In October 2017, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a coalition of non-governmental organisations across 100 countries, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The award recognised ICAN’s role in bringing about the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons—the world’s first multilateral legally-binding instrument on nuclear disarmament in 20 years. All nine nuclear-weapon states, including India, refrained from participating in the treaty negotiations. While India, China and Pakistan abstained from voting on the United Nations General Assembly resolution that established the mandate for nations to negotiate the treaty, five nuclear countries—United States, United Kingdom, Russia, France, and Israel—voted against the resolution.
The Indian government issued a statement explaining its abstention from the resolution on the day after the vote, in October last year. After claiming that “India attaches the highest priority to nuclear disarmament,” the statement noted that India was “not convinced” that the proposed negotiations could address the “longstanding expectation of the international community for a comprehensive instrument on nuclear disarmament.” The ICAN website notes that although India “regularly declares its support for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons, its true commitment to nuclear disarmament remains in serious doubt.”
India periodically supports calls for nuclear disarmament, but these assertions are contradicted by its continued possession of nuclear weapons and efforts to upgrade nuclear capabilities. For instance, during the Cold War, the then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru made frequent appeals for disarmament to the United States and the Soviet Union. But later, in 1974, the Congress government led by Indira Gandhi conducted India’s first “peaceful nuclear explosion.” Again, in 1988, the then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi addressed the UN General Assembly in a seminal speech calling for an end to all nuclear testing. A decade later, the government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee conducted a second round of tests and declared to the world that “India is now a nuclear weapons state.” That year, consistent with India’s contradictory statements on disarmament and weaponising, George Fernandes, the then defence minister, stated that the tests enabled India to “pursue, with credibility and greater conviction, our long-term campaign to rid the world of nuclear weapons.”
Since then, India has made several statements in support of disarmament—for instance, at the 2010 Nuclear Security Summit, the former prime minister Manmohan Singh stated that “India has maintained an impeccable non-proliferation record, of which we are proud.” Simultaneously, India also continued to develop nuclear weapons. According to ICAN’s website, India possesses 110–120 of the nearly 15,000 nuclear warheads among the nine nuclear-weapon states in the world.
As a result, civil-society organisations and individuals are sceptical of India’s commitment to disarmament. Tim Wright, the Asia-Pacific director of ICAN, addressed India’s refusal to sign the treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons, in an email. “ICAN has repeatedly urged the Indian government to sign the treaty. However, it has refused to do so, based on its misguided belief that nuclear weapons bring security,” Wright wrote. “India's support for nuclear disarmament is, it seems, merely rhetorical.”