In India, Complaints About a U.S. Nuclear Deal

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India has complained for years that Western double standards have stopped it from importing the nuclear technology and materials it needs to modernize its civilian nuclear industry. Delhi understands that developing nuclear weapons has earned it the disapproval of the West, but Indians don't accept that they should be denied weapons systems that are the strategic mainstay of powers such as China and Russia. So, you might think the news that the U.S. Congress has passed a bill that bends those rules and allows India to import nuclear fuel would be celebrated in this energy-hungry economic powerhouse. And you would be wrong. Although India's government welcomed the United States-India Peaceful Atomic Energy Cooperation Act, Indian opposition parties, nuclear experts and scientists are demanding that India either renegotiate the deal, or tell the U.S. to forget about it.

India has never signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and has twice tested nuclear weapons, first in 1974 and then again in 1998. That behavior led the major nuclear powers to refrain from helping India's nuclear program, on the grounds that this program might help Delhi enhance its weapons program. But this year, to the horror of anti-nuclear campaigners around the world, President Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh agreed that India should get access to U.S. civil nuclear technology and fuel, in return for opening its civilian nuclear facilities to inspection — India's nuclear weapons site would remain off-limits. In effect, the U.S. had accepted India's argument that its military and civilian nuclear programs should be treated separately. Last weekend's vote clears the way for Bush and Manhmohan to negotiate a final agreement.

India wants to build nuclear reactors around the country to power its booming economy, while U.S. nuclear industry giants are rubbing their hands in anticipation of getting a slice of the $100 billion some predict India will spend on nuclear technology in the next decade. So what's not to love about this win-win proposition?

Many in India are livid that the bill suggests — suggests, mind you, rather than demands — that should India carry out another nuclear test, the U.S. and other countries should cease fuel supplies. They're also hostile to the bill's provision for an annual "assessment" by the U.S. of how the program is working, and outraged that the bill includes a non-binding requirement that India support the U.S. position in relation to its efforts to limit Iran's nuclear program because of suspicion that Tehran is trying to attain strategic nuclear capability.

The "offending" proposals were, in fact, so watered down in the final version of the bill that the Hindustan Times newspaper wrote that "India has taken the shirt off America's back on this one." But try telling that to the deal's critics at both ends of India's political spectrum, who charge that the U.S. is dictating terms that impinge on India's sovereignty. P.K. Iyengar, former chairman of India's Atomic Energy Commission, told reporters that the bill indirectly makes India party to the NPT, the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). even though India has always refused to sign them. Iyengar is particularly annoyed by the suggestion that Washington terminate civilian cooperation if India conducts a nuclear test. "It is impossible to have a minimum credible deterrent without conducting nuclear tests," he said.

Specific gripes aside, the critics appear to share a belief that the U.S. has impugned India's pride and independence. There has long been a consensus in the Indian political mainstream that nuclear weapons are India's right, and that Western nuclear powers are hypocritical for seeking to punish or hinder it for building weapons systems that the established nuclear powers have shown no inclination to give up. This sense of wounded dignity is captured in a cartoon in Monday's Times of India, depicting Manmohan at the "nuclear high table," but sitting in a baby's high chair beside President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who both sit on grownup seats. "I only wish they'd given me a different chair," laments the Prime Minister. The U.S. sees India as an important democratic ally in Asia, a kind of hedge against the rise of China. But as the reaction to the nuclear deal shows, many Indians still feel like they're being patronized.