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Remembering the Charisma of Arundhati Ghose

Remembering the Charisma of Arundhati Ghose

By Bharat Karnad

India was lucky to have Ambassador Arundhati Ghose, as the Indian Representative at the UN Conference on Disarmament (CD), Geneva, in 1995-96, negotiating the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Her diligence in keeping abreast of the often secret meetings and machinations of the five so-called Non-Proliferation Treaty recognized nuclear weapons states (P-5), kept India out of trouble. She thus thwarted the CD proceedings designed to corral this country into a Test Ban and freezing its nuclear weapons technology at the level of an unproven basic fission device.

There were procedural moves devised by the P-5 and similar surprises by the US and its camp followers in Western Europe that were prevented from being sprung on the Indian delegation by Arundhati Ghose and her team.

Arundhati’s straight talk to her US counterpoint left Washington in little doubt about what they were up against. This was capped by her ringing affirmation in the plenary, voicing India’s final rejection of the CTBT, now famous as a declaration that India would not sign that flawed treaty “not now, not ever”.

No finer Indian diplomat held the fort so courageously in the international arena in the face of concerted attacks. But the real hero, as per Arundhati, was the Prime Minister who, at that crucial moment in time, was HD Deve Gowda. He was often derided by his opponents and the media as a PM who quite literally slept on the job. Except, he had the instinctive understanding about the roots of national power, and once, the stakes were outlined to him—that signing the test ban treaty would close off India’s chances of ever becoming a nuclear weapon state. With great certitude, he verbally instructed Arundhati Ghose, back in Delhi for consultations, to reject the CTBT outright.

Considering how most of the influential circles in the capital are leavened by the advocacy of the strategic community elite which is headed by K. Subrahmanyam—its “doyen” and his acolytes in the government, IDSA, and the media, among them, the Late Air Commodore Jasjit Singh (Retd), and whose advocacy was backed by the then chairman, atomic energy commission, R. Chidambaram (and still adviser S&T to PM), had prepared the political and public relations ground for India affixing its signature to the CTBT. Arundhati had then asked Deve Gowda for written instructions to that effect. Thus armed, Arundhati sallied forth to Geneva, to bury the CTBT.

What if a supposed sophisticate or a West-leaning politician had been the PM? (say, Rajiv, or Inder Gujral, or Vajpayee, or the de facto PM at the time, the late Brajesh Mishra, or Manmohan Singh, or, dare we mention, Modi) – not Deve Gowda because he would not have hesitated to order Arundhati Ghose to sign on the dotted line, and thereby permanently strategically crippled India.

It must be recalled that those who promoted CTBT signature also led the charge on the N-deal with the United States, and those who opposed the CTBT were the same small handful of us— one or two strategic analysts and the old guard from Trombay—the late PK Iyengar, AN Prasad, A. Gopalakrishnan, who vehemently campaigned in 2005-2008 against the nuclear deal with the United States, which from the beginning has sought to shackle India and, with the nuclear deal, succeeded to a considerable extent. We relentlessly pounded GOI’s movement towards it and its eventual succumbing to the US pressure and blandishments.

Again the strategists pushing for the deal were Subbu, Jasjit, and that caboodle in the official corridors, the media, and the ones working in Western think tank (Carnegie, Brookings, IISS) branches setup in Delhi to shape GOI’s policies. Not surprisingly, just about every thing that’s going wrong with that N-deal, CSC, including the perils of the buys by Modi of the six cost-prohibitive, untested and unproven Westinghouse AP 1000 reactors after his most recent US visit, whose purchase, hazards-wise, could prove calamitous, as prophesied by the deal’s critics.

Arundhati Ghose

Negotiating the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty at the UN Conference, Geneva | Photo Courtesy: Visual Hunt

The point that Arundhati repeatedly confessed to me, is how unprepared the Ministry of External Affairs is to negotiate on technical issues, such as anything related to nuclear, which requires some very serious domain knowledge.

The point that Arundhati repeatedly confessed to me, and something she alludes to in her last public talk at National Institute of Advanced Studies in 2015, is how unprepared the Ministry of External Affairs is to negotiate on technical issues, such as anything related to nuclear, which requires some very serious domain knowledge. There are reasons why it is imperative to have permanent institutional mechanisms where the technically proficient scientists and engineers are in periodic consultations. Some of the reasons being – to ensure that Indian diplomats are at the negotiating end and by way of MEA’s institutional memory, are brought up to decide where not to give way, where to cede ground, grudgingly, and the bulk of issues that are non-negotiable. Also, if put on the table—how to carefully configure legal escape routes and safeguards for always leaving open the option for the country to ease itself out of tight corners and onerous treaty commitments.

Having quickly realized that neither of us was going to be able to convince the other on N-disarmament and big power-driven arms control measures, where we were invariably on opposite sides of the argument, our mutually respectful relationship settled into a breezy, jokey, affair. Whenever we met I’d good naturedly rib her for her “naivete” and she’d throw up her hands in mock horror at my “love of the Bomb”. The wonderful thing was that our differences only spurred us to tap each other for information and insights, though the traffic was mostly one way. Plainly said, what I know about MEA’s attitude to disarmament and its evolution, and about the workings of DISA (Disarmament and International Security Affairs) Division in that Ministry was gleaned from her. She kept up with the goings-on in MEA and especially DISA as current officers in that Division are in one way or another her proteges or have matured under her influence penumbra.

She was a fixture in the seminar/conference circuit relating to India’s nuclear policies. Cancer had slowly consumed Arundhati Ghose but not her fighting spirit.

For those who care to know more about Arundhati’s finest hour, the most complete account of the evolving ideas of GOI and the P-5 machinations, her maneuverings around the diplomatic booby-traps and mines laid by the dastardly P-5 in the CD, is in my tome ‘Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy’, according to Arundhati Ghose.

Bharat Karnad is a senior fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi and author of most recent book, ‘Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)’.

This article was originally published on Bharat Karnad’s blog.

Featured Image Credits: Barn Images

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