Manipal, India — A millennium ago, when Muslim armies began succeeding in defeating their Hindu rivals, such victories came despite the latter's greater opulence. A contributory factor was caste. Only certain "high-born" groups were permitted to bear arms in defense of the state. Their number did not exceed 9 percent of the total population. Had a more equitable social structure been in place, India's history may have been different.
It was only in the 1960s that democratic elections became the instrument through which the "backward castes" were able to claim equal rights with the rest. Ironically, since that time a new caste system has arisen, again one that denies upward mobility to those condemned to second-class, or worse, status. This is the international nuclear order implemented through the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, which permanently restricts the right to possess nuclear weapons to only five countries -- the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China.
Since then, Israel, India, Pakistan and now North Korea have emerged as de facto nuclear weapons states. Of these, Israel has not thus far tested a nuclear weapon, although it has clearly had access to the technology needed to build a stockpile of them. Of the other three, Pakistan and North Korea are both authoritarian states known to have proliferated both nuclear as well as missile technology, and to have secured the know-how for developing both from third countries.
What about India, which began developing nuclear capability in the 1950s, but whose leadership was too pusillanimous to explode a device till 1974? That "peaceful nuclear explosion" -- as Indira Gandhi described it -- was followed by a comprehensive series of international sanctions designed to prevent India from becoming a full-fledged nuclear weapons power.
Almost the entire international non-proliferation architecture was set up to counter India and to prevent another country from following the same path. Unfortunately, these constructs are vulnerable in that there is almost no supervision of the five "declared" nuclear weapons powers, any one of which could transfer lethal technology to a favored partner. North Korea and Pakistan are evidence that at least one of the five has done so, for neither country has the technological or manufacturing sophistication needed to go India's route and build nuclear weapons on its own.
For geopolitical reasons, the United States ignored evidence of such transfers until it was too late. Pakistan was perceived as too valuable an ally to allow its acquisition of nuclear capability to result in a cutoff of relations, or effective sanctions against transfers, measures that would have severely impacted Sino-U.S. ties as well.
After 1974, India's timid political leadership once again refused to test, despite repeated entreaties by the scientific establishment, until in 1998 a government led by the "Hindu nationalist" BJP was elected. By then, the country's economy and technical capability had brought it beyond the reach of sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies, and the economy actually grew faster after these were implemented than before. However, the scientists' requests for more tests to refine and improve the nuclear deterrent were ignored. As yet India has not tested a third time, even though several more explosions are needed to confirm laboratory data on reliability.
Instead, New Delhi sought to break away from the pariah status into which it had been pushed by the NPT. This objective took the form of numerous rounds of discussions with key officials in both the Clinton and the Bush administrations, talks that appeared to have a happy ending on July 18, 2005, when President Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh spoke of signing a nuclear deal that would recognize India "as a country with advanced nuclear technology."
Since the 1997 handover of Hong Kong, it had been clear to Washington that Beijing was well on its way to becoming the pre-eminent power in Asia, a platform from which it could replicate that status in Africa and then South America as well. Australia and Japan -- the region's two deputy sheriffs -- did not have the ballast needed to check such a course. The only way out was an alliance with India, another billion-plus population Asian giant that too was growing at a rapid clip, and which had the advantage of widespread use of the English language, as well as institutions and politics modeled on those in its former colonial master, the United Kingdom.
The catch was caste. India wanted to be accepted as "high-caste"-- a nuclear weapons state, equal to France and Britain. The prospect of this new entrant into the exclusive club angered traditional allies Australia, Canada, Japan and Germany, all of whom are known to have informally protested to Washington over such favored treatment to a nuclear pariah. China too joined in the attack, unhappy at seeing its other traditional Asian rival -- besides Japan -- getting too close to the United States. China backed the non-proliferation lobby in the United States in its immediate countermeasures against a nuclear deal that would meet the "caste test" for India.
Whether as a result, or because the Bush administration was less than candid in its fulsome acceptance of India as a world power, by the end of 2005 it became clear that the "concessions" offered to India were not only meager, but would come at the cost of the country's indigenous nuclear and missile program. For starters, India was relegated to "recipient" country status in George W. Bush's Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, which ignored its developed nuclear capabilities. This meant that the country would no longer be entitled to reprocess spent fuel, and that its decades-long effort to develop a thorium-based alternative to uranium would have to be abandoned.
Being accepted as one of the big boys is not simply about status, but about the future of India as a possible global power. Were the restrictions sought by the United States as a condition for signing the nuclear deal to take effect, India would, in effect, have to abandon not just its nuclear program but its efforts at developing ICBMs. Such a capability is not -- as argued by some Pentagon analysts -- because India wants to drop a bomb on New York, but because such a capability is the natural spin off of the space launch capability that the country is set on. What the Bush administration is asking of its prospective ally is that it accept a status not just considerably lower than France and Britain, but lower than Germany and Japan as well, and that in perpetuity.
Apart from Sonia Gandhi, Manmohan Singh and a handful of others who regard such relegation as acceptable, the establishment in the country is clear about what India's "caste" is -- the highest. And unless this is conceded, it is unlikely that India would consent to be a U.S. ally, no matter what the Australians, the Japanese and the Germans think.
-(Professor M.D. Nalapat is vice-chair of the Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair, and professor of geopolitics at Manipal University.)