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Approach:

  1. Introduction
  2. Give a backgrounder.
  3. India’s nuclear test & the subsequent reasons for not signing NPT.
  4. Conclusion

It is an opportune moment to understand the significance of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty in terms of India’s supposed “special relationship” with it. Why did India not sign the NPT in 1968? What immediate and subsequent impact did that have on the NPT? What role did security interests, domestic politics and prestige play in India’s decision?

India’s decision to not join the NPT needs to be understood in the context of decisions taken by countries that chose to ratify the NPT. Today, India is one of the only five countries that either did not sign the NPT or signed but withdrew, which includes Pakistan, Israel, North Korea, and South Sudan. This is because the “grand bargain” of the treaty — enshrined in Articles II and IV — requires countries to give up any present or future plans to build nuclear weapons in return for access to peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

For major powers like Japan & West Germany this was not easily accomplished. Domestic political coalitions did not come out overwhelmingly in support of the NPT. Moreover, with the refusal of France to sign the Treaty, smaller West European countries like Italy and Switzerland exploited the opportunity to cause delays in reaching a final decision. The situation was unpredictable. India’s decision to not sign the Treaty stood out because the refusal came from a nonaligned developing country dependent on superpowers for economic, technological, and military aid.

In order to understand India’s decision to not sign the NPT in 1968, the 1974 Indian nuclear explosion codenamed the “Smiling Buddha” needs to be foregrounded. The 1974 Indian nuclear explosion, inadvertently strengthened the NPT and the fledgling non-proliferation regime, that the global atomic marketplace needed to be regulated such that “another India” could be prevented at all costs. The 1974 explosion is one of the most misunderstood and perhaps misrepresented events in India’s nuclear history. New Delhi called it a “peaceful nuclear explosion” (PNE), indicating that it was an experiment to investigate civilian uses of nuclear explosions. More importantly, no crash program was launched to develop delivery vehicles. In the absence of an extensive resource allocation for nuclear weapons delivery systems, security experts shied away from a security-based explanation to analyse the event.

Perceived security threats from Pakistan & China, on the one hand, and from the United States, on the other provide a strong security-driven rationale for the 1974 PNE. The demonstration of a nuclear weapons capability in the explosion guaranteed New Delhi’s ability to effectively hedge in an asymmetric international system, and a regional strategic environment. Moscow’s “friendship” was helpful for New Delhi to balance Washington and Beijing but the fear of a Brezhnev doctrine for Asia loomed large.

Maintaining a degree of political autonomy has driven independent India’s foreign policy choices. Major decisions that New Delhi took in the nuclear realm are representative of that. Given the security environment at the international and regional levels, India could not consent to it.

Domestic political imperatives dictated the timing and the rhetoric. The multi-capital tour that Indian policymakers conducted requesting nuclear security guarantees prior to the refusal to sign the NPT served the purpose of generating public support for the government decision. But the quest for freedom of action in an uncertain regional strategic environment and an asymmetric international system dominated by superpowers and China drove India to not sign the NPT.

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