No other country in the world debated going nuclear for a longer period than India and yet when the country finally took the plunge it produced more divisiveness than in any other seven declared and undeclared nuclear weapon states. After the tests the ruling party coalition has also not taken adequate steps to explain to the Indian population and the rest of the world the logic for its going nuclear. This lack of effort is all the more surprising because India has a very strong case for acquiring nuclear weapons in the present international security environment. It is therefore essential to have an objective analysis of the circumstances that made India’s acquisition of nuclear weapons inevitable.
Unfortunately, since the Indian political class and bureaucracy do not believe in getting history written up or putting out annual policy statements the continuous security concern vis-a-vis China’s nuclear capability and nuclear proliferation activity were kept away from the attention of Parliament and the people. The country has no tradition of strategic thinking. Our foreign and security policies are mostly reactive and Micawberish with no thought for tomorrow. People have not been told that as far back as 1964, Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri sought security guarantee against the Chinese nuclear threat and he sanctioned the subterranean nuclear explosive project (SNEP) as early as 1965 in response to the Chinese threat. Indira Gandhi sent her envoys, L.K. Jha and Vikram Sarabhai, to Moscow, Paris, London and Washington to seek security guarantees from these four powers. Since India did not get that assurance it decided not to accede to the NPT.
In 1971 India faced a Pakistan-China-US line-up when General Yahya Khan cracked down on the Awami League and population of East Bengal. Nearly a million people were estimated to have been killed and ten million refugees were pushed on to Indian soil. Faced with this hostile combination of powers Mrs Gandhi was compelled to sign a Peace and Friendship Treaty with the Soviet Union to generate adequate deterrence against Chinese adventurism. As it turned out, this was a prudent move and produced the desired results. President Nixon in his interview to Time magazine of 29 July 1985 said about the 1971 crisis:
The Chinese were climbing the walls. We were concerned that the Chinese might intervene to stop India. We didn’t learn till later that they didn’t have that kind of conventional capability. But if they did step in and the Soviets reacted what would we do? There was no question what we would have done.
Nixon lists this as one of the three instances when he considered using nuclear weapons. Even as he did so he despatched the nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed aircraft carrier USS Enterprise into the Bay of Bengal on an intimidatory mission. The Soviet navy sent its task force behind it and the Soviet naval headquarters generated a lot of signals to their submarine fleet at sea in a deterrent exercise. Obviously, this nuclear blackmail should have been one of the factors that persuaded Mrs Gandhi to order the scientists to go ahead with the Pokhran I test.
No doubt Mrs Gandhi got cold feet after the tests and suspended further testing. Meanwhile China and Pakistan concluded a technology cooperation agreement and Pakistan started receiving Chinese support for its nuclear weapon programme. Mrs Gandhi ordered preparations for a nuclear weapon test in 1983 and called them off under US pressure. By 1987 Pakistan achieved nuclear weaponization with Chinese help. The weapon was of Chinese design tested in 1967 as a missile warhead.
Faced with this challenge of China-Pakistan nuclear collaboration Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi ordered a programme of Indian nuclear weaponization in 1988. As Mr V.P. Singh disclosed in the BBC “Hard Talk” interview, India was ready for testing during his tenure of office and he did not do it because India was economically weak and would not have been able to withstand sanctions. Following the legitimization of the nuclear weapons by the international community through the unconditional and indefinite extension of the NPT Mr Narasimha Rao ordered testing of the weapons. Again they were called off because of US pressure. But the shafts made were available for fresh tests at short notice.
In 1996 the CTBT was adopted and the Chinese acted in an unfriendly manner by bringing in at the last moment the entry-into-force clause which specifically targeted India. This was a violation of the Vienna Convention of law of treaties and yet the non-aligned nations abjectly surrendered and adopted the CTBT as dictated by China. Meanwhile the Chinese breaches of article 1 of the NPT continued and they supplied ring magnets and furnaces to Pakistan nuclear weapon establishment without bringing them under safeguards as required under article 3(2) of the NPT. The US connived at all these transactions and also missile transfer from China to Pakistan. The CTBT was due for ratification in 1998 or 1999. The kind of pressure built against India following the Shakti tests would have been built to compel India to sign the CTBT. It was better for India to face the sanctions after conducting the tests and declaring itself a nuclear weapon state instead of facing them without having conducted the tests. It was also logical for a new government to do it in the early days of its office before the US administration and CIA had time to study the strengths and weakness of the government.
Myths on Nuclearization
The kind of disinformation generated by the western academia and media and accepted uncritically by a major portion of our media would not have been possible if our political class, our bureaucracy and our academia had been better educated on nuclear issues in the course of the last three decades of debate in this country.
The first myth is that this particular government was responsible for the tests. The fact is that six prime ministers carried through this programme before this government came to office. Not one of them was against it through they belonged to the Congress, the Janata Dal and the United Front.
The second myth is that there was no threat to justify this nuclearization. Nuclear arsenals are acquired to keep up a particular balance of power and not in response to threats. If threats were to justify nuclear weapons all the powers can give them up since none of them faces a threat.
The third point is that China does not pose a nuclear threat. While it is true that China does not pose a threat in the near term China is steadily pursuing a policy of arming Pakistan with nuclear weapons to countervail India and to prevent India from going nuclear and to restrict India’s role to that of a regional player. It is a long-term sophisticated policy of indirect strategy to curb the future potential of India.
