NEW DELHI - The port call of a United States nuclear-powered aircraft carrier to Chennai in southern India has provoked strong protests from a spectrum of political parties, trade unions, peace groups and environmentalists.
It has also exposed a yawning gap between India's professions of non-alignment and foreign policy independence, and its practice of cultivating a close military and political relationship with the U.S.
The carrier USS Nimitz is on a five-day "friendly" call to Chennai at the invitation of the Indian government.
The Indian left and centrist parties like the All India Anna Dravida Munnettra Kazhagam, the main opposition in Tamil Nadu, held demonstrations in Chennai on Monday. So did transport and port workers' unions and civil society organisations, including the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (CNDP), a broad-based umbrella organisation of over 250 groups.
The carrier arrived in India's territorial waters from the Persian Gulf region, where it had been despatched two months ago as part of a 50-ship armada: "The function of that mobilisation was to threaten and intimidate Iran over its nuclear programme,'' says N.D. Jayaprakash, a CNDP activist and National Coordination Committee member.
Adds Jayaprakash: "The political message of the current visit of the Nimitz is unmistakable. It is to tighten the India-U.S. strategic embrace at a time when the U.S. is engaged in its disastrous occupation of Iraq, which has destabilised West Asia."
The port call of the Nimitz has precipitated controversy for other reasons too. "It is entirely possible that the aircraft carrier carries nuclear weapons on board," says Deepak Nayyar, a distinguished economist and until recently vice-chancellor of Delhi University. "In that case, it would flagrantly violate India's well-established, often-reiterated policy of disallowing foreign nuclear weapons into its territorial waters."
Nayyar is one of 11 public intellectuals who last week signed a statement protesting the visit of the ship, including celebrated writers Arundhati Roy and Mahashweta Devi, former civil servants S.P. Shukla and Sudeep Banerjee, and social scientists Romila Thapar, Prabhat Patnaik and Amit Bhaduri.
The statement points to the contradiction between the Indian government's claim that the Nimitz is "not known to be carrying nuclear weapons,'' and the U.S.'s well-reiterated policy to "neither deny nor confirm" the presence of nuclear weapons on its warships under any circumstances. The statement expresses dismay at the fact that New Delhi "gratuitously granted this certificate to the U.S., when Washington itself does not do so", and says this speaks poorly of India's foreign and security policies.
The visit of the warship marks a reversal of India's past policy opposing the transit of nuclear weapons in its neighbourhood. In the 1970s and 1980s, India campaigned against the U.S.'s naval base at Diego Garcia (or Chagos Islands) in the Indian Ocean and wanted the entire Ocean to be declared a "zone of peace".
New Delhi has rationalised the visit of the aircraft carrier by saying that at least 10 other nuclear-powered foreign warships called at Indian ports in recent years. These include four visits by French naval ships, one by a British ship and five by U.S. naval vessels.
"These precedents cannot justify the present visit", argues Anuradha Chenoy, a professor of international relations at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. "It is deplorable that India allowed these port calls in the first place without sharing the reasons for the underlying policy shift with parliament or the public. Besides, the Nimitz is visiting India just when public opinion in West Asia is highly polarised because of the occupation of Iraq and the U.S.'s threatening gestures towards Iran."
The carrier's visit has special symbolic significance because of its role in the Iran crisis. The U.S. has been mounting pressure on India to drop a proposed natural gas pipeline from Iran to India through Pakistan.
There is a good deal of lobbying on Capitol Hill in Washington to get the Bush administration to drop the nuclear cooperation deal with India, which was initialled two years ago and is under negotiation.
Last week, "The Hill" newsletter reported that several senators and congressmen want that the nuclear deal, which would make a special one-time exception for India in the global non-proliferation regime, be made conditional upon a cancellation of the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline project.
"The visit of the Nimitz is clearly no routine or innocent affair", says Chenoy. "India is aware of and has always been sensitive to the importance of symbolic gestures, including subtle and not-so-subtle forms of U.S. gunboat diplomacy."
During the Bangladesh war with Pakistan in 1971, the U.S. dispatched another aircraft carrier, the Enterprise, to the Bay of Bengal. This was widely seen as signalling Washington's opposition to the further continuation of the war after the Pakistan army surrendered to Indian troops in Dhaka and Bangladesh became independent.
"India-U.S. relations have turned a full circle,'' says Jayaprakash. "Now India is willing to indicate its uncritical support for the U.S. military and enter into an unequal strategic relationship with Washington. This is a shameful departure from India's independent strategic and foreign policy orientation. It also means that the India-U.S. strategic partnership is being strengthened at the expense of third countries."
Jayaprakash is appalled that some of the Nimitz's 5,000-plus personnel will engage in a public relations exercise by doing community service in Chennai, including visits to people affected by the tsunami of December 2004.
"This is sanctimonious posturing," he says. "After committing horrendous crimes in Iraq, U.S. military personnel are trying to pretend that they have a humanitarian mission as well."
Trade unionists and environmentalists have also objected to the carrier's visit on the ground that it is liable to present another hazard, in the form of radiation from its two nuclear reactors. The Indian government says it will periodically monitor radiation levels; in any case, the Nimitz is anchored two miles outside Chennai port proper.
However, the protestors are not satisfied given that India's own nuclear programme has a poor safety record and its Navy's ability to monitor radiation hazards is not independently established.
"What is galling is that Indian officials are bending over backwards to speak on behalf of the U.S. and allay the public's apprehensions," says Jayaprakash. "That is completely out of order."
In recent years, the U.S. and India have held high-level military exercises, including some that involved U.S. nuclear submarines. But the Nimitz visit even lacks such a strategic rationale.
"The docking of USS Nimitz is not a neutral or normal affair, but a strong political-strategic statement,'' says Chenoy.
The statement runs counter to the promise of the ruling United Progressive Alliance to correct the strongly pro-U.S. bias in India's policy under the previous government led by the right-wing pro-West Bharatiya Janata Party, and to fight for a balanced, multipolar world free of nuclear weapons.
IPS Correspondent Praful Bidwai is a committed anti-nuclear activist and the author of several books on peace and disarmament.
Copyright © 2007 IPS-Inter Press Service.