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The Untold Story of International Law, India and the Atomic Bomb

The (UN)Charter was signed on 26 June 1945. A less troubled world was its promise. But the clash of arms could still be heard. A new weapon was yet to come. It must first be tested. The date was 12 July 1945; the place Alamogordo. The countdown began. The moment came: "The radiance of a thousand suns. " That was the line which came to the mind of the leader of the scientific team. He remembered also the end of the ancient verse: "I am become death, The Shatterer of Worlds".[1]


The brilliance of Christopher Nolan has created a juggernaut called ‘Oppenheimer’. The film has significant relevance in the context of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict amongst other things. But as tension ceaselessly escalate the specter of nuclear confrontation rises. A possibility since Oppenheimer's time, lingers. This tension highlights the delicate role of international law in managing and potentially mitigating such crises. According to scholar Hillary Charlesworth, international law tends to flourish amidst crisis, presenting opportunities for constructive dialogue and possible resolution. The Russia-Ukraine situation underscores the necessity of stringent legal frameworks regulating the use of such devastating weaponry. Laws to prevent the cataclysmic outcomes of nuclear warfare that Oppenheimer's creation threatened to unleash. The magnitude of the destruction is perhaps best encapsulated in Oppenheimer’s recital from the Bhagavad Gita, “now I have become death, the destroyer of worlds".

Oppenheimer and the Bhagavad Gita

Despite the widespread discussions, one important aspect has been overlooked. India and the founder of the bomb and India and the bomb itself. On the former, it must be noted that the first Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru pictured was with Oppenheimer, and the latter was offered Indian citizenship which Oppenheimer politely declined due to his strong American patriotism. That is not all. Nayantara Sahgal, Nehru’s niece, in her book Nehru: Civilizing A Savage World’, reproduced a letter received in 1951 from her mother and his sister, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, who was serving at the time as India’s envoy in Moscow, Washington and London. In the letter, she told him about a conversation she had with Oppenheimer, who rung her up from Princeton, and told her the United States was developing a weapon far more deadly than the atomic bomb. For this purpose, the US needed access to India’s ‘inexhaustible supply’ of thorium and was prepared to offer wheat in exchange. Oppenheimer begged India not to sell any thorium to the US voluntarily or through pressure. One can, to this end, assume the inner workings of Oppenheimer’s mind. Perhaps at this junction, his mind was consumed with the thoughts of Nishkama Karma, a key teaching of the Gita, which speaks of duty performed without attachment to results or expectation of rewards. This principle of selfless action can be applied to the context of international relations, where nations are seen as actors carrying out their international obligations not for recognition or gain, but out of an inherent responsibility as global community members.

According to Brownlie, states have obligations under international law to adhere to laws, treaties and protocols, provide humanitarian aid, and contribute to addressing global issues like climate change or poverty reduction. Drawing from the Gita, these obligations can be pursued without seeking immediate returns or direct benefits, reflecting Nishkama Karma's spirit. By embracing this principle, as noted by Evans, countries may operate more from a sense of duty than a desire for power or dominance. The result could be a more harmonious and equitable global society, aligning with scholars' views who argue for less conflict over resources, power, or status, and greater focus on fulfilling responsibilities for the collective benefit.

Alternatively, the teachings of the Gita also emphasize peace and Dharma. The concept of Dharma can be interpreted as a righteous duty or moral order, suggesting that each entity has a role to play in maintaining world balance. When this principle is applied to international relations, each nation has a 'dharma' or duty to uphold peace and order in the global community. Respecting the sovereignty of other nations is fundamental to international law, with the UN Charter outlining the principle of non-intervention in the domestic affairs of states. Dharma in this context also means resolving conflicts through dialogue and diplomacy rather than force and behaving responsibly with the world's shared resources. The Gita's peace teachings align with the modern concept of peacebuilding in international relations, which involves fostering mutual understanding and cooperation among nations, working towards global justice and equality. A world where nations adhere to the principles of peace and Dharma would be one where disputes are settled amicably through negotiation rather than war, and where each country plays its part in preserving global peace and harmony.