The tests have increased tension, made nuclear war very likely in the subcontinent and have unleashed an arms race. India was aware of Pakistani nuclear weapon capability since 1987. The Pakistanis have been talking of Indian nuclear weapons all the time. The two countries have been fighting a covert war in Kashmir for the last eight years. The war has cost over 18,000 casualties including the mercenaries. This is higher than the Indian casualties in the four wars that India fought the peacekeeping operations, border management and counter-insurgency operations other than the J&K operations since 1989. Yet the covert war did not escalate as the Pakistani infiltration in Kashmir in 1965 did. This is attributed by both Indian and many American observers to the effect of perceived mutual deterrence operating between the two countries. In other words the experience of the last eight years will confirm the experience among the nuclear weapon powers-US and Soviet Union, China and the Soviet Union and US and China that nuclear weapons tend to stabilize a situation instead of escalating tensions. Because of the presence of nuclear weapons on both sides the Indian Army did not cross the line of control in spite of the intensity of covert war and its conventional superiority. The Pakistan army halted the JKLF from crossing the line of control with the use of force. Both sides are self-deterred.
India has offered a no-first-use agreement to Pakistan. Since India has conventional superiority there is no need for India to escalate to nuclear level. There are therefore no additional risks because of Indian nuclear weapons coming into the open. Pakistani nuclear weapons have been there for the last eleven years and Pakistan has behaved with restraint in spite of losing the fourth war in Kashmir-the covert war. The tests have brought only one new element to the India-Pakistan equation. Pakistan can now feel more secure vis-a-vis the larger India. That in fact is a contribution to stability. No doubt there was a certain amount of provocative rhetoric on both sides which started with the Ghauri tests. Both sides are quickly settling down to normal relationship-normal in sub-continental terms. Most of the scares about escalation, accidental war and unauthorized use are all fears borrowed from the Cold War confrontation in Europe where thousands of nuclear weapons were deployed on both sides on hair-trigger alert, the confronting parties were among the most war-prone nations of the world and have had military cultural traditions of three centuries of continuous wars in Europe culminating in two world wars in which genocidal city busting became acceptable. The nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was an extension of that genocidal bombing culture. In that culture the nuclear weapons presented enormous risks especially in an era when the western strategists did not even have the basic understanding of a nuclear war. Using hundreds and thousands of nuclear warheads War was unfightable and unwinnable. Happily that era is over and there is clear understanding that one bomb on one city is not acceptable.
As against the wars fought elsewhere in the world in which tens and hundreds of thousands of casualties were inflicted (Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Iran, Iraq, and Gulf wars) the India-Pakistan hostilities were fought with scrupulous regard to humanitarian laws of war. The three India-Pakistan wars produced 1910, 3382 and 3954 Indian casualties and analogous Pakistani casualties. In the last 26 years in spite of the covert war in Kashmir there has been no interstate war between India and Pakistan. That cannot be said about the war-prone nuclear hegemonic powers. It is unfortunate that many of our people have fallen easy prey to the western propaganda and talk of Kashmir being the next flashpoint. Though Pakistanis attempt to go along with that propaganda line in public so as to involve the western powers in the Kashmir dispute and to generate pressure on India, in private conversations they accept that the possibility of war is extremely low. In the nuclear context it is even lower than what it was earlier.
The most absurd fear expressed is about the possibility of an arms race in the region. Pakistan had the nuclear weapon in 1987 and India in 1990. Unlike the war-prone nuclear hegemonic powers these two nations did not brandish their weapons. Even as they started to build up their arsenals slowly and steadily Pakistan kept its defence expenditure as percentage of gross domestic product steady and even made marginal downward adjustments. India drastically cut its defence expenditure from 3.3 per cent of GDP to 2.3 per cent during this period. Therefore unlike the experience of the nuclear hegemonic powers the first eight years of the nuclear era in the subcontinent did not see any arms race. The budgets published after the nuclear tests do not show any signs of arms race either. That is only logical. Pakistan is on the verge of an economic crisis which is structural and basic to its economy. It is not in a position to spend a lot more money on arms without cutting down elsewhere in defence.
That aside, Pakistan’s nuclear and missile capabilities are limited by what China can provide for Pakistan. While China has decided to arm Pakistan with nuclear weapons and missiles to countervail India it cannot be in its own interest to permit Pakistan to become an autonomous nuclear weapon power. For these reasons one does not expect Pakistan to be in a position to get into an arms race. China is already in an arms race with the United States puffing in optimum efforts to modernize its armaments to pose a credible deterrent threat to the US even as the latter is attempting to develop ballistic missile defence systems. Therefore the Indian nuclear capability cannot be a significant factor in China’s calculations against the overall efforts it is making vis-a-vis the US.
India aims at a minimum deterrence with commitment to no-first-use. While it requires a command and control system it does not require systems of the type deployed in the West with thousands of nuclear weapons confronting each other on hair-trigger alert. It requires a simple system which would guarantee retaliation. All talk of first strike and second strike is a hangover of the Cold War nuclear theology which has been discredited. No country in the world is likely to initiate a disarming strike using hundreds and thousands of nuclear warheads, which was then the anticipated contingency for which a survivable second strike had to be designed and that too for sustained warfighting. Today everyone knows that such a first strike will be an environmental catastrophe. Therefore a limited arsenal in two digits or low three digits widely dispersed using mobile launchers and the warheads and vectors being kept separate will provide adequate deterrence and will not cost an arm and a leg.