The risks of nuclear hawkishness

Print edition : April 11, 1998

Unilateral conversion, by India or Pakistan, of the nuclear option into weapons backed by a delivery system will have disastrous consequences for peace and security in the South Asian region.

WHETHER the Bharatiya Janata Party-led minority coalition Government will actually go ahead and carry out the promise/threat to weaponise India's long-held nuclear option must remain, at best, speculative during these early days. It may well be, as some BJP insiders suggest, that the nuclear threshold will not be crossed so long as the party leads a coalition government. This means that for now the hawkish rhetoric is a ploy to divert attention from the real decision - to maintain the status quo - and to keep everyone, especially Pakistan, in a state of uncertainty for no sensible reason. But there can and must be no complacency: South Asian nuclear affairs are far too serious a matter to be played around with in a game of dare-and-bluff.

What must be deplored by everyone interested in peace, a sober and forward-looking conduct of foreign policy, and good neighbourly relations is the chauvinistic thinking and adventurism that has underlain the BJP's and the saffron brigade's approach to India's nuclear policy. Historically, this goes back to the sabre-rattling days of the BJP's earlier avatar, the Bharatiya Jan Sangh.

In the recent period, the BJP has made the following specific promises in its election manifestoes: to "give our Defence Forces Nuclear Teeth" (1991); to "re-evaluate the country's nuclear policy and exercise the option to induct nuclear weapons" and "expedite the serial production of Prithvi and make Agni I operational for the deployment of these missiles... (and) hasten the development of Agni II"(1996); and to "expedite the country's nuclear policy and exercise the option to induct nuclear weapons" and "expedite the development of the Agni series of ballistic missiles with a view to increasing their range and accuracy"(1998).

In their National Agenda For Governance (adopted on March 18, 1998), the BJP and its alliance partners have promised/threatened to "re-evaluate the nuclear policy and exercise the option to induct nuclear weapons" (presumably as part of, or following, "India's first ever Strategic Defence Review" by a National Security Council). In all fairness, it must be noted that the qualifications introduced by both the Prime Minister ("if necessary") and the Defence Minister ("if need be": see interview on page 10) do amount to softening the image of the minority Government's nuclear posture.

Aside from the saffron brigade and the occasional retired general who argues that it is cost-effective to rely on nuclear weapons and acquire "minimum deterrence", the hawks are drawn from the small community of strategic affairs analysts and a handful of media commentators. Fortunately, neither the atomic energy establishment nor the armed forces have really pushed for weaponisation of the country's nuclear option.

Some strategic affairs analysts have recommended, without giving serious thought to either feasibility or regional and international implication, that India should conduct a short series of nuclear tests, confer on itself the status of a nuclear weapon power, and then join the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). A modified version of this prescription is that India should declare itself - and act like - a nuclear weapon power without conducting any further tests (because tests will attract international notoriety), thus presenting a fait accompli to the five member nuclear weapons club. Others talk, less hawkishly, about developing a policy of credible 'recessed deterrence' which can be raised to an 'overt level' if need be - in response to a deteriorating security environment (in other words if there are firm indications that Pakistan is taking the short but steep steps to weaponisation of the nuclear option).

What is clear is that nuclear hawkishness does not serve India's national and democratic interests at all. Specifically, unilateral conversion - by either India or Pakistan - of the nuclear option into weapons backed by a delivery system will have disastrous consequences for peace and security in the South Asian region.

In December 1974, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi with Energy Minister K.C. Pant (left) and Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Dr. H.C. Sethna at the site of the peaceful nuclear explosion at Pokhran in Rajasthan.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Post-1974, it has been clear that India is a nuclear weapon capable power. For well over a decade, it has been clear that Pakistan is also a nuclear weapon capable power. One of the problems with strategic affairs analysis in both countries is the sanctimonious distinction made between one's own 'legitimate' nuclear programme and the other's 'illegitimate' nuclear programme. Elements of paranoia are sometimes evident in the debate, especially when it is staged in the media.

Lobbying for weaponisation from within the Indian strategic affairs community has thrown up two core arguments that need to be reckoned with. The first 'expert' argument is (as a newspaper columnist puts it) that "an option unexercised indefinitely is bound to become meaningless." The related argument, based on a clear exaggeration of the (technical-logistical as well as doctrinal) capabilities of Pakistan to the point of suggesting that it is ahead of India with respect to combined nuclear warhead and delivery system capability, is that India's nuclear programme and policy suffer from a dynamic instability and that India is actually at a disadvantage vis-a-vis Pakistan.

Both arguments can be seen to be tendentious if we look at the history of the Indian nuclear programme and policy and comparatively at the range and depth of the two South Asian nuclear programmes and also at the development of delivery capabilities. Over the past decade and a half, leaders of the Indian nuclear energy establishment have been consistently making the point that the Indian nuclear programme has a content and depth which Pakistan's lacks, has been active on both the power and research fronts, and has stayed consistently ahead (despite its problems).

