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Conference in Delhi, India, March 28th, 2018

India’s government seems scared of a group of Nobel Peace Prize winning doctors

Over the past few days in Delhi, I’ve had the privilege of joining an international seminar titled: “The Landmark Treaty Prohibiting Nuclear Weapons: Opportunities and Challenges.” Held in the augustly named Constitution Club, the seminar was organised by Indian Doctors for Peace and Development (IDPD), IPPNW’s Indian affiliate, together with the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace, and the All India Peace and Solidarity Organisation. The seminar was joined by former government Minister Shri Mani Shankar Aiyar, other former Members of Parliament, retired Major General Vinod Saighal, distinguished Indian scholars and campaigners for peace, medical students from across India, and prominent physicians and IPPNW leaders from Nepal and Bangladesh. IPPNW was well represented by International Student Representatives Franca Brüggen (Germany) and Kelvin Kibert (Kenya), as well as IPPNW co-presidents Ira Helfand (USA), Arun Mitra (India), and myself (Australia).

Culturally, ethnically and religiously diverse India claims the proud heritage of Buddha and Mahatma Gandhi’s vision of non-violence, a leading role in the formation of the Non Aligned Movement (NAM), and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s espousal of a plan before the United Nations in 1988 to eliminate nuclear weapons worldwide. Successive Indian governments have claimed to support non-discriminatory and complete disarmament by all nuclear-armed nations.

One would hope that in such a land, physicians gathering to discuss the historic new UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, supported by two-thirds of the world governments and the great majority of India’s fellow NAM members, would be welcome. Welcome to come, and welcome to meet and engage in dialogue with officials. After all, there are not many organisations which have been awarded a Nobel Peace Prize (in 1985) and then shared in another through a campaign they founded – in this case the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 2017.

Unfortunately our experience has been bitterly disappointing. Applications for visas for five doctors and medical students from Pakistan, and two medical students from Bangladesh were lodged in November 2017, fully 4 months before the seminar. Their applications were acknowledged as having been duly received. For our Pakistani colleagues, advice was provided that the visas were being processed, but none were granted. The two Bangladeshi students were advised on the same afternoon that the seminar finished that they could collect their visas and passports; too late for them to join.   

Requests were also made four months previously for an international delegation of physicians to meet with officials including the President and Prime Minister, foreign affairs and defence ministers. In the past IPPNW leadership delegations have enjoyed access to senior Indian officials. For example, I can well remember the speech of Indian Vice-President Ansari to the 2008 IPPNW World Congress in Delhi, and IPPNW delegations being received then by the President of India and at least one government minister. Things however have changed. Only one of the recent requests was deigned even the courtesy of a reply. Major General (retired) BC Khanduri, former Chief Minister of Uttarakhand, Chair of the cross-party Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence, agreed to meet a delegation of up to four persons.

Details of those making up a four-person delegation were duly provided: Dr Bansidhar Mishra, Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) Nepal, (former MP and health minister in Nepal); Dr Anindya Shams, PSR Bangladesh; Dr Arun Mitra, Co-President of IPPNW, and Dr Tilman Ruff, Founding Chair of ICAN and co-President of IPPNW.

About four hours before we were due to meet Gen Khanduri, Arun Mitra rang his office to confirm that all was in order for our visit. He was put through directly to Khanduri, whose tone was generous and cordial – “Let’s meet and talk,” reassuring Dr Mitra that if there were any issues with us gaining passes, given heightened security as parliament was in session, we should call his office and his staff would expedite passes for us.

About an hour later Dr Mitra received an email from Gen Khanduri’s office, informing us that Gen Khanduri “is not well and hence is not in a position to meet the visiting Doctors,” and that he “will meet the delegates from IDPD sometime in near future.” We expressed our regret for his illness, wished him an early recovery, and forwarded the document we had been hoping to present to him in person. It outlines our profound concerns about the global catastrophe including unprecedented famine that would follow even a regional nuclear war, such as could well occur between India and Pakistan; the growing dangers of nuclear war including in South Asia; and the historic significance of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

Our letter concluded:

"India has a glorious history of promoting peace since the time of Buddha and Gandhi. India’s role in the Non-Aligned Movement and then putting forward the Rajiv Gandhi Action Plan for global nuclear disarmament have set historic precedents which India should live up to in achieving a world free of nuclear weapons, that is the stated goal and binding obligation of all governments. The elements which India has considered as discriminatory in the NPT do not apply to the TPNW. India has joined the biological weapons and chemical weapons conventions. These appallingly inhumane and indiscriminate weapons however do not pose an existential threat to all humanity, as the worst of all weapons of mass destruction, nuclear weapons, do. Now is the opportunity. India must take the lead along with its neighbour Pakistan to convince all other nuclear weapons possessing countries to join the treaty and move urgently towards complete elimination of nuclear weapons.”

The Indian government’s obstruction of visas for Bangladeshi and Pakistani doctors and medical students to join an international seminar devoted to discussing the landmark new treaty banning nuclear weapons, that pose the most acute existential threat to all humanity, is reprehensible. The unwillingness of Indian officials to meet with a delegation of senior doctors from IPPNW and ICAN, both Nobel Peace Laureate organisations, and including a former health minister from neighbouring Nepal, is disturbing.

Our concern is that this regressive defensiveness is underpinned by a lack of appreciation of the existential threat of self-assured destruction posed by the global suicide bombs that are nuclear weapons. Current policies on both sides of the disputed Line of Control in Kashmir which increase the danger of nuclear war can only be sustained when the reality of what nuclear weapons actually do is denied.

Whatever India’s history and claims, since it initiated the nuclear arms race in South Asia, it remains stubbornly part of the problem rather than the solution to the worst danger humanity confronts.

Around Delhi two large billboards struck me: numerous ones which depict Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Mahatma Gandhi placed on either side of a call to keep Delhi clean. One might hope that Gandhi’s legacy might have deeper resonance in modern India.

A second billboard depicts Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal with the following words beside his portrait and over his signature:

“Democracy is not just the right to vote once in every five years. True democracy is when every citizen participates in the decisions that affect their lives; This is what we should aspire for.”

Indeed we should.

IPPNW physicians and medical students deserved better than their experience in recent days, and we expected better in what claims to be the world’s largest democracy. India’s caste system may be in decline, but in the past days we seem to have been regarded as Dalits – untouchable.

 

        

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