India and the NPT: what next?

The possibilities of India joining the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as a Non-Nuclear Weapon State are bleak. However, no-one will want to see the treaty undermined by accommodating India as a Nuclear Weapons State. The only option available which serves the interests of both India and the NPT is to maintain the status quo
Yogesh Joshi
21 July 2010

The recently concluded Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference (RevCon) has renewed the call for the universalisation of the treaty. The NPT RevCon has asked India along with Pakistan and Israel - the three non-signatory states to the NPT- to unilaterally disarm and join the treaty as Non-Nuclear Weapon States (NNWS). 

However, India possesses nuclear weapons. The 2008 Civilian Nuclear Agreement between India and USA, also called ‘the Indo-US nuclear deal’, has accepted India as a country with advanced nuclear technology - a tacit acceptance of its weapon capabilities.  It has provided India with a special status of being the only country outside the NPT which has been allowed to commerce in sensitive nuclear technology and material. Article III of the NPT prohibits nuclear trade with non-NPT states.  This exception is further strengthened by the IAEA-India Safeguards agreement. The agreement allows India to have both civilian and military nuclear programmes. Under NPT only Nuclear Weapon States - states whose possession of nuclear weapons is accepted under Article I of the NPT- have this privilege.

Against this backdrop, the call for universalisation throws open exciting questions about India’s future engagement with the NPT.  It attempts to deal with three possible scenarios:

  • India joins NPT as a NNWS
  • India joining the NPT as a NWS
  • India remains outside the treaty while following the principles and norms of the NPT. This for India would be  the status quo on the NPT

Historical Underpinnings

From an Indian standpoint, the history of NPT can be divided into three time periods: the periods of engagement, disengagement and reengagement.

The period of engagement stretches from 1954 to 1970. India called for a standstill agreement on all nuclear testing in 1954 and signed the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963.  It was one of the members of the Eighteen Nation Disarmament Commission (ENDC) which started negotiating the NPT in July 1965. However, as the negotiations unfolded, Indian excitement diminished. The treaty allowed possession of nuclear weapons to states that had imploded nuclear devices before 1 January 1967. However, it did not address the question of reductions of the arsenals of the NWS adequately. As is evident in article VI of the treaty, NWS only promised to negotiate in good faith towards nuclear disarmament. India also felt threatened when China, with which it has a border dispute, was included in the treaty as a NWS since China had conducted nuclear tests in 1964. By the time the treaty came into force in 1970, India’s period of disengagement had begun.

This process lasted from 1970 to 1998. During this period, India distanced itself from the treaty. India had developed a sophisticated nuclear programme since the mid 1940’s and the NPT’s failure in meeting India’s expectations provided it with a motivation to go nuclear.  India conducted its first nuclear test in 1974, euphemistically called a ‘Peaceful Nuclear Explosion’. Following the blast, all international nuclear-related trade with India was heavily sanctioned. In May 1998, it conducted five nuclear tests, declaring to the world its military nuclear programme. 

However, with the coming of the bomb, came a period of reengagement, informed by two important developments. First, having gone nuclear and thus being reassured of its nuclear status, India joined the other NWS in looking at non-proliferation from the perspective of a state with nuclear weapons. It realized, for example, the destabilizing impact of the nuclear proliferation business between North Korea, China and Pakistan on the South Asian region.  

Just before the 2000 NPT RevCon, the Indian government for the first time supported the principles of the NPT, though it declined to join it as a NNWS. Again in 2005, the Indian Minister for External Affairs Natwar Singh appealed for strengthening the NPT and called India a ‘responsible’ nuclear power. This pattern was visible in the address of the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in the recently held Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, DC where it became evident that India has now become one of the pivotal members of the non-proliferation regime. A shift in India’s stance on the NPT has resulted in India being brought into the non-proliferation regime from the backdoor. Today, India stands at crossroads: part of the non-proliferation regime and yet not a part of the NPT, either as a NNWS or a NWS.

Might India join the NPT as a NNWS?

India can only be accepted as a NNWS in the NPT if it unilaterally disarms and gives up its military nuclear programme. However, having been recognized as a de facto NWS, a responsible nuclear power and a state with advanced nuclear technology under the Indo-US nuclear deal, this is nearly impossible. Since the 1998 tests, Indian foreign policy has taken a realpolitik bent. As Raja Mohan pointed out in his 2007 study, India realizes that in the foreseeable future nuclear weapons will remain active tools of international diplomacy and may well decide the contours of power politics. Even President Obama conceded the importance of nuclear weapons for US security in his Prague Speech. Also, the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review underlines the salience of nuclear weapons in the contemporary world. In this scenario, India would very much like to hold onto its nuclear weapons.

