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- Saturday, October 04, 2008 - From Print Edition

Just days after the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) ended a 34-year ban on civilian nuclear trade with India in recognition of its not so "impeccable" proliferation record, five people in India were arrested for smuggling of uranium ore, a substance needed for making nuclear weapons or radiological dispersive devices (RDD). Interestingly, on Sept 9, 2008 in another incident that exposed India's tall claims of strict adherence to its export/import regulations of controlled items, the US Federal Grand Jury in Washington D.C. returned a five-count indictment against an Indian national and an Indian corporation on charges of supplying the government of India with controlled goods and technology without the required licenses.

According to a BBC story on Sept 10 on uranium smuggling, "the arrests are at an embarrassing time for India…. [as] Indian officials had been working hard to convince the international community, especially the members of the NSG, that its nuclear industry is in "safe hands."

The uranium confiscated from the smugglers had a seal of India's Atomic Minerals Division which has raised concerns about Indian officials' complicity in the incident. The Atomic Minerals Division looks after uranium mines in the country. The report also alleges that in May this year Indian police had arrested five people in Meghalaya in a similar incident of stealing uranium ore from the Indian mines. In a third incident reported this year Indian police intercepted four kilograms of uranium ore being smuggled from the Jaduguda mines in Jharkand to Nepal. The market value of the consignment was estimated at Rs50 million in the international market.

Perturbed by frequent reports of uranium smuggling from India, the US magazine WMD Insights wrote earlier in its June 2006 issue that nuclear smuggling is quite frequent from uranium mines located at Jharkhand. Some of the US government reports have been highlighting the problem of uranium thefts from Indian mines, and it has made some US policymakers nervous as the material could end up in wrong hands and be used in acts of nuclear terrorism.

According to a Reuters report on Sept 9, the US Grand Jury indicted an Indian national and Rajaram Engineering Corporation of India for conspiring to circumvent the export control laws of the United States by trans-shipping controlled goods through Rajaram to listed entities such as Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC) in India. The VSSC is responsible for research, development, and production of India's space launch systems, both civilian spacecraft and ballistic missiles systems. The object of conspiracy was to evade the prohibitions and licensing requirements of the US Export Administration Regulations (EAR) by concealing the identity of the ultimate consignee of the controlled goods. Failure to obtain a license prior to export is a criminal offence.

Violations of this nature are not something new for India's strategic organisations involved in development of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems. In April 2007 the International Herald Tribune reported that the US Justice Department charged Indian "government agencies" that participated in a conspiracy to sidestep US export regulations and obtain secret weapons technology from American companies over several years.

In this case, according to the indictment a private company, Cirrus, operating in Singapore, South Carolina and Banglore, was working as an agent of the Indian government to obtain sensitive missile and weapons technology for its military programmes. The three Indian companies that were named included Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, Bharat Dynamics and the Aeronautical Development Establishment. The accused company had made illicit shipments working closely with a co-conspirator – an unidentified Indian government official located in Washington.

Interestingly, these incidents continue to happen even after the Indian government had given written assurances to the US in 2004 that India would not violate US export control laws. Earlier, in a letter to the State Department, then Indian foreign secretary Shyam Saran had written that "the government of India shall not obtain or use US origin licensable items in contravention of the US export control laws and regulations."

According to the International Herald Tribune: "the charges coming just months after Congress approved President Bush's plan to ship American nuclear reactors and fuel to India, could prove to be an embarrassment for the administration, which has made closer ties with India a top foreign policy priority." US State Department spokesperson, in an attempt to dilute the consequences for the India-US civil nuclear cooperation agreement under consideration of the US Congress at the time, had termed the incident as a law enforcement matter and justified that the incident happened before the US efforts to conclude the nuclear deal.

Whether the incident happened before or during the process of the negotiations, it exposed the tall claims made by the Bush administration as well as the Indian government that India is being accorded exceptional favour due to its 'impeccable' non-proliferation record.

The writer is pursuing doctoral studies at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad. Email: [email protected]