Nuclear crisis in South Asia

Print edition : June 08, 2002

The current crisis in India-Pakistan relations is a direct consequence of the pursuit of nuclear weaponisation by India, followed closely by Pakistan.

THE current India-Pakistan military stand-off is most certainly among the gravest crises in the many that have marked the often antagonistic relations between the two nations. The armed forces of the two countries have been facing each other across the border in a state of high alert, a state that has persisted for several months now. Even if the stand-off is still short of war, the two sides have been shooting at each other with increasing intensity, with armaments of increasing firepower. But it is the concurrent talk, constant and open on both sides, on a scale unmatched over the last four years of the possible use of nuclear weapons in this conflict that marks this crisis off from all the others that have preceded it.

India and Pakistan have earned the dubious honour of being parties to what is arguably the worst nuclear weapons crisis the world has seen since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.

The threat of nuclear weapons has been brandished by the highest levels of political leadership of both nations. Early on, soon after India mobilised its troops on the borders following the December terrorist attack on Parliament House, Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee made a clear reference to the possible use of nuclear weapons against Pakistan. Speaking in Lucknow on January 3, he declared, " weapon would be spared in self-defence. Whatever weapon was available it would be used no matter how it wounded the enemy." (The Hindu, January 4, 2002).

Defence Minister George Fernandes, even while claiming that nuclear deterrence would hold between India and Pakistan, and that Pakistan's leadership would not risk nuclear confrontation, expressed himself in remarkably hawkish terms (in an interview to The Hindustan Times, December 30, 2001): "We could take a strike, survive, and then hit back. Pakistan would be finished."

However, more recently, the nuclear provocation from the Indian side has come predominantly in the form of repeated calls for a 'decisive conflict' with Pakistan, to deal with the problem 'once and for all'. Although these statements were undoubtedly made in the context of dealing with Pakistan's sponsorship of and support for cross-border terrorism, especially after the Kalu Chak incident, the rhetoric clearly ups the ante on a larger scale.

For Pakistan, which has always held that its nuclear weapons are the ultimate guarantee of its territorial integrity and security, these statements must undoubtedly seem to justify General Pervez Musharraf's threat issued in April.

Nuclear weapons are part of the calculation, he emphasised in a widely reported interview to the German magazine, Der Spiegel, especially if Pakistan is threatened with extinction. Both Vajpayee and Musharraf have stepped back somewhat in the past week from these excesses of nuclear rhetoric. On May 30, Musharraf offered the guarantee that his country will not initiate a war. On June 1 in an interview to CNN, he insisted that Pakistan had made no forward deployment of nuclear missiles and expressed his confidence that neither side would be irresponsible enough to go to the limit of nuclear confrontation. From the Indian side there have been equivalent indications of the desire to avoid war even while the theme of a decisive end to cross-border terrorism continues to be emphasised.

There is a now a flurry of diplomacy aimed at lowering tensions in the subcontinent involving all the major capitals of the world. Both Vajpayee and Musharraf are present at the CICA Conference at the Kazakhstan city of Almaty, and one may yet expect that further moves to defuse tensions would be initiated. However, most disturbingly, the chronicle of the recent exchange of nuclear threats between India and Pakistan, veiled or open, does not show any orchestration of the use of nuclear rhetoric as an instrument of policy, dangerous as that may be in its own right.

Even a cursory analysis of media reports of the last several months shows that the picture is far more complex and marked by dangerously impulsive reactions and behaviour on both sides. Assurances of peaceful intentions have alternated with calls for decisive victory. The temptation to play to the most dangerous sections of the gallery has often not been resisted. In the lower rungs of the political leadership, at the level of party politics, and in statements by sections of the bureaucracy, ultra-hawkish statements have been the order of the day.

While Musharraf dismissed the threat of nuclear war on June 1, his envoy at the United Nations reiterated, a few hours earlier, that Pakistan could resort to the use of nuclear weapons even in a conventional conflict if Pakistan judges its losses to be too heavy. Not to be outdone in demonstrating that nuclear insanity knows no borders, Indian Defence Secretary Yogendra Narain has the following chilling observations to make in an interview to the latest issue of Outlook magazine. In response to a question whether India has factored in the possibility of the war turning nuclear, he says: "Certainly. But Pakistan is not a democratic country and we don't know their nuclear threshold. We will retaliate and must be prepared for mutual destruction on both sides."

On the nuclear command structure he claims: "Everything is finalised. It is in the hands of the civilian government and we don't expect any delay in the issuing of orders." The Indian bureaucracy playing the game of nuclear brinkmanship would indeed be a fine Strangelovian spectacle were it not for the millions of hapless lives at stake.

But it would be a gross mistake to accept the over-simplification that New Delhi offers of the origins of the current crisis, rooted solely it would seem in a fundamentalist state's intransigent desire to escalate continually cross-border terrorism and a patient India's refusal to take it any more. On the contrary, as any serious perusal of the record of the last four years shows, the story of the current crisis is one of a disaster foretold, its current, seemingly intractable and dangerous character a direct consequence of the unshakable pursuit of nuclear weaponisation and nuclear-weapons power status by India, followed closely on its heels by Pakistan.

From the days of the original post-Pokhran-II euphoria, the current political dispensation in New Delhi, which was also the architect of the nuclear weapons tests has consistently maintained that it would pursue nuclear weaponisation irrespective of its consequences in the subcontinent. Ignoring the loss of long-term strategic superiority and the lack of tactical flexibility that nuclear weaponisation would entail, it acted as if India had stolen a march over Pakistan to superpower status. While some noises were made regarding India's right to nuclear-weapons status in general terms, the Pakistan-centric nature of India's nuclear weapons was repeatedly and belligerently made clear in the immediate aftermath of the tests.

Indeed, in the two weeks between May 11 and 13 and May 28, when Pakistan conducted its own tests in response at the Chagai hills, the conduct of the Indian government clearly showed that it had no policy framework of dealing with such an eventual response that was all too soon in coming.

Worse still, it made early on an explicit and provocative linkage between nuclear weaponisation and the most contentious issue in India-Pakistan relations, Kashmir. It is worth recalling explicitly (as the experience of the Liberhan Commission shows, memories can be notoriously defective) the statement of Home Minister L.K. Advani, made on May 18, 1998. Stating that "India's decisive step to become a nuclear weapons state has brought about a qualitatively new stage in Indo-Pakistan relations, particularly in finding a lasting solution to the Kashmir problem," Advani called upon the Pakistan government to "realise the change in the geo-strategic situation in the region and the world".

This was an open invitation to Pakistan to respond in kind, making, for its own part, a clear linkage between the Kashmir issue and the issue of any negotiations to reduce the nuclear threat. However, surprisingly enough, this was an option that Pakistan did not push all the way through for a long time.

Pakistan repeatedly offered, throughout the tenure of the ill-fated Nawaz Sharif regime, the prospect of a no-war pact that would include de-nuclearisation by both nations. While Kashmir remained high on the agenda, the link between the no-war proposal and negotiations on the Kashmir issue remained somewhat tenuous.

India's response was to ignore and downplay steadfastly this window of opportunity in India-Pakistan relations. It remained committed to the possession of nuclear weapons, overplaying constantly its no-first-use proposal, that meant in practice quite the opposite of what the proposal meant in terms of international disarmament. The undertone clearly was also one of underestimating Pakistan's nuclear capabilities, even after Chagai.

TODAY, even more dangerously, post-September 11, many Indian senior military and political leaders and analysts believe, according to the Pakistani scientist and anti-nuclear weapons campaigner, Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy, that Pakistan's exercise of its nuclear options would be effectively restrained by the United States and that the U.S. exercises some kind of operational control over them.

India's strategic complacency, the absurd attitude that all kinds of conventional conflict would be deterred by the multilateral possession of nuclear weapons, was shown up after the disastrous experience of the Kargil conflict. Nothing was learnt from the conflict, though. Close on its heels came the absurdly hawkish draft Indian Nuclear Doctrine, that provoked a prompt and angry response in the Pakistan media, notably from Pakistan Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar.

India has been constantly warned by democratic and rational public opinion at home of the dangers of dealing with a nuclear-weapons state on its borders that suffers from many destabilising forces in its politics and society. The sometimes tenuous nature of the control that Islamabad exercises on jehadi forces in Pakistani society and the tendency of successive Pakistani governments to appease them at least in part have clearly dangerous overtones in the background of nuclear weaponisation.

The correctness of this warning was immediately apparent in Musharraf's first major policy statement after the bombing of the World Trade Centre towers on September 11. Responding to India's strategy of using this is as an opportunity to outflank Pakistan diplomatically and strategically by raising the issue of cross-border terrorism from Pakistan and Pakistan's support for Kashmiri militants, and seeking to deflect domestic criticism of his decision to go along with the U.S., Musharraf almost predictably linked the issue to nuclear weapons in South Asia: "They want the United States to side with them and to declare Pakistan a terrorist state. They also want our strategic assets and our Kashmir cause to be harmed."

In the light of this statement the current crisis in India-Pakistan relations seems to have almost been predictable, with the U.S. still more prominently placed as the key mediator between the two neighbours on all aspects of their troubled relations. India's moral stance on the issue of cross-border terrorism loses much of its shine on closer examination, precisely because of the refusal of the current Indian government to acknowledge this role of nuclear weaponisation, a role that is evident to large sections of public opinion, both in India and in the world.

While the course of events, post-December 2001, has clearly served to focus world attention on India's problem with terrorism, genuine progress that would put peace on the agenda in the long term requires more far-reaching efforts. India has no moral high-ground to claim with regard to nuclear weaponisation in South Asia. An offer to reconsider the no-war proposal of Pakistan would be a far-reaching and statesmanlike response to any verifiable, serious effort by Pakistan to call a halt to the support of the armed activities of the Kashmiri militants of any brand, jehadi or otherwise. Surprisingly enough, Musharraf has indicated, in response to a question about India's no-first-use proposal, that the no-war proposal is still on the agenda.

Quite apart from the enormous peace dividend of such a move, a peace very much desired by public opinion in India and Pakistan, the return of the issue of Kashmir to the negotiating table would be in vastly different circumstances compared to any other time in the last two decades with the potential role of superpower intervention in India-Pakistan relations being suitably circumscribed.

The road to peace in the subcontinent remains a long one, and one that seems to have lengthened over the years. But this road cannot be traversed, with some kind of discernible signposts, visible even in the current fog, as to the progress being made, if the centrality of the need to halt the nuclear weaponisation of South Asia is not taken into account.

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