Since the Pokhran tests

Achin Vanaik

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WHEN India carried out its nuclear tests in May 1998, those who condemned that action and the dynamic that it inaugurated did so for many reasons, but most importantly because for the first time the shadow of a nuclear holocaust had been spread over South Asia. With both India and Pakistan now becoming declared nuclear weapons states and the deep historical enmity between the two, a new danger – of nuclear exchange – had been added when it need not and should never have been introduced.

Barely a year later, those who dismissed such fears were shown to be comprehensively wrong. Seldom have so-called strategic-nuclear experts suffered so swift and obvious a come-uppance and embarrassment. The eruption of the conflict in Kargil, activated by an intrusion of both mujahideen and Pakistan Army regulars across the Line of Control and the scale of the Indian military response (effectively treating it as something near a full-scale war), provoked a frenzy of bellicose nationalism on both sides. Among the worst aspects of this frenzy were the spate of threats and counter-threats about each country’s willingness to use nuclear weapons if ‘provoked’ or by way of ‘retaliation’. This was not the discourse of security but of nuclear insanity. Suddenly the spectre of a nuclear exchange in South Asia had become more real and direct than ever before.

Pokhran II and then Chagai opened a new and qualitatively more dangerous chapter in the ongoing story of India-Pakistan relations. Before then, the two issues which bedevilled mutual relations were the nuclear issue and the Kashmir question. But they could more obviously and easily have been treated as separate issues. Had India, before May 1998, ever been interested in responding to repeated official overtures from Islamabad for denuclearisation of the region, then this could have qualitatively improved mutual relations and had a positive effect on the Kashmir issue as well. The train of events set in place by May 1998 have now linked the two issues of nuclearisation and Kashmir. Not in the sense that one cannot be resolved without resolving the other. On the contrary, the nuclear issue can still be resolved, i.e. denuclearisation, without the Kashmir issue necessarily being solved. Conversely, the Kashmir issue might be resolved but without denuclearisation taking place. Once nuclear weapons systems emerge then they often remain even when hostilities between rivals weakens or disappears, viz. the end of the Cold War and the Sino-Soviet conflict. But they are connected in the obvious and frightening sense that conventional military conflict over Kashmir and related issues now embodies a dynamic that can lead to nuclear exchange.



Outside pressure was stronger on India which had initiated the whole regional nuclearisation process. Herein lies the genesis of the Lahore prime ministerial summit meeting in March 1999. It served a useful purpose for both governments to deflect domestic and external criticism. In India the pro-nuclear elite had to hype up the summit in order to project this as some decisive political breakthrough made possible by the ‘wondrous properties’ of nuclearisation. In actual fact, not only did the summit mean politically much less than made out, the centrepiece of that summit – the so-called Lahore Declaration – legitimised the acquisition by both countries of nuclear weapons; it also legitimised further preparations for the development of a full-fledged nuclear weapons system. That is why supposedly confidence-building measures were about informing each other beforehand of missile tests, not about restricting or banning such tests. But because of that summit and the fact that Kargil came as a military surprise to India, it reinforced the false sense of self-righteousness among the Indian elite that Pakistan had carried out some kind of a betrayal.



There are three key lessons then to be learnt from Kargil. First, India-Pakistan relations have been set back by years. This is not just at the official level. The BJP government and the general character of elite Indian nationalism have ensured that Pakistan has been demonised and the ‘threat’ it represents to India exaggerated out of all proportion. This has greatly benefited the anti-Pakistan hawks in India and the proponents of an aggressive, anti-Muslim Hindu nationalism. Their poison has spread, especially among the urban elite more of whom now believe that Pakistan is something like a mortal threat to India and that it should collapse.

