The diplomatic scuffle that erupted over the fate of an Indian consulate officer in New York indicted for visa fraud and the illegal exploitation of her domestic servant sank Indian-American relations to their lowest level in decades. But that might be only a prelude to more trouble to come in 2014.
India and the United States remain in a standoff over the implementation of a nuclear trade agreement signed during the administration of George W. Bush in 2005 and entered into force in 2008, which in the eyes of the most respected arms control experts has done incalculable damage to international arms control agreements. In late March, India will again try to elbow its way into the Nuclear Suppliers Group, an international body of forty-six members who pledge to uphold verifiable arms control treaties that the Indians have refused to sign, prime among them the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. India wants the United States to back its extraordinary bid; other nations are balking.
In April, national elections are scheduled to begin in India—they are staggered over a period of weeks—in which the front-running candidate to lead the next national government is a politician accused of condoning a pogrom against Muslims in the state of Gujarat in 2002 in which more than 1,000 people died. The politician, Narendra Modi, chief minister of Gujarat and leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has since been denied entry to the United States because of the killings. He is supported by radical Hindu nationalists in India—and American business interests eyeing investment opportunities in his state and maybe nationwide if he becomes prime minister. How will the White House handle this if or when official visits are discussed?
Internationally, India has stalled or demanded exceptional treatment in important negotiations on climate change, particularly emissions standards. It is now the third largest emitter of carbon dioxide, after China and the United States. Its levels of air pollution generally, especially in the Indian capital, Delhi, have recently outdone Beijing’s notorious toxic smog. Global trade agreements have also been difficult to achieve with Indian negotiators in the room.
Trade issues and the nuclear nonproliferation goals promoted by President Barack Obama intersect. Under the civilian nuclear agreement, which the Obama administration upheld even as the president was organizing nuclear disarmament summits, India is permitted to import technology and fuel for its under-performing power-generating reactors, and allow foreign investment in their development. Outside expertise is needed; a former US ambassador described maintenance and security at reactors as being “in shambles.” American energy corporations, so keen initially to see the deal go through, have been sidelined by unexpected Indian legislation that would impose huge unforeseen and unacceptable liabilities on them in case of accidents or other malfunctions. Meanwhile other countries are reaping the rewards of the US-India deal, including Russia and, most recently, Japan.
On the nonproliferation side, the US-India civilian nuclear trade agreement is thought to be enhancing India’s ability to concentrate on weapons development. It is often forgotten, in the light of Pakistan’s dangerous nuclear program, that India started the South Asian atomic arms race in 1974, with a bomb test under the government of Indira Gandhi. India then detonated up to five more explosions in 1998, prompting Pakistan to follow suit with its first nuclear weapons tests the same year. Neither country is open to inspection of its weapons facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency, though civilian reactors are supposed to be monitored in India according to the terms of the US agreement.
In July 2013, with the US-India nuclear deal stalled for American companies over the liability issue and many other questions still unanswered, the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington published a study that raised another flag. The report, Future World of Illicit Nuclear Trade: Mitigating the Threat—written by David Albright, the institute’s president, Andrea Stricker and Houston Wood—named India, Pakistan, Iran and North Korea among countries actively procuring material abroad to maintain their nuclear arsenals.
“India, on one hand, seeks parts, equipment and technology for its civilian nuclear power program, an effort facilitated by the 2008 US-India agreement on civilian nuclear trade, while at the same time engaging in illicit activities to obtain key items for its unsafeguarded nuclear facilities and nuclear weapons programs,” the report said. Obscure networks worldwide aid in the illicit imports.
In December ISIS announced that work on a new Indian plant likely designed for enriching uranium appeared near completion, judging by satellite imagery. Albright—a physicist who worked with the IAEA in analyzing illicit Iraqi procurements for gas centrifuges and was first nongovernment inspector of the Iraqi nuclear program in 1997—and his co-author of the December paper, Serena Kelleher-Vergantini, an ISIS researcher specializing in analyzing satellite imagery, said that the new plant, India’s second gas centrifuge facility near Mysore, “could significantly increase India’s ability to produce highly enriched uranium for military purposes, including more powerful nuclear weapons.” Another, larger centrifuge complex in Karnataka state has apparently been halted temporarily after environmental protests.
