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Chowkidar of Space
Opinion

Chowkidar of Space

T.P Sreenivasan

National security is emerging as the main platform that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is building to seek a mandate to lead India for the next five years. The “Chowkidar” theme has not caught on yet, but it may become the catch phrase this year just as “Chaiwallah” became decisive five years ago. Interestingly, both these phrases were invented and popularised by the opposition to discredit Mr.Modi. He has already declared that it was his foreign policy that led to the release of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman by Pakistan, attributing the pressure on Pakistan from India and abroad to his robust diplomatic and security policies. He has further reinforced that claim by “Mission Shakti”, a bold move in the face of it being considered a violation of the model code of conduct, which is in place. The congratulations extended by Mr. Rahul Gandhi to the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and the decision of the Election Commission that the announcement is not a violation of the code have vindicated the move.

Following PM’s own announcement that India had shot down a live satellite in space and had become the fourth country to do so, the Ministry of External Affairs announced that the purpose of the test was to verify that India has the capability to safeguard its space assets. The test was significant because India had “tested and successfully demonstrated its capability to interdict and intercept a satellite in outer space based on complete indigenous technology”. India used one of its own existing satellites operating in the lower orbit for the mission, the statement said. As for the timing, it said that the test was done after acquiring the “required degree of confidence to ensure its success”.

In anticipation of criticism from abroad, particularly from the major powers, India said it is a party to all the major international treaties on outer space, and expects to play a role in the drafting of international law on prevention of an arms race in outer space. The government reiterated it has no intent to enter an arms race in outer space and that it opposes its weaponisation. It was also clarified that the test is not directed against any country. “India’s space capabilities do not threaten any country and nor are they directed against anyone,” the Ministry said. “At the same time, the government is committed to ensuring the country’s national security interests and is alert to threats from emerging technologies.” The Ministry said, “the capability achieved through the anti-satellite missile test provides credible deterrence against threats to our growing space-based assets from long range missiles, and proliferation in the types and numbers of missiles.”

As for the later criticism by President Trump that the Indian action will result in accumulation of space debris, the Ministry said. “The test was conducted in the lower atmosphere to ensure that there is no space debris. Whatever debris that is generated will decay and fall back onto the earth within weeks.” The “Kinetic Kill” technology was used instead of other means because this is the technology where India has developed capability. As expected, Pakistan and China expressed concern as they do whenever India announces any technological achievement. Internationally, any action by India in the realm of outer space is viewed with suspicion because of our nuclear weapons capability.

The relevant treaty explicitly states that activities in outer space “ shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development, and shall be the province of all mankind.” It also states that

“Outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, shall be free for exploration and use by all States without discrimination of any kind, on a basis of equality and in accordance with international law, and there shall be free access to all areas of celestial bodies.

There shall be freedom of scientific investigation in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, and States shall facilitate and encourage international cooperation in such investigation.” Apart from prohibiting any national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, the most important provision of the treaty is that “States Parties to the Treaty undertake not to place in orbit around the Earth any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction, install such weapons on celestial bodies, or station such weapons in outer space in any other manner.” Our announcement does not, in any way, violate any provisions of the treaty. But the fact remains that only a handful of countries are able to explore outer space and the concept of universality is only in name. India is also in the forefront of formulating principles for future activities. The relevant committees meet in Vienna and I have seen, as Ambassador to the Outer Space Committee, that our space scientists and administrators are held in high regard there. It was a pleasure to meet successive Chairmen of ISRO, including Shri G. Madhavan Nair there.

PM Modi’s announcement has been viewed nationally and internationally as a political move because of its timing. We obviously had the capability to accomplish the feat for several years, but there was no will to demonstrate the capability without any particular reason. It also has no value as a defensive measure, because there is no threat of use of outer space against Indian interests. Whether this adds to the popularity of the PM and thus benefit him in the elections may never be proved one way or another. But India joining a Club of Four with regard to space exploration will benefit our image as a powerful nation. Having won the publicity battle with Pakistan, leading to action by the US and others to designate Masood Azhar as an international terrorist, Mr. Modi has established his reputation for overcoming past hesitations of history to pursue national interests. The designation of “Chowkidar” of the nation he has adopted now includes the responsibility not only for the land and the seas, but also the outer space.