Where nuclear weapons come before basic needs

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In his review of the books by Itty Abraham and Michael Foot, Brahma Chellaney chastises Abraham for “his commitment to one side” of the nuclear debate in India which supposedly “weakens his arguments” (Nature 401, 113–114; 1999). Although Abraham's sympathies may well lie on the side of India's growing anti-nuclear movement, Chellaney is very much on the other side.

Chellaney is a member of India's National Security Advisory Board and an author of the draft “nuclear doctrine”, which calls for “sufficient nuclear weapons to inflict destruction and punishment”1. So it comes as no surprise that he puts a positive gloss on the history of India's nuclear weapons, and paints an inaccurate picture of Abraham's book.

Chellaney persists in describing India's 1974 nuclear test as a “peaceful explosion”. Such semantic evasions no longer carry any weight, if they ever did. Even Raja Ramanna, former chairman of India's Atomic Energy Commission and the leader of the team that conducted the test, described it as “a prototype weapon”2.

Chellaney also attempts to suggest that India is unique among nuclear weapons states in having straddled the “nuclear fence” for a quarter of a century while having a democratic debate on whether it should “go nuclear”. A less self-serving description would be that India spent decades building a ladder to climb over this imaginary nuclear fence and, when it came time to decide whether to jump down to the other side, a handful of people made the decision, as has always been the case in Indian nuclear policy3.

Abraham's book shows how Indian scientists used the ideologies of national security and national development to transform a small scientific laboratory into a full-blown weapons complex. His work demonstrates how the combination of science, ideology and the power of the state can be a recipe for disaster as much in the Third World as in the first and second.

Abraham's real achievement is to reveal the thinking of India's élite, which places nuclear weapons above providing even the most basic necessities to a large proportion of the country's citizens.

It is at this level, the right of ordinary people to make meaningful choices about their lives in an informed and democratic way, that Abraham is taking sides. It is a side he shares with Foot, but one far removed from the cabals of “the wizards of Armageddon” who make nuclear-weapons policy around the world.


  1. 1

    National Security Advisory Board Draft Report on Indian Nuclear Doctrine http://www.indianembassy.org/policy/CTBT/nuclear_doctrine_aug_17_1999.html

  2. 2

    Ramanna, R. Years of Pilgrimage 100 (Viking, New Delhi, 1991).

  3. 3

    Ramana, M. V. Precis IX, No. 3, pp. 1 & 21–25 (1998).

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Mian, Z., Ramana, M. Where nuclear weapons come before basic needs. Nature 402, 722 (1999) doi:10.1038/45373

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