As for the nuclear option, there must be conceptual clarity about what it is, why it has been retained, protected and developed, what are the conditions under which it will not be exercised, and what are its motivations and purpose. From a democratic and progressive standpoint, the pursuit of independence on the nuclear question must go hand in hand with non-hawkishness, self-restraint and a genuine commitment to the global delegitimation and elimination of nuclear weapons.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), concluded in 1968 and brought into force in 1970, was given an indefinite and unconditional 'extension' in May 1995 at a shepherded and stage-managed New York Review and Extension Conference. Its essence is the permanent division of the world into five nuclear weapon powers, the 'haves' - the United States, the Soviet Union/Russia, the United Kingdom, France and China - and the rest, the 'havenots'. By defining a nuclear weapons state as "one which has manufactured and exploded a nuclear weapon or other nuclear explosive device prior to 1 January 1967" and prohibiting any signatory other than the five members of the pre-NPT nuclear weapons club from possessing nuclear weapons, the NPT vests the former with superior vested rights which have been 'immortalised' at least on paper.

Many are the rationalisations and excuses that have been held out over the years on behalf of the unequal global nuclear bargain. In the Cold War era, assumptions of monopoly and absolute superiority had to give way to the doctrines of 'rough equivalence' and 'strategic deterrence', with both the United States and the Soviet Union, the two global nuclear powers, showing zealousness in enforcing the bargain. In their own ways, the three other nuclear weapon powers held firm to the principles of inequality and discrimination that underlie the NPT regime. But what legitimate reason can there be today for not agreeing to eliminate nuclear arsenals if the real goal is global nuclear disarmament?

The implementation of various nuclear arms limitation and reduction agreements and the downsizing of nuclear arsenals that has taken place are no doubt positive developments. But not for one moment can it be forgotten that what remains of the arsenals is of monster proportions.

From the time of Independence, India has been calling for global nuclear disarmament. Over the years it has faced many pressures designed to make it fall in line with the unequal bargain. But it has managed to resist the pressures and refuse to capitulate to the bargain while retaining its original commitment to disarmament. The retention of the nuclear option must be seen in this context.

In the post-1974 period, India's posture and actions on the nuclear option have been characterised by a mixture of conditional self-restraint and resistance towards the arm-twisting 'non-proliferation' efforts spearheaded by the United States. Despite the obstructions and pressures and vacillations, national policy has succeeded in preserving its commitment to the peaceful, non-military uses of nuclear energy while refusing to sign away the sovereignty of national decision-making on the issue. The delicate line separating these two aspects is the political option.

Until the BJP-led minority Government came along, it could be stated as a probability, even a virtual certainty, that the policy would remain committed to a peaceful, non-military orientation subject to the perfectly reasonable condition that Pakistan would not convert its nuclear option into weapons or explosions. This is where the positive element of conditional self-restraint has operated in the post-1974 period.

Among those in India who analyse nuclear issues seriously, the presumption has been that the factor of self-restraint aside, the guaranteed prospect of a cut-off of bilateral and multilateral aid and the imposition of a range of trade and economic sanctions has been a far more effective deterrent than any direct or overt 'non-proliferation' initiative from the enforcers of the unequal global nuclear bargain. To be added to this are the likely international and regional costs of a militarisation of the nuclear options in South Asia.

U.S. Ambassador Richard E. Celeste was not out of line (as a bit of journalistic sensationalism and a somewhat churlish comment from an External Affairs Ministry official suggested) when, in response to my specific questions in an on-the-record Chennai breakfast meeting in early February 1998, he spoke about the "very unsettling consequences" in the neighbourhood that weaponisation of India's nuclear option would produce. His comments, accurately reported in context in The Hindu of February 4, 1998, are worth recalling for the insight they offer into the guaranteed Western, and the likely international, response: "I am sure our government would have deep concerns if India were to go beyond the present position of maintaining the nuclear option."

After registering appreciation of the fact that India had not tested a nuclear device after 1974, had not shared its nuclear technology with other countries, and had not weaponised its option, Ambassador Celeste attempted to put Indo-U.S. differences on the nuclear issue in context. He offered this assessment: "If a government in India chooses to weaponise, declare India a nuclear weapon state and particularly if such a government were to test a nuclear weapon, I believe that would have very unsettling consequences in terms of India's relations in the neighbourhood and would be a great concern to my government. There would be consequences under the laws of my country on things we should do vis-a-vis India. I hope this would be carefully considered before any decision were taken to actually move down that road."

Political and public opinion must be mobilised in support of the position that India's post-1974 nuclear policy with its twin components - the refusal to surrender the nuclear option by acceding to the NPT regime (or an equivalent option), and self-imposed and conditional restraint in not militarising the option - is eminently sustainable. Indeed no other policy can be considered peace-abiding, responsible and feasible, assuming of course that there is no extreme contingency such as Pakistan converting its nuclear option into weapons.

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