India’s centrifuge development is conducted in secret, and its plants are “not under international safeguards or committed to peaceful uses,” according to the December paper, which included three pages of satellite imagery of the existing Rare Materials Plant site near Mysore collected over recent years.
Even before the US-India nuclear trade agreement came into force, leading experts on nuclear issues and arms control treaties were warning that giving India a go-ahead without a promise that it would abide by international standards would undermine longstanding treaties as well as the rules of the Nuclear Suppliers Group.
George Perkovich, vice president for studies and director of the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of the 2001 book India’s Nuclear Bomb , warned in February 2006 in an interview with Bernard Gwertzman for the Council on Foreign Relations that the India deal was “very under-cooked and not well-considered,” though he accepted that the US had to come to some sort of arrangement with India, which was determined to plow ahead with its weapons program.
“The idea of changing the rules to make some accommodation with India was correct,” Perkovitch said. “But this particular approach was ill-considered, in essence giving India, or attempting to give India, everything, and to throw out in essence all the rules in return for too little from India. And the reason that you want more from India is to be able to send a signal to the rest of the world that ‘Yes, nonproliferation matters.’”
Perkovich said the hastily drawn framework proposal adopted by India and the United States “was unusually vague, and it left open some really fundamental questions.” One of the outstanding issues was safeguards. “What the administration didn’t nail down was how long would the safeguards be accepted or agreed to by India. In other words, all of the world except for the five recognized nuclear weapon states have safeguards forever on a facility. You build a facility, you put it under safeguard; safeguards are there eternally, and safeguards on the fuel and the nuclear material are for eternity.
“People asked, ‘Is this what India’s going to do, when it designates a facility as civilian and puts it under safeguards—is it for eternity?’ [Bush] administration leaders kind of shrugged their shoulders,” Perkovich said. “They hadn’t thought of it.”
Also in 2006, Zia Mian of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School and M.V. Ramana of the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies and Environment in Bangalore, India, wrote a cautionary article in Arms Control Today recognizing that behind Bush administration thinking was a desire to get India “on side” with Washington against the Chinese. But turning to the plan to allow India to import uranium, the authors warned that “If the deal goes through, New Delhi will be able to purchase the uranium it needs to fuel those [civilian] reactors it chooses to put under IAEA safeguards. This will free up its domestic uranium for its nuclear weapons program and other military uses.”
Secretary of State John Kerry has tried repeatedly to clear Indian hurdles to more US trade in the Indian nuclear power industry. What he has apparently not done so far is to talk to the Indians about their deteriorating human rights and human development records, though the State Department has expressed dismay at the recent Indian Supreme Court decision to re-criminalize homosexuality, which has been widely condemned in many countries and by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, a South African of Indian descent.
When Kerry paid a formal visit to New Delhi last summer, he brought with him representatives of corporations looking for lucrative deals but not (at least not publicly acknowledged) advocates for human rights or democratic reforms. Both United Nations surveys of Indian social indicators, which rank with Sub-Saharan Africa’s poorest countries, and the US State Department’s own annual human rights report record litanies of serious abuses. One of these, the status and vulnerability of women, is now getting more international attention, only because Indians have taken on the cause themselves after numerous recent reports of horrific sexual assaults, resulting in at least several known deaths. Raising such issues with India from outside provokes only vituperative dismissals.
Some Indian commentators concerned about human rights in India have also turned their attention to that Indian diplomat in New York, Devyani Khobragade, and her exploited Indian maid, Sangeeta Richard. They ask why the high-pitched outpouring of sympathy in India was showered on the law-breaking vice consul, with no outrage to spare for the treatment of the domestic servant. What if, suggested P. Sainath, an award-winning writer on poverty in India, other Indian servants imported by diplomats and paid scant wages while working long hours were to organize in a class action suit in the United States? The Khobragade story and its fallout may not yet be over.