A speech that put India on the global stage

Seventy years ago, with a speech in the Lok Sabha, Nehru cemented India’s claim to leadership, gave impetus to calls that eventually yielded the Partial Test Ban Treaty, and arguably limited horizontal nuclear proliferation

Updated - April 02, 2024 08:35 pm IST

Published - April 02, 2024 12:41 am IST

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in the Lok Sabha in 1958.

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in the Lok Sabha in 1958. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Photo Archives

On April 2, 1954, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru made a speech in the Lok Sabha that would put India on the global stage of nuclear disarmament. Prompted by the U.S.’s ‘Castle Bravo’ thermonuclear test of the previous month, which was reportedly so powerful that it overwhelmed all measuring instruments, Nehru called for “a standstill agreement” on nuclear testing. This speech was marked by pragmatism, vision, and self-assurance. Newly decolonised India, with all the problems of nation-building and none of the traditional markers of international power such as military and economic might — or even nuclear weapons to disarm — was an unlikely candidate for this leadership role; yet such was Nehru’s belief in India’s global standing that he not only called for this moratorium but also pushed for it at every opportunity and forum. With this speech, he cemented India’s claim to leadership, gave impetus to calls that eventually yielded the Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT), and arguably limited horizontal nuclear proliferation by insisting on treating nuclear weapons as beyond the pale.

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The standstill agreement

The standstill agreement is remarkable for its willingness to accept an incremental approach to what was fast becoming an insurmountable problem of disarmament against the backdrop of the Cold War. The four elements of the proposal called for an immediate moratorium on testing; urged the United Nations Disarmament Commission to address both the immediate moratorium and the longer-term goal of prohibiting the production and stockpiling of nuclear weapons; sought to build public pressure on nuclear states by calling for greater disclosure on the destructiveness and effects of these weapons; and called on all ‘states and peoples of the world’ to recognise the global threat posed by nuclear weapons. Nehru took disarmament out of the confines of the UN Disarmament Commission (with its limited membership) and made it a global problem.

India had effectively put the nuclear weapons states on notice. Nehru was asking them to not only recognise that their tests were imperilling the globe but also calling for more information on the effects of nuclear tests and radiation to exert global pressure on them to disarm. India followed this up with interventions at the UN, including a draft resolution in 1955 calling for a halt to testing, and progress to be reported to the Disarmament Commission. Simultaneously, Nehru convened a conference of scientists to study atomic energy and the effects of nuclear explosions in 1954 and, had the Suez Crisis and the Hungarian Revolution not intervened in 1956, the first meeting of what became Pugwash might well have happened in Delhi, for invitations had been sent out by Bertrand Russell and Joseph Rotblat to the scientists assembled.

Also Read | Explained: The fragile state of nuclear disarmament

Moral force

It is easy, 70 years later, with the history of India’s diplomacy and active participation in negotiations for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty at the Eighteen-Nation Disarmament Commission, and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (neither of which New Delhi eventually signed for reasons of national interest), to take for granted India’s active role in nuclear disarmament. However, there was nothing preordained about this. India in 1954 was poor and weak. This was before the Bandung Conference, so it did not even have the backing of the non-aligned nations. What it did have, though, was moral force. As Nehru explained in his first address to the UN in 1948, “I have no fear, even though India, from a military point of view, is of no great consequence. I am not afraid of the bigness of Great Powers, and their armies, their fleets and their atom bombs. This is the lesson which my Master taught me. We stood as an unarmed people against a great country and a powerful empire.”

Placing India on a global stage on account of its moral influence was a brilliant move. Of course, the sheen of morality soon wore off as India grappled with using force in Hyderabad and Goa to bring them within the Indian Union, and in discovering that morality would not defeat China. But it gave India a significance far in excess of what might be justified by its material strength. Nor was this stance purely naïve. Nehru spoke the language of disarmament because India had pressing development needs for its scarce resources that might be swallowed up by an arms race. But there was a Plan B. The Atomic Energy Act, 1948 allowed for the sequestration of the nuclear programme to shield any potential weapons development, should the need arise. Homi Bhabha, the father of India’s nuclear programme, wanted to develop nuclear weapons. Nehru did not give the go-ahead, but did not entirely discourage him either.

The legacy of the speech in the Lok Sabha, when Nehru explained to his people first what India was doing to secure its place in the world, was most immediately felt in the PTBT that was eventually negotiated by the nuclear weapons states. When the treaty opened for signatures in 1963, India was the fourth to sign. The call for greater information about the effects of nuclear radiation and the mobilising of global opinion against atomic weapons helped solidify a norm against nuclear use that has ensured that these weapons have not been used in anger again after 1945. And, most importantly, the speech put India on a global stage as a voice of reason and morality, and in Nehru’s words from 1948, to “be a power for peace and for the good of the world.”

Priyanjali Malik is the author of ‘India’s Nuclear Debate: Exceptionalism and the Bomb’.

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