Will India join the NPT as a NWS?

Many in India and abroad have deliberated on this issue and have responded in favour of bringing an amendment to the NPT under the provisions of Article VIII in order to accommodate India as a NWS member. Legally possible, such a proposal is politically myopic. Bringing an amendment to the NPT is easier said than done. More than one-third of the NPT member states must support any plea for amendment, and a successful amendment to the treaty requires the solid backing of all five NWS as well as a majority of the NNWS.

Consensus among the NNWS is highly problematic. Egypt, which heads the Non-Alignment Movement in the NPT, has described cooperation under the Indo-US nuclear deal as a “direct contravention of Article I of the treaty and provisions of Para 12 of the 1995 NPT Review and Extension conference”. It has also underlined the negative impact of the deal on the overall structure of the NPT. Iran has said that the deal has already “severely damaged” the NPT. India’s incorporation as a NWS would be even more disconcerting for these countries.

Even the NWS understand that such a development may lead to the erosion of NPT’s legitimacy.  All NWS have an inherent interest in maintaining the sanctity of the NPT. NPT has a near universal membership with 189 members. More than 26 countries, such as South Africa, Brazil and Argentina, have rolled back their nuclear programmes and have become members of the NPT. Only North Korea has proliferated while remaining inside the treaty. Iran is suspected of doing so. Seen against the backdrop of the proliferation fears expressed by President Kennedy in his speech in the United Nations General Assembly in 1961, the NPT has indeed made huge strides towards restraining many states from going nuclear. 

This explains why the Obama administration is so persistent about the universalisation of the NPT, despite the apparent contradiction, as many in India see it, with the US position in the Indo-US nuclear deal.  The constant advocacy for universalisation of the NPT as reflected in the NPT RevCon’s Final Declaration is a manifestation of a collective interest in preserving the NPT. The above arguments underline the fact that both NWS and NNWS will not wish to see the structure of the NPT changed to accommodate India as a NWS.

What about the status quo option?

Soon after negotiations on the nuclear deal were initiated, the North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan requested that the US Assistant Secretary of State, Christopher Hill, “treat us (North Korea) in the way you treat India”(Quoted, Nuclear Proliferation in South Asia p.198 - emphasis added.) It means that following the Indian example, North Korea also wants its weapons programme to be legitimized.  Hence, the history of India’s engagement, disengagement and reengagement with the NPT has become a model for states who want to go nuclear. In other words, India today offers a ‘complete breakout package’ to those disgruntled with progress under the NPT (Ibid, p.199). Incorporation will not only embolden aspirations to follow this ‘model for proliferation’ but would also provide a fundamental motivation to proliferate.

Incorporating India as a NWS into the NPT would suggest that the NWS are only concerned with horizontal proliferation (the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to countries that have not previously held them), not with vertical proliferation (the increase in size of an existing WMD arsenal). This is bolstered by the fact that India’s continued stockpiling of weapons-grade plutonium has received far less attention than proliferation attempts by Iran and North Korea. The impression thus rendered - by the US-India nuclear deal were India were to be granted NWS status - is that once a state crosses the nuclear threshold, the international community will, sooner or later, accept its nuclear status.         

The Indo-US nuclear deal was an exception to the rule of the non-proliferation regime.  So far, if the damage done by the deal has been limited, this is because of the widespread legitimacy the NPT enjoys in the international arena. However, any further meddling with the NPT will certainly lead to unpalatable outcomes. Even if the NPT has been so far successful in restraining its members from proliferating, continued assault on its core normative underpinnings may lead to its disintegration.

This fear, as was indicated by the UN High Level panel on Threats, Challenges and Change did not solely emanate from clandestine activities of states such as North Korea and Iran. It also arose from the constant undermining of the values of the NPT by the great powers, as made evident in the Indo-US civilian nuclear agreement and in the ongoing sidelining of the NWS’s disarmament commitments. India’s incorporation into the NPT as a NWS would further strengthen the ‘Indian Model of Proliferation’ and rekindle motivations to proliferate among other states. Order, in a world with a number of nuclear powers, will be hard to maintain. Therefore, it is in India’s interest as a growing power in the international scene to maintain the status quo on the NPT. 


Under these conditions, the only available option for India and the NPT members is to maintain the status quo.

However, maintaining the status quo can only act as a temporary fix in the international nuclear order, given the NPT’s inherently discriminatory nature. Diplomatic wrangling on the issue of universalisation of the NPT will continue until and unless the categories of NWS and NNWS are eliminated. This will only be possible in a world free of nuclear weapons. In a nuclear weapons world, these categories will persist, representing discrimination and injustice, and hence a reason for rivalry and contention amongst states.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData