Two years after the historic folly

Print edition : May 13, 2000

With India-Pakistan relations plummeting to their worst-ever peacetime low, and with growing waywardness of their societies and politics, Pokhran-II and Chagai look like terrible blunders; the subcontinent's nuclearisation must be reversed.

IF the first anniversary of the Pokhran-II and Chagai nuclear tests was marked by India's and Pakistan's plunge into an undeclared war, the highlight of the second anniversary is the plummeting of their relations to the most abysmal point ever in peaceti me, with the possibility of yet another military confrontation looming large. This should impel sobering rethinking on the part of those who had naively believed that nuclearisation would stabilise India-Pakistan relations and deter military adventurism. After all, the fear of mass destruction, many people thought, would induce restraint and sobriety even among the reckless.

Nothing of the sort happened. Kargil turned out to be the worst conventional conflict between two nuclear weapons-states (NWSs), involving 35,000 troops, top-of-the-shelf weaponry and air strikes. It claimed 2,000 lives, besides Rs.8,000 crores. A n attempt was made to obliterate this truth and cover up through the K. Subrahmanyam Committee report the lapses that led to the bloody conflict. We were told that Kargil was an outright military victory, when the conflict ended through de facto m ediation by the U.S., with Pakistan agreeing to pull back the so-called Mujahideen and India agreeing not to chase them or impound their weaponry. Now we are being treated to the poisonous rhetoric of a "limited conventional war" between two NWSs as rout ine and normal. Home Minister L.K. Advani says Pakistan is bent upon "disintegrating" India. Pakistan deserves a fitting, decisive, final reply...

The number of Indians who believe that no lasting peace is possible in this region without the destruction of Pakistan, and vice versa, has probably never been greater. It will not do to argue that this is unrelated to nuclearisation and derives s olely from the situation in Kashmir, muddied by Pakistan's support for "cross-border terrorism". This support is not new. Kashmir has itself become inseparable from nuclearisation. Indeed, none other than Advani established that link on May 18, 1998 when he famously talked of the changed "geo-strategic" environment. Nuclear weapons have since comprehensively changed the disposition of the Kashmir problem.

Supporters of the A.B. Vajpayee government's decision to cross the nuclear threshold - a decision made before the parliamentary vote of confidence of April 17, 1999, and hidden even from the Home and Defence Ministers - advanced three claims: n uclear weapons would enhance India's security; they would expand the room for independent foreign policy-making and heighten India's global stature; and nuclearisation would induce maturity and stability in India's relations with Pakistan. These claims w ere largely made as ex post rationalisations of the tests by "experts" who had hitherto favoured nuclear ambiguity for the most part. They were suspect on that very count. Now they ring even more hollow.

The most laughable is the claim about "security". During the 34 years that India lived under the supposedly dangerous Chinese bomb, and for the 10 years or more since it suspected Pakistan of having acquired nuclear weapons, it did not consider it necess ary to take extreme measures such as raising military spending by 28 per cent in a single year, especially privileging scientists dedicated to military projects, or building underground shelters. Today, it is doing precisely that, with plans to construct an underground command structure at the cost of Rs.1,100 crores - more money than the Centre commits to fighting the drought.

Apart from dangerously heightening rivalry with Pakistan, and causing unease in the immediate neighbourhood (which has been put on the nuclear firing line for no fault of its), India's nuclearisation has undermined the significant improvement that took p lace in relations with China in the 1990s. Uncertainty hangs over the major agreements on "peace and tranquillity" along the border, signed in 1993 and 1996, which promised huge force reductions. China remains unreconciled to India's nuclear status. Repe atedly named a "threat", and excluded from the list of states that were sent letters by Vajpayee to "explain" Pokhran-II, China persistently demands India's compliance with Security Council Resolution 1172, which demands a complete rollback.

China's fear of India is partly driven by the new strategic proximity between New Delhi and Washington, and by what Beijing sees as the absence of a security rationale for Pokhran-II. Along with the menace from the Theatre Missile Defence the U.S. plans in East Asia, India's nuclear activities are likely to impel a serious change in China's nuclear posture and doctrine. Going by discussions with experts close to that government, China is seriously worried by the Draft Nuclear Doctrine (DND) released in 1999, and is likely to target India as a nuclear adversary if India acquires significant numbers of nuclear weapons and develops the Agni.

A compelling logic is in operation here, that of an arms race involving China as well as Pakistan. This could make nonsense of "minimality" in a "minimum credible nuclear deterrent", although Sino-India nuclear asymmetry will persist for a long time.

India, then, courted insecurity by going down the nuclear path. At the international level too, India (and Pakistan) broke ranks with the Non-aligned states by delinking fissile material talks from an NWS commitment to put nuclear elimination on the agen da of the Conference on Disarmament. This means the loss of one of the few levers left in the hands of pro-disarmament forces. India now behaves like any other arrogant NWS, indeed even more cynically, as in opposing a special United Nations session on d isarmament, which it once passionately demanded.

On the external relations front, India has deserted the non-aligned platform and moved towards a "strategic partnership" with the U.S. The significance of the Bill Clinton visit lies in sealing the partnership. This means a contraction, not expans ion, of the room for independent manoeuvre. India accepts the premises of the U.S. agenda on "free trade" and second-generation "reforms". It is becoming America's principal partner in this region.

It is wrong to see Clinton's visit as something inspired by India's nuclearisation. The visit, originally planned for 1997, was meant to effect a long-overdue "correction" in power balances after the end of the Cold War. Its more proximate causes have to do with India's economic growth within the globalisation paradigm, successes of our non-resident community in the U.S., and growing fascination with the New Economy, in which Indian Information Technology has a (misleading) profile, despite its low weig ht in global terms. Clinton's lovefest in India had nothing to do with being impressed with nuclear weapons. Similarly, it would be delusory to believe that Pokhran-II has strengthened India's claim to a Security Council seat.

Nuclearisation has lent a particularly dangerous edge to India-Pakistan strategic rivalry. That multi-faceted rivalry has many different triggers. It is intrinsically far more volatile than the U.S.-USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) conflict. So uth Asia is the world's only region which has witnessed a continuous hot-cold war for half a century, with no signs of abatement. The subcontinent is under the sway of extreme-right forces, which add to its volatility in a unique way. A purely "internal" event can precipitate a huge bilateral conflict.

India and Pakistan are greatly disaster-prone and have a poor safety culture, and low diligence in hazard management. Neither will have for a long time half-way reliable weapon command and control systems. Even with some $900 billion sunk into them, the superpowers failed to achieve freedom from high accident risks or false alarms. The danger of an intended or accidental nuclear attack is considerably higher in the subcontinent than at any time during the Cold War after the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. If nuclear weapons are deployed, the chances of their actual use will become finite. Even a low probability is unacceptable.

India and Pakistan have paid an awesome price for their nuclear adventurism. The near-collapse of the Pakistani economy is directly related to Chagai. Nawaz Sharif's impounding of foreign currency deposits, announced in his May 28 austerity package, prec ipitated the process. Both countries have lost over $3 billion in aid and concessional loans or export credit. This is no small sum; it equals the annual foreign direct investment inflows; to attract which their governments strain themselves so much.

Economically, weaponisation will prove extraordinarily burdensome. Even a small arsenal, one-fifth the size of China's, could over some years cost India Rs.50,000 crores, which exceeds the country's entire annual expenditure on primary education. Should India go in for a bigger, triadic, arsenal as envisaged in the DND, its cost alone could exceed a frightening 5 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP), especially if there is an arms race. Even a minor arms race with India will prove ruinous for Pakist an, which is already on the verge of collapse.

Nuclear weapons carry high ecological costs. For instance, the costs of cleaning up the environmental mess left behind by the U.S. weapons programme are officially estimated at $250 billion - only slightly lower than India's GDP. These include radiation and waste releases at each stage of the nuclear fuel cycle from uranium mining upwards. All handling, transportation and storage of nuclear materials involves harmful exposure to radioactivity.

The social and political costs of nuclearisation perhaps dwarf all other costs. Embracing the "abhorrent" doctrine of nuclear deterrence means seeking security through insecurity, terror, and threat to cause havoc on a mass scale, with pitiless disregard for life. This is simply incompatible with humane and civilised values. Nuclearisation entails matsyanyaya, a Hobbesian conception of human beings in constant conflict. Nuclearism entails getting our childen to accept a deeply immoral state of so ciety as normal. It means rationalising and routinising mass terror and the basest notion of "Might is Right". Politically, this militates against the principles of equality, participation and human rights - at the heart of democracy.

In India, the nuclear "national security" mindset has invaded science and technology too. After Pokhran-II, the government privileged scientists working on weapons and gave them special pay. This is a national-chauvinist perversion of socially responsibl e science. Today, just three departments (atomic energy, Defence Research and Development and space) account for 71 per cent of all Central spending on Science and Technology, including the main laboratory chains such as the Council of Scientific and Ind ustrial Research (CSIR), the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and departments of S&T and biotechnology. In no other country is S&T so badly militarised. This perversion is in keeping with the e mergence of nuclear and defence scientists as the most vocal lobby for the Bomb more than a decade ago, which single-mindedly petitioned government after government for permission to refine weapons designs and conduct tests.

TODAY, we stand at a crossroads. The Vajpayee government, the most right-wing in our independent history, has hardened its nuclear posture. It believes that it has a measure of acceptance for this from the U.S. The Congress(I) is vacillating as never bef ore on the nuclear deterrent issue. The Left alone firmly opposes nuclear weapons. This oppositional constituency must grow if there is to be no nuclear deployment, and there is to be return to India's long-standing global nuclear disarmament agenda.

India has a historic opportunity today: unilaterally put its nuclear and missile programmes under a freeze for a limited period of time so that the NWSs can negotiate deep arms reductions and move towards abolition. Morally and politically, this would be electrifying. But that means shedding narrow, parochial "Right is Might" nationalism.

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