South Asia should become a nuclear-weapon-free zone
Dr. Arun Mitra
In 1998, 24 years ago, on May 11, India conducted the first nuclear weapon test under the Vajpayee government. The event was celebrated with fanfare; public was jubilant that India had become a power to be reckoned with. Those who called the event a step towards mutually assured destruction were ridiculed. But just after 17 days, on May 28, Pakistan also did the same. Observers have estimated that Pakistan has become on par with India in the nuclear arms race. The mood of supporters of nuclear weapons in the country has calmed down. Some experts have argued that India, which had superiority over Pakistan in conventional warfare, has lost it since the two countries became nuclear-armed. Exact figure unknown, but there are estimates that the two have over 100 nukes each.
The nuclear lobby has argued that these weapons will serve as a deterrent to war between the two countries which have long been in perpetual tension. This assumption, however, proved wrong because within about a year there was a war between India and Pakistan on the Kargil front in 1999. Terrorism across the border continues unabated. There was a terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament, after which the armies of the two countries came face to face on high alert with fear of the use of nuclear weapons looming. Nor has the possession of nuclear weapons deterred the standoff between India and China. There were skirmishes between the two in Galwan in June 2020. Now the nuclear lobby is actively propagating that if Ukraine had nuclear weapons, Russia would not have attacked.
South Asia comprises eight nations: India, Pakistan, Bhutan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and the island nations of Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Although South Asia occupies only 3.4% of the world’s land area, the region is home to around 24% of the world’s population, making it the most densely populated place on earth. Although rich in natural resources, it is among the poorest regions in the world in terms of per capita income, with 40% of the world’s poor living there. Yet countries in the region, particularly India and Pakistan, are spending heavily on the arms race. Spending on nuclear weapons adds to their defense budget. As a result, the countries of the region have nothing left to spend on health, education and development.
Arms race in the region on the rise. With ambitions to become an arms exporter, India has already signed a $375 million deal with the Philippines for the supply of a 290 km range BrahMos supersonic anti-ship land missile system jointly developed with Russia. According to reports, other such agreements are expected to be signed with Vietnam and Indonesia. With China’s acquisition of an advanced weapon system, India has an excuse to manufacture and export weapons. After China made its first nuclear bomb in 1964, there was a lot of pressure on India to build nuclear weapons.
There is a need to reverse this situation through mutual dialogue and confidence-building between nations. Civil society can play an important role in highlighting the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons and in influencing Indian and Pakistani public opinion to adhere to the Treaty banning nuclear weapons and to divert funds from the arms race to development.
Peace movements have multifaceted tasks before them. They must build strong public opinion for disarmament. Medical peace activists need to explain how the arms race negatively affects our health. The message of IPPNW Co-Chair Dr Ira Helfand’s study on the climate consequences of a limited nuclear war using 100 Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs between India and Pakistan, which would put more than two billion people in danger, must be passed on to as many people as possible. the masses as well as the decision makers.
Steps must be taken for lasting peace and nuclear disarmament in the region. The structural drivers of war must be identified and peace activities must be designed accordingly. India was the harbinger of the Non-Aligned Movement, initiated by the first Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru with Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia and Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt. The main thrust of this movement has been the non-alignment of all blocs, based on the principle of respect for the sovereignty and integrity of other nations. India also came up with the Rajiv Gandhi Action Plan for Nuclear Disarmament in 1988.
However, given the aggressive nationalism and macho approach to militarization, the task of peacemaking has become all the more difficult. India and Pakistan have not been receptive to the idea of nuclear disarmament. Ministers of the current government at the center did not have the courtesy to meet a delegation from the Nobel Prize-winning organization IPPNW in March 2018 at an international seminar on the TPNW in New Delhi. Previously, all ministers, including the President and the Prime Minister, had shown willingness to engage with these delegations.
Under these circumstances, it has become important to engage in discussions to make South Asia a Nuclear Weapon Free Zone (NFZ). Currently, such zones exist in Latin America, the Caribbean, the South Pacific, Southeast Asia, the entire African continent and Central Asia, which cover 39% of the world’s population.
Chairman of an NGO, Blue Banner, Dr. J. Enkhsaikhan of Mongolia is quite vocal on the need for Nuclear Weapon Free Zones (NWFZ). According to him, these are recognized as important and practical regional measures by non-nuclear-weapon states (ENDAN) to promote nuclear non-proliferation goals and build confidence among states. While the concept covers regional zones, Mongolia set an example by declaring its territory a single-state nuclear-weapon-free zone in 1992.
It is imperative that non-nuclear states in the South Asian region put pressure on India and Pakistan to abolish their nuclear weapons and make the region a ZEAN. With a long history of non-alignment and with people of India and Pakistan having the same cultural values and language, even relations, they will be overwhelmed by the idea. Peace activists and organizations need to push it forward and engage in dialogue on the issue. It seems like a difficult but not impossible task. The humanitarian benefits would be manifold. It is well known now that nuclear weapons could not save us from the pandemic. They have not even succeeded in alleviating the poverty and hunger so endemic in our region. Even if India and Pakistan do not want it, other non-nuclear-weapon countries in the region can declare South Asia as a ZEAN and put pressure on both countries. (API Service)
The author is Co-Chair, IPPNW.