India's command, control and communications structure is ship-shape?

When the Vajpayee government detonated a series of nuclear explosions 5½ years ago, supporters of the Bomb celebrated. They rationalised the sudden reversal of India's policy of 50 years' standing-decided upon in dark secrecy in coordination with the RSS and without the promised strategic review. They also devoutly prayed that Pakistan would follow suit. Their perverse logic? Pakistan's blasts would "rationalise" India's tests.

Home Minister Advani, to the strategic hawks' chorus, taunted, teased and chided Pakistan into demonstrating its nuclear prowess. On May 18, he belligerently threatened it with a "pro-active" Kashmir policy in the changed "geostrategic" environment. On May 28, Islamabad obliged him. The strategic hawks' apologia and rationalisations duly followed. Pakistan "needs" nukes for "security". It already had the capability; it only brought it out. (So the "capability" moved from the laboratory to the battlefield, with likelihood of use). Nuclear weapons would induce "stability", "maturity" and sobriety into India-Pakistan's volatile relations. (So that's why Kargil happened!)

This dream scenario left no room for proliferation, leaks, strategic miscalculation, for deterrence breaking down in crises. Reality repeatedly dented these rosy assumptions: witness the nuclear brinkmanship and threat-mongering in 1999 and, more scarily, in the 10 months-long eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation last year. There isn't, can't be, a stable India-Pakistan nuclear-deterrent equation. A holocaust here is likelier than anywhere else in the world.

Now we know "mature" Pakistan is deeply implicated in selling its nuclear secrets. In the 1990s, it exchanged its uranium centrifuge know-how for North Korea's Nodong missile. Pakistan's stamp is marked on Iran's search for nuclear capability and Libya's attempt to acquire the Bomb.

According to well-documented reports in The New York Times and the Washington Post, at the centre of these shady transactions is the Father of the Pakistani Bomb, Abdul Qadeer Khan, who heads Khan Research Laboratories (KRL) and his close aides, Mohammed Farooq, Yasin Chohan and Sayeed Ahmad.

These revelations follow Iran's disclosures about its uranium enrichment programme to the International Atomic Energy Agency and Libya's talks with US and British officials before declaring that it would abandon its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programme.

Under Western pressure, Pakistan detained these scientists and allowed them to be interrogated by US and European officials. Khan's interrogation reportedly uncovered evidence linking KRL with Iran's 1987 purchase of centrifuge designs from Pakistan. Libya's primitive nuclear programme too had "common elements" with past patterns of technology leaks from Pakistan.

Confronted with this evidence, the Pakistani government itself began interrogating Farooq and Chohan five weeks ago. It confirms they are being "debriefed", but denies Khan has been interrogated: he "is too eminent a scientist ..." Khan is a national hero-whom our Ramannas, Chidambarams and Kakodkars must envy. But that didn't prevent Pervez Musharraf from sacking him from KRL three years ago-under US pressure.

Deeply embarrassed, Islamabad is trying to make a distinction between the official nuclear programme and "certain individual scientists", "who may have breached ... strict export control procedures by making unauthorised ... contacts" with foreigners. For the moment, Washington is playing along, saying it believes Pakistan's denials-despite new disclosures. The pretence is that all clandestine transactions took place before Musharraf's 1999 coup.

The real issue is much larger-and worrisome. All manner of shady operators and jehadi fanatics have penetrated the core of the Pakistani state: its institutions' integrity has eroded. It's not established that Khan, Farooq & Co have jehadi sympathies like fellow-scientist Bashiruddin, who ran a pro-Taliban charity. But they could well do.

It's easy to predict our hawks' holier-than-thou response to this. India is different. Pakistan stole its nuclear technology. Ours is totally indigenous. Their proliferation record is dark. Ours is impeccable. There is a difference between India and Pakistan. But it's narrower than believed. Pakistan undoubtedly thieved centrifuge designs. But India too has bought, borrowed or stolen nuclear technology and materials from sources as diverse as the US, Norway, China, Canada, Britain, France, USSR. We cheated Canada and America when we reprocessed spent fuel from the CIRUS reactor which they designed, built and furnished with heavy water. This was the source of our "indigenous", "peaceful" 1974 test!

On WMD proliferation too, India's record is smudged. An Indian firm, NEC Engineers Pvt Ltd, supplied chemical-weapon precursors to Iraq. And this paper reported (Oct 23) that YSR Prasad, former chairman of Nuclear Power Corporation, took up a post-retirement assignment in Iran in 2000 to help build its atomic infrastructure.

Pakistan's nuclear jehadis are doubtless evil. But what of our Hindutva warriors, including some in the scientific and defence establishments? Let's face it. Nuclear weapons are a hideous liability. We must abolish them to become secure.

Copyright 2004 The Hindustan Times