Saying no to nukes

Print edition : June 06, 2008

The Kargil War, the worlds worst conflict between nuclear weapons states, belies the theory that nuclear bombs bring deterrence.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Ten years after Pokhran-II, India is being sucked into an upward spiral of insecurity, high military spending and yet more insecurity.

HEN the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government decided, in complete secrecy and without even the pretence of the promised strategic defence review, to cross the nuclear threshold 10 years ago, it did not advance a national-consensual programme but a sectarian, hawkish agenda, which reflected a peculiar Hindutva obsession with mass-destruction weapons.

That obsession is traceable all the way to 1964, when the Jan Sangh became the sole political party to demand that India build nuclear weapons just when it was crusading for global nuclear disarmament.

The Shakti blasts polarised political opinion. The Left parties criticised them as a reversal of Indias long-standing policy and demanded that India must under no circumstances induct nuclear weapons. The Sangh Parivar went into raptures. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad demanded that India be officially declared a Hindu state.

The Congress was divided. Some of its leaders congratulated Indian scientists for the achievement. Sonia Gandhi said that the real strength lies in restraint, not in the display of Shakti. A fortnight later, Manmohan Singh, Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, made what was probably his most eloquent and impassioned speech when he argued that the Vajpayee government had breached the national consensus that nuclear arms were mass-destruction weapons whose use was a crime against humanity and India should be in the forefront of international efforts to. have these weapons outlawed.

Manmohan Singh warned against ignoring the economic and social dimensions of security and a single-minded pursuit of military objectives. India, he said, would be sucked into an arms race and uncontrollable increases in expenditure on nuclear weapons, which would prove ruinous, as in the former Soviet Union: Therefore, think before you act, think before you weaponise. Playing partisan politics with nuclear policy would be a great disservice to our nation (Sanctifying atomic apartheid, Frontline, August 12, 2005).

The tests came as a surprise even to most supporters of the bomb. Few of them had advocated testing. But as soon as it happened, a majority of these so-called security experts concocted all kinds of justifications for the bomb.

Many of these worthies cited threats from Pakistan although some of them had lobbied against all nuclear restraint proposals emanating from Pakistan since the 1980s. They now began to crave a tit-for-tat response from Pakistan as if that would show that India was not totally isolated. When the Pakistan excuse did not work, they changed their tune and pointed fingers at China. But they could not explain why India could live with Chinas bomb for a quarter-century without having one of its own. Completely absent from this security discourse was the vitally important moral dimension of the nuclear issue.

The moral question was taken up passionately by the peace movement, which soon gathered force among scientists, writers, scholars, artistes, environmentalists and social activists. Although fledgling, it powerfully challenged the political and security assumptions of the dominant discourse, including nuclear deterrence.

The peace movement acquired a pan-Indian organised expression in 2000, with the formation of the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (CNDP) by over 200 peoples movement groups, non-governmental organisations, scientists associations, artists networks and other citizens bodies. The movements views had a resonance with the underprivileged masses who, opinion polls showed, opposed the manufacture and use of nuclear weapons, which do not invest them with prestige, and accorded priority to bread-and-butter issues.

May 1998 thus witnessed a clear split between the policy-shaping elite led by cynical strategic experts and the poor and disadvantaged majority, who wanted state funds to be spent on health care, education, food security and employment generation, not on the military.

Ten years on, four distinct trends are discernible. First, the elite-mass divide has sharpened in keeping with the general experience of the poor with increasingly predatory and dispossessing growth under neoliberal globalisation.

Second, political party-level polarisation has decreased. Both the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party claim credit for Indias nuclearisation (through Pokhran-I and Pokhran-II) or its follow-up (through the proposed United States-India nuclear deal). Even the Left parties are no longer as vocal as they used to be in demanding a rollback of Indias nuclearisation and its return to the global disarmament agenda. A major reason for this is the debate over the nuclear deal, which has generally been couched in nuclear-nationalist terms or within the framework of resistance to neocolonial hegemony, rather than in considerations of peace, rational energy options and environmental sustainability.

Third, most forecasts made by the bombs apologists have turned out false. They confidently predicted that Indias nuclear weapons would give it security and impart stability and maturity to its relations with Pakistan. They said it would also help limit conventional military spending while effectively pre-empting conventional war. (Does not the deterrence theory say that nuclear weapons states NWSs do not go to war with each other?) Most important, they claimed that Indias nuclear status would enhance its global prestige and expand its room for manoeuvre in world affairs.

In reality, nuclearisation has made South Asia manifestly more volatile and insecure. Although the India-Pakistan peace process has reduced tensions since 2004, millions of Indians and Pakistanis remain within the range of missiles of different descriptions but capable of carrying nuclear weapons that concentrate devastating power against which armies, governments and citizens are defenceless.

The presumption that nuclear weapons give security is based on the doctrine of nuclear deterrence. But deterrence which India for 50 years rightly described as morally repugnant, strategically unworkable, and a recipe for an arms race is a deeply flawed doctrine. As game theory analysis and experience with military stand-offs (the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, for instance) show, it is hard to predict how an adversary may behave following a rational calculus although there is no guarantee that he or she will behave rationally.

Thomas Schelling, who won the Economics Nobel in 2005, has shown that a party can strengthen its position by overtly worsening its own options, that the capability to retaliate can be more useful than the ability to resist an attack, and that uncertain retaliation is more credible and more efficient than certain retaliation. Certain, devastating retaliation is at the core of deterrence and Indias nuclear doctrine.

We now know that the probability of a nuclear exchange during the Cuban crisis was far higher than was then understood. And yet, key players from the same side such as John F. Kennedy and Robert S. McNamara had widely divergent perceptions of the effectiveness of their own strategic moves.

Kargil, the worlds greatest-ever conflict between NWSs, offers an even more powerful refutation of the deterrence theory than did the limited Sino-Soviet clashes of the 1970s over the Ussuri river. Kargil, a mid-sized war involving 40,000 troops and top-of-the-line armaments, occurred a year after the Pokhran/Chagai tests. Pakistans generals embarked on that misadventure in the belief that nuclear weapons would shield them against Indian retaliation.

During those seven weeks, India and Pakistan exchanged nuclear threats no fewer than 13 times even as 2,500 soldiers were killed. According to former White House advisor Bruce Riedel, U.S. intelligence had gathered disturbing information about Pakistan preparing its nuclear arsenal without even the knowledge of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. It is inconceivable that India did not make contingency plans for the use of nuclear weapons as the two were heading for a deadly descent into full-scale conflict, with a danger of nuclear cataclysm.

Kargil might have had a far worse outcome had Sharif not asked for U.S. mediation, which led to Pakistans unconditional withdrawal. It also led to a huge escalation of tension between Sharif and General Pervez Musharraf and eventually, an army coup. Pakistan is just beginning to recover from its debilitating effects on the process of democratisation.

Kargil set an extremely dangerous precedent. The potential for escalation of an India-Pakistan conventional conflict to the nuclear level again became evident after the Parliament House attack in December 2001. India and Pakistan eyeballed each other with one million troops for 10 months, and India contemplated a limited strike across the Line of Control.

Pakistan made credible threats to the effect that this would lead to full-scale war and warned of its escalation to the nuclear level. The two states twice came close to the brink of a nuclear catastrophe in early and mid-2002 as they readied nuclear weapons for use according to unimpeachable reports a prospect almost too frightening even to imagine but one that cannot be firmly ruled out given the history of mutual strategic hostility and miscalculation. Once conflicts begin, they acquire their own momentum, and the logic of retaliation and counter-retaliation prevails over normal, rational judgment.

Similarly, apologists of the bomb have been proved totally wrong on the supposedly moderating effect of nuclear weapons on conventional armaments acquisition. This proved a complete delusion during the Cold War, which witnessed both a nuclear and a conventional arms race. In fact, the two fed on each other.

This is equally true of India and Pakistan, which have raised their conventional military spending by leaps and bounds even as they stockpile bomb fuel and test-fly new missiles. Indias military spending has tripled since 1998; Pakistans has doubled. And it is still early days for their nuclear programmes.

Nor have nuclear weapons bestowed global prestige on India. Indias global profile has certainly risen. But that is the effect of Indias successful practice of democracy in a highly diverse and plural society and, more recently, its growing economic power, besides a hangover from the past, when India was a force of moderation and reform of the global system.

If nuclear weapons enhance a nations prestige, one would have seen proof of this in Pakistan and North Korea. But nuclear Pakistan was considered a failing state until late 2001. And North Korea commands nothing approaching prestige.

The peace movement has proved right on most counts although it must be conceded that some of its representatives, including this writer, overestimated the degree and duration of Indias isolation and underestimated the rapidity with which the U.S. would move to embrace this emerging power, not least to contain China.

Not just the moral but also the political-strategic arguments of the movement stand fully validated. The core guns vs. butter moral argument has lost none of its force despite Indias high gross domestic product (GDP) growth, which has not significantly reduced poverty, hunger and mass deprivation. Spending 3 to 3.5 per cent of the GDP on the military while remaining at the level of Afghanistan in public health spending (1 per cent) continues to be obscenely immoral.

The fourth trend is the total retreat of the Indian establishment from the agendas of nuclear restraint, arms reduction and disarmament. Its topmost priority is to push through the nuclear deal with the U.S. and thereby secure legitimacy for Indias mass-destruction weapons.

Behaving like a responsible member of the nuclear club means not rocking the boat but going along with Washingtons plans for upgrading its nuclear weapons, finding new uses for them, launching the unilateral Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) to intercept suspect shipments, and proceeding with ballistic missile defence (BMD). As if in recompense for this, some strategists offer a moderate-sounding agenda in contrast to the maximalist one of testing another H-Bomb and greatly expanding Indias nuclear-missile programme. This includes sticking to minimum deterrence and no-first-use, limiting Indias capability to threaten some of Chinas key industrial and population centres, negotiating nuclear confidence-building measures with Pakistan and, at maximum, joining the recent appeal for a nuclear weapons-free world by George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, William Perry and Sam Nunn (

Problems with the appeal apart including vagueness, lack of a time frame, silence on PSI and BMD this moderation is misleading. Possessing nuclear weapons is itself against moderation: all NWSs have the will and readiness to kill lakhs of non-combatant civilians an act of extreme terrorism if there ever was one. As Manmohan Singh said 10 years ago, history shows that even when NWSs said they would not be the first to use nuclear weapons, their opponents never took that seriously.

This deceptive agenda does not involve stepping back from the nuclear abyss, only not jumping headlong into it. It does not meet the urgent need to grasp the nuclear nettle by energetically promoting regional nuclear restraint and global nuclear elimination.

A good way of doing so would be to update the thoughtful 1988 Rajiv Gandhi Plan for global nuclear disarmament, presented to the Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly. But doing this will also demand unilateral gestures from India like offering to suspend missile test-flights or fissile production while convening an international conference on disarmament jointly with other initiatives such as the Mayors for Peace campaign, the 2020 Vision campaign, Abolition-2000, and advocating a Nuclear Weapons (elimination) Convention. Can India muster the will?

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