Disarmament advocates vs. U.S.-India nuclear deal

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Peace and disarmament activists are warning that an agreement now before the Senate to let India buy nuclear fuel and technology from the United States for civilian purposes could make it easier for India to build more nuclear weapons. They say the pact also undermines the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty because it would let India participate in international nuclear trade even though it developed nuclear weapons outside the NPT framework and won’t sign the treaty.

The pact, in the works for years, passed the House of Representatives Sept. 27 on a 298-117 vote. It would let U.S. firms help India build more civilian nuclear power plants. In return, India would allow international inspection of its civilian nuclear power plants (but not its military facilities).

President Bush called the House action “a major step forward in achieving the transformation of the U.S.-India relationship,” and urged the Senate to act quickly. But with several unnamed senators reportedly in opposition, it was still uncertain at press time whether a vote would take place before the Senate adjourns to campaign for the November election.

Before the House vote, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) spoke out against the pact. “I strongly disapprove of this agreement and urge my colleagues to do likewise,” she said on the House floor. While affirming the importance of strong ties with India and its people, Lee called it “unwise and reckless” to approve the pact because doing so would undermine efforts to persuade other countries not to develop nuclear weapons. “The fact that India is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty is sufficient reason to disapprove this agreement,” she said.

Organizations including United for Peace and Justice, the Friends Committee on National Legislation, the Arms Control Association and the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation urged the public to press Congress not to approve the pact.

Beyond the urgent non-proliferation issue lie several broader questions, said Andrew Lichterman, program director with the Western States Legal Foundation.

“While the surface purpose of the deal is to allow India to expand its domestic nuclear power industry, nuclear power is very expensive, very capital intensive,” and not nearly as promising a way to bring energy to the vast bulk of India’s population — most of when still live in a rural, farming economy — as a mix of alternative energy technologies, Lichterman said.

He also noted that the pact could let India buy fuel for its civilian reactors on the international market, while using scarce domestic uranium in weapons production.

Writing for disarmamentactivist.org earlier this month, Lichterman said U.S. military planners “see India as a possible forward base for operations from South Asia to the Middle East, and perhaps as a junior partner in those operations as well.”

The 2005 agreement in principle on nuclear trade and cooperation — the precursor of the present pact — was among a set of U.S.-Indian agreements concluded at about the same time. Others included a “New Framework for the U.S.-India Defense Relationship” that provided for wide-ranging military cooperation, and a “CEO Forum” to “deepen the bilateral economic relationship.” Also concluded that year, Lichterman said, were a pact to cooperate in space, and a “Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture” involving key players in U.S. agribusiness.

The pact has also been controversial in India. Countrywide protests organized by the country’s left parties including the Communist Party of India and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) took place Sept. 25. India’s Communists and left have emphasized the need to safeguard their country’s sovereignty and independent foreign policy in the context of the U.S. drive to dominate Asia.

Last summer, the coalition of left parties including the CPI and CPI(M) withdrew from the United Progressive Alliance government led by the Congress Party when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh insisted on moving the pact forward over their objections.

Nor is concern limited to India’s left. Writing last July in Frontline, The Hindu’s weekly magazine, commentator John Cherian pointed out that the pact’s origins in 2005 “coincided with the intensification of ‘a new Cold War’ — it came at a time when the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was being transformed into a new grouping that identified Russia and China as its rivals … It is feared that a successful conclusion of the India-U.S. deal will make New Delhi a junior partner in Washington’s aggressive pursuit of its geopolitical designs in Asia. India could end up supporting Washington’s game plan to monopolize the oil and gas reserves in West and Central Asia.”