Demonising Pakistan for Kargil is dangerous not only for hardening hostilities on both sides and promoting similar counter-reactions in an escalating spiral of mutual distrust. It also feeds those views which dehumanise the other side and make it more possible to talk of ‘nuking’ the Other. It feeds the view that the other side is capable of using its weapons first regardless of what its public commitments may or may not be, and therefore strengthens the pressures to take ‘necessary’ counter-measures. In short, nuclear tensions and hostilities deepen, which then has its own knock-on effects on the general political relationship.

Kargil provoked the most incredible outbursts of nuclear insanity from both sides. In a neat parallel, the most powerful Hindu communal organisation, the RSS, in its Hindi mouthpiece Panchjanya, declared that India had not produced nuclear weapons to keep on the shelf but should consider using them, and the Pakistan minister for religious affairs, Haq, effectively used the same language to describe what Pakistan should do with its newly tested nuclear weaponry. Some in Pakistan said it would have to use its nuclear might if India pushed it too far. In India, counter-threats to respond massively were declared not just to deter. It expressed a real fear that Pakistan might use its nuclear arsenal; the promise of retaliation was supposed to ‘reassure’ the Indian public. Reassurance of this kind is crazy because a second use is not an act of security but of senseless, indeed suicidal, revenge. It only stimulates further rounds of nuclear exchanges.



Here the second lesson was obvious – nuclear weapons are most likely to be used in wartime or near war-time situations. It is in such situations that deterrence (always logically flawed) is most likely to break down. Indeed, on the Indian side, many stalwarts of the view that security be pursued through nuclear deterrence were reduced to acknowledging that Pakistan could well use nuclear weapons, that India should not assume that Pakistan would not use such weapons and that it should then retaliate. Some claimed that the U.S. (not mutual deterrence) would prevent Pakistan from using its weapons. India and Pakistan are today the only two countries which have remained locked into a posture of mutual strategic hostility for over 50 years, a situation which shows no signs of early dissipation. They are the countries most likely to engage in wars in the future and they are both nuclear equipped. In short, it is not external propaganda but the simple and obvious truth that a nuclear exchange and war are more likely in South Asia than anywhere else in the world.

Third, the chances of a conventional military conflict escalating into a nuclear exchange become greater when both countries have in place openly deployed weapons systems. Pakistan as the nuclearly less well-endowed and developed rival would have to disperse and decentralise control of its weapons making unauthorised, hasty or accidental use of them more likely. Both countries would have to fear possible ‘decapitation’ strikes, promoting the recourse to launch-on-warning or even ‘automatic’ mechanisms of releasing launches thereby further heightening nuclear tensions. Kargil then has given its warning. Things will become worse in the future unless we get off the regional nuclear escalator.

The Draft Nuclear Doctrine (DND) is a statement of intent on India’s part to embark on precisely such an escalator. It is so open-ended and ambitious (triadic deployment, tactical weapons, developing a second-strike capacity to counter the U.S., a ‘ballistic missile defence system’ – nothing, in principle, is excluded) as to make a mockery of all claims that India is pursuing a ‘minimum deterrent’, that there will be no competitive arms race (with Pakistan and then China), that the system will be cheap and safe (the DNDs insistence on ‘prompt retaliation’ means high alert).



Events over the last year have confirmed that the two most striking consequences of India going nuclear, at least in regard to the state of Indo-U.S. relations, is the extent to which the U.S. has become a key interlocutor for New Delhi and therefore the shrinkage in space for the pursuit of an Indian foreign policy sufficiently independent of U.S. concerns. After initial Indian attempts to get the world, especially the nuclear weapons states (NWSs), to formally acknowledge its new status as a nuclear weapons power failed, New Delhi had to adopt a new tack. It would now settle for de facto recognition as a nuclear power with informal entry into the nuclear club for which it was willing to buy western, especially U.S., acceptance.



Since the tests, the Indian government, therefore, sought consciously to woo the U.S. On the economic front, the BJP-led government accelerated the adoption of neo-liberal policies of privatisation, opening up sectors hitherto carefully protected from foreign capital and in other ways seeking to send the message that U.S. objections to Indian nuclearisation should be subordinated to the pursuit of economic compatibility between India and the West and the pursuit of profitability by western and U.S. corporate interests. From WTO discussions to those of the MAI (multilateral agreement on investment), a new pro-U.S. flexibility on India’s part was evident. The economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. on India were a problem, but the fact that such sanctions were subsequently significantly eased (though not fully eliminated) indicated that Indian efforts to soften the U.S. response to its nuclearisation were not without some success.

When the U.S., in the name of combatting terrorism, carried out its own illegal, indeed terrorist bombing attacks on Sudan and on camps in Afghanistan, the official Indian government response was extraordinary. It not only failed to condemn the attacks but took the occasion to point out to the U.S. that it should now understand Indian fears concerning ‘terrorism’ emanating from Pakistan and therefore better appreciate Indian compulsions and temptations to carry out similar cross-border pre-emptive or ‘retaliatory’ air raids. More recently, when the U.S. and NATO carried out their air attacks on Serbia, the Indian government’s response had stiffened and it did come out with a mildly and cautiously worded criticism of the U.S. action. Now, ignoring the fact that state terrorism (especially by the U.S.) is the worst of all culprits, India is seeking to cooperate with Washington in its efforts to use the bugbear of combatting group terrorism, particularly in the Middle East, to pursue its wider foreign policy ends.



On the specifically nuclear level, what was most evident about Indian efforts over the last year was its desire to convince the U.S. that it was a ‘responsible’, indeed ‘potentially useful’ nuclear power. It is amazing but true that the first explanation for why India carried out its tests was given not to the Indian public but in a letter to the U.S. President, Bill Clinton. There, India specifically named China as a major threat and motivating factor. Later that year, when the Indian Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, visited New York and the UN, in an extraordinary speech to the Asia Society he stated that the two central pillars of a desirable world order in the 21st century would be the two democracies of U.S. and India.

Leaving aside the pompous self-perception of India as a central foundation for the world order in the next century, what can be clearly discerned as a part of the Indian government’s post-Pokhran diplomacy is the message that it wished to send to Washington. The latter should perceive the value of having a potential nuclear ally in India against future ‘threats’. Two appeals were implicitly being made in this regard. One was for Washington to consider the prospects of a ‘strategic alliance’ with India for which it should greatly downgrade its relationship with Pakistan. Second, was an appeal which can find resonance among the American right, namely, the future value of an Indian nuclear-strategic counterweight to the rising force of China in the coming decades.



To end its post-Pokhran international political-diplomatic isolation, yet retain its new nuclear status, New Delhi accepted Washington as the principal mediator. Throughout the last year, India has sought to impress and reassure the U.S. that as a ‘responsible’ nuclear power it is willing to act accordingly. Therefore, it is open to joining the CTBT, to participating as a ‘sober’ member of the nuclear club in the FMCT negotiations, and as evidence of its sobriety, cannot the U.S. appreciate the importance of India’s unilateral declaration of No First Use of nuclear weapons or its commitment to developing a ‘minimum deterrent’ only? That notwithstanding differences between different members of the nuclear club, what unites them all is ultimately more important than what divides them.

Here India was at one with the other NWSs in not wanting the pace, pattern and content of disarmament diplomacy to be set by the non-nuclear weapons states (NNWSs). Whether on the anti-nuclear resolution in the UN put forward by the countries comprising the New Agenda Coalition or the issue of bringing stocks into the FMCT discussions, India was on the side of the U.S. Furthermore, India repeatedly sought to reassure the U.S. that it would obey the second unwritten rule of the nuclear club, i.e., India would nonetheless do nothing to encourage other possible proliferators. As the price for securing acceptance of its status and freedom to continue developing its own weapons system, India would be willing to respect the basic parameters and treaties which have institutionalised the non-proliferation regime. This much was obvious when, immediately after the tests, the Indian government naively declared that it was willing to sign the NPT as a nuclear weapons state, embarrassingly forgetting that the terms of the NPT do not allow this for any country which had not carried out tests before 1 January 1967.

By the time Kargil happened, the U.S. had obviously become the crucial external player openly mediating on the issue to force the Pakistani withdrawal. Indeed, it was U.S. pressure (not Indian military power) that was decisive in shaping the final manner and speed with which the crisis ended. Since the U.S. position on Kargil favoured the Indian stand the Indian elite in its large majority has, with whatever reservations, generally welcomed the U.S. role. However, the Indian government still seeks to maintain the fiction that the Kashmir issue is not being internationalised, although the nuclearisation of South Asia has made this more or less inevitable: if not quite now, then certainly if and when India and Pakistan openly deploy their nuclear weapons systems.



The Indian decision to openly go nuclear has marked a historic point of transition in Sino-Indian relations. Unless India refrains from future weaponisation, induction and deployment, it has embarked on a path guaranteed to make China into a strategic-nuclear rival when it was not so before and need never have so become. This elementary truth is what our pro-nuclearists, of course, repeatedly seek to deny. Either they claim that China has long been such a strategic-nuclear rival, at least since the Sino-Indian border conflict of 1962, followed by China’s nuclear test in 1964. Or that nuclearisation will pave the way for a more ‘balanced’ and strategically secure relationship which will therefore move in the direction of becoming qualitatively better and less rivalrous for both countries. This is a chimera. Relations have taken a decisively negative turn and everything that has happened since Pokhran II confirms this judgement.



This is because of both objective factors and subjective failings. While the former could not have been avoided, the latter could have but weren’t. A major political-diplomatic error, but one difficult for India to have avoided, was to have publicly and repeatedly made the ‘Chinese threat’ the principal scapegoat and rationale for the Indian decision to test and openly go nuclear. Considering that Sino-Indian relations had been steadily improving over the last 15 years before Pokhran II, and that China had not in any way by word or deed over a long period preceding the tests provoked India, it was both unconvincing and irresponsible for India to have made China out to be the main culprit. Even a year after the tests and despite China’s cautious and pragmatic approach to Kargil where it publicly remained neutral, Beijing insists that it is New Delhi’s responsibility to make amends for its accusation after Pokhran and to take the initiative to restore proper balance in their mutual ties.

Recognising the danger of so alienating China, the current Indian government has from time to time tried to half-heartedly rectify matters by claiming that China was not the main reason for the Indian decision. Hence the same government which specifically declared China to be the main reason, indeed whose senior spokespersons publicly used the term ‘enemy’ to describe it, then later had to declare that the Indian bomb was ‘not country-specific’. The reasons why India’s pro-nuclear elite felt it necessary to cite China as a threat and why the very same elite also vacillates in its attitude towards that country needs to be grasped.



While certain excesses of language and tone could have been avoided (to the benefit of mutual diplomatic relations), it would have been difficult for India to abjure all reference to China as justification for its going nuclear. Although the principal reason for India taking this step was more due to changing elite self perceptions and not changed threat perceptions due to any deterioration in the external security environment (there wasn’t any such deterioration), every country which has gone nuclear has had to justify doing so by reference to some external threat. For India this had to be China not Pakistan, although reference to the latter was also frequent because talk of the Pakistan threat sells well with the domestic public. That this ‘threat’ from China has always been an abstract and conjectural one, rather than one seriously felt, was beside the point. India could hardly have justified its going nuclear solely by reference to its desire to have global prestige or status.

At the same time, even the most rabid anti-Chinese Indian hawk senses that relations between India and China cannot be placed at the same level as those between India and Pakistan. Even after the Sino-Indian border dispute, the relations between the two countries never quite jelled into a posture of strategic hostility or even of strategic rivalry. Rather, they always operated on a spectrum between the two positions of rivalry and strategic friendship. It was never destined that Sino-Indian relations should become stabilised at one or the other of these two poles. Hence, the vacillations in the attitudes of Indian pro-nuclearists towards China had this objective foundation which made them realise that treating China as an enemy could become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy to the detriment of Indian security. A certain unease and uncertainty has, therefore, always surrounded the issue of how India should behave towards China.



But Pokhran II has decisively shifted the ground on which Sino-Indian relations have been based. It marked a major shift initiated by India to re-position the fulcrum of their mutual relations much closer than ever before to the pole of ‘strategic rivalry’ even if not yet near the more extreme end of ‘strategic hostility’. The Chinese government has always been a highly pragmatic one and can be expected to continue behaving pragmatically. This means it will continue to search for better relations with India despite Pokhran II. But whatever the fluctuations and variations in Sino-Indian relations as may be expressed in future public communiqués and policy statements emanating from both capitals, China will remain inflexible on two counts. It has categorically opposed the Indian decision to go nuclear and called on it (for example, UN Resolution 1172) to roll back to non-nuclear status. Furthermore, whatever India’s declared positions, it is waiting to see in what manner India develops its nuclear capabilities and arsenals.

In this regard, the evidence provided over the last year speaks volumes. Except for the left parties, no other major contender for political power in India is willing to reverse the direction the country set upon after Pokhran II. The purpose of those tests would be lost, in the eyes of all such parties, if India did not now go on to further weaponise, induct and eventually openly deploy a complete if rudimentary nuclear weapons system. But developing such a weapons system merely to have an ‘adequate’ deterrent against Pakistan would be pointless. If Pakistan was the only issue, better then to denuclearise the region.

No, the purpose of those tests and the direction that India is now taking is clearly to eventually build some kind of a ‘credible deterrent equation’ vis-à-vis China. That means openly targeting China with long-range missiles and delivery systems, alongside building an ‘adequate’ second-strike capacity. India may not even achieve such a second-strike capacity against China (such are the technical difficulties) but the very fact of systematically targeting China with its nuclear weapons system is to make China a strategic rival and opponent and to force China to treat India in the same way.



In the last year, China has watched India test ballistic missiles over a longer range than ever before. These tests and the efforts to extend missile range have an obvious purpose in mind – to eventually target China. The Agni II missile tests were successfully carried out over a range of 1500 to 2000 kilometres. Efforts to extend this range are, of course, well underway. China is not likely to be too disturbed by technology demonstration tests even if these are successful over a range which can target major Chinese population centres. It is when India is able to go in for serial production of missiles with the requisite range and deploys them widely that the point of no retreat may be reached in Sino-Indian relations.

Theoretically, this allows some time for the possibility of reversal of Indian nuclear plans and therefore for retrieval of Sino-Indian relations from the brink. But there is no evidence that any Indian government, now or in the future, will contemplate a reversal of the path it took after Pokhran II unless forced to do so by domestic-cum-external pressure. China then is waiting and watching in full awareness that this is a new and aggressive Indian elite obsessed with the desire to ‘match’ China. On the nuclear front, China will go by Indian capabilities and not by its official statements of good intent. Indeed, even at the level of intent, the DND indicates Indian determination to build a deterrent against ‘any state or entity’, and certainly to target China (‘a targeting policy shall form part of the system’).

There is simply no escape from pursuing regional nuclear disarmament. Even as we simultaneously pursue global disarmament we cannot afford to link one with the other such that regional disarmament cannot or should not be accomplished before total global disarmament. The central need today is to organise enough pressure to restrain India and Pakistan from going ahead with further weaponisation, induction and deployment. India is the pace-setter here. Pakistan has already officially stated that it will not be the first to deploy but will follow India. This is consistent with Pakistan’s historical record as the ‘reactor’ to India in its nuclear policies though not necessarily in its preparations. The longer the firebreak between the current situation and the point when open deployment might take place, the greater the chances of reversing the process of nuclearisation altogether. Preventing such deployment is the immediate goal, denuclearising the region, for example through the establishment of a South Asian nuclear weapons free zone, the longer-term one.