Monday, January 05, 2009




    Soon after declaring itself a nuclear weapon state in 1998, India enunciated a nuclear doctrine. One of the salient features of this doctrine was the pledge of No First Use (NFU) of nuclear weapons. Quite aside the fact that NFU is something of a non-doctrine because it betrays a level of procrastination and prevarication that dilutes the posturing that is intrinsic to power projection based on possession of nuclear weapons, it was adopted by India on the basis of two fundamental premises. The first was that NFU would assuage the international community by positing India as a responsible state that was not going to engage in any sort of irresponsible nuclear sabre-rattling. This helped in warding off the pressure that would have otherwise come on India after it had ended the nuclear ambiguity in the region.

The second premise was that the civilian and military leadership of countries that possessed nuclear weapons would always behave in a rational and responsible manner. This meant that nuclear weapons would never be treated as weapons of war but as weapons of deterring aggression. Implicit in this was the assumption, flawed as it turns out, that a responsible nuclear weapon state would not hide behind its nuclear umbrella to conduct proxy war against its nuclear rivals.

    Ten years down the line neither of these premises hold true. The international environment has adjusted and accommodated to the reality of India's status as a nuclear weapon state. The endorsement by IAEA and NSG of the civilian nuclear deal stands testimony to this reality. There is no international pressure now on India to roll back the nuclear programme. More worrisome, however, is the collapse of the premise that nuclear weapon states behave responsibly and will desist from resorting to nuclear blackmail.

The brazen manner in which Pakistan has indulged in nuclear sabre-rattling during every crisis with India, with senior officials and politicians openly declaring their intentions to use nuclear weapons against India as an opening gambit in the event of hostilities, should force India to rethink and revise its NFU policy. A recently retired Corps Commander, Shahid Aziz, who at one time was being considered as a possible successor to Gen Pervez Musharraf, has advocated firing "a nuclear warning shot in the Bay of Bengal, across India, demonstrating our circular range capacity" in order to send the message that "you don't mess with a nuclear power and get away with it". Retired Lt Gen Hamid Nawaz, who has been both defence secretary and Interior Minister, never stops saying that Pakistan will resort to nuclear strikes against India within hours of hostilities breaking out. And then there is the foul-mouthed former minister, Sheikh Rashid, who openly declares that Pakistan has made nuclear weapons not to keep them in the cupboard but to use them against its enemies (read India).

India would be living in denial if it dismisses these retired generals and out-of-power politicians as diseased minds, not the least because this is a disease that afflicts most Pakistani generals and politicians. The past record of Pakistani behaviour during Indo-Pak crises proves that these people are not loonies on the loose; rather what they are saying is really how those who control Pakistan's nuclear weapons think. Way back in 1990 when tensions between India and Pakistan erupted over Jammu and Kashmir, Robert Gates had to visit the region to prevent a nuclear war from breaking out. During the Kargil conflict in 1998, the Pakistanis were once again preparing to launch their nuclear arsenal (without the knowledge of the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif), before the Americans forced them to stand down. In 2002, when in the aftermath of the terrorist attack on the Indian parliament, India amassed its troops on the border with Pakistan, there was yet again talk from Pakistan's side of using its nuclear weapons against India. Once again the Americans stepped in.

On all these occasions, India denied any possibility of a nuclear war and the official Indian position was that the US was indulging in unnecessary scare-mongering. India's reaction was prompted partly by a feeling that the Americans want to use this as a pressure tactic on India's nuclear program, and partly by India's touching belief in Pakistan's rationality. But in the light of the utterances of Pakistani leadership and past experiences, India needs to revisit its assumptions on Pakistan.

Clearly, India's Gandhian approach to nuclear weapons, exemplified by the NFU doctrine, has left India open to nuclear blackmail from Pakistan. As a result, India faces the ridiculous spectacle where, instead of India warning the world of the dangers of a nuclear conflagration in case cross-border terrorism emanating from Pakistan does not cease, India has been exerting to demonstrate to the world that it is not escalating tensions with Pakistan.

Even if this wasn't the case, the NFU still wouldn't make sense. After all, does NFU mean that India will use nuclear weapons only after millions of Indians have been vaporised by a hostile power? Does this mean that India will not use nuclear weapons even if it faces the prospect of defeat in a conventional war? Does it not imply that India is leaving itself open to the threat of a war that its adversary feels free to impose, confident that India will never use nuclear weapons?

At what stage of a conventional war will India be willing to use nuclear weapons is a question whose answer needs to be worked out before nuclear doctrines are announced. While preparing a strategic doctrine it is essential to take into