India and the International Court of Justice (ICJ)

The role of India in the international nuclear discourse is quite unique and complex, given the country's nuanced position of maintaining a nuclear arsenal while advocating for disarmament and promoting a no-first-use policy. This stance underlines the need for a more in-depth investigation into India's philosophy towards nuclear weaponry, especially its unwavering opposition to the employment of nuclear weapons under any circumstances. The ICJ, the principal judicial organ of the United Nations, was asked to weigh in on the legality of nuclear weapons use in 1996 in the case known as "Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons". This landmark case presented an opportunity for the ICJ to rule on the legality of nuclear weapons, potentially shaping the norms and principles of international law regarding nuclear armament.

However, the Court refrained from making an absolute declaration on the legality of nuclear weapons use. The Advisory Opinion held that neither customary nor conventional international law could universally ban the threat or use of nuclear weapons. The Court was deeply divided on the issue, with a split of 7-7 among the judges. The Court remained inconclusive on whether the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be lawful or unlawful in an extreme circumstance where the survival of a state is at stake.

In the midst of this divided opinion, Judges Mohamed Shahabuddeen and Christopher Weeramantry emerged as strong dissenting voices. Notably, they referred to verses from the Bhagavad Gita to substantiate their arguments. Judge Weeramantry, a distinguished jurist from Sri Lanka, was particularly vocal in his dissent. He underscored in his renowned dissent that the use or threat of nuclear weapons is always unlawful, due to the existential threat they pose to life on Earth. Judge Weeramantry, a distinguished jurist from Sri Lanka, emphasized in his renowned dissent that the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons is always unlawful as it poses an existential threat to life on the planet:

It is indeed as though, with remarkable prescience, the founding fathers had picked out the principal areas of relevance to human progress and welfare which could be shattered by the appearance only six weeks away of a weapon which for ever would alter the contours of war - a weapon which was to be described by one of its creators, in the words of ancient oriental wisdom, as a "shatterer of world”.[2]

These series of events illustrate the intersection of moral philosophy, international law, and global politics. It underscores the need to critically examine and debate the principles guiding international law, particularly those related to weapons of mass destruction, like nuclear weapons. In this discourse, India's stance and the ethical considerations drawn from the Bhagavad Gita can provide valuable perspectives to foster a more peace-oriented global narrative. Interestingly, Weeramantry joined the ICJ to fill the vacancy left by the premature death of Indian Judge Nagendra Singh in 1988, a position he assumed after a temporary period of Supreme Court Judge R S Pathak. In his 1959 book “Nuclear Weapons and International Law” Singh posited that resorting to nuclear weapons is not just incompatible with the laws of war, but also incongruous with international law. He argued that using nuclear weapons, on any scale, implies a refusal to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants, as well as military targets, violating the legal obligations of the laws of war.

Remarkably, the year of Singh's election to the ICJ coincided with its first case dealing with the legality of nuclear weapons. In May 1973, Australia and New Zealand filed cases against France concerning nuclear weapons tests in the South Pacific region. Although the ICJ recommended that France abstain from nuclear tests pending the Court's decision, it eventually found no legal dispute to settle since France announced its cessation of further nuclear tests post-1974. Unfortunately, Singh never got the chance to voice his views on the legality of nuclear weapons use in this case. Notably, India conducted its inaugural nuclear test in Singh's home state of Rajasthan just a week after the ICJ's ruling in the Australia v France case.


Regardless, Singh was not against the possession of nuclear weapons per se, but their use, he was. This was also a core message of the Bhagavad Gita as highlighted by Judge Weeramantry in the ICJ in 1996. As we continue discussing nuclear weapons today, Judge Nagendra Singh's nuanced discourse on their use is worth revisiting.


[1] Shahabuddeen, M. (1996). Dissenting Opinion in Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons. International Court of Justice Reports, Pg 1 and Peter Michelmore, Tlze Swift Years, Tlze Robert Oppenheimer Story, 1969, p. 110. Oppenheimer could read the verse in the original Sanskrit of the Bhagavad-Gita. [2] Weeramantry, C. (1996). Dissenting Opinion in Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons. International Court of Justice Reports, Pg 220 and Robert Oppenheimer, quoting The Bhagvad gita. See Peter Goodchild, Robert Oppenheimer: Shatterer of Worlds, 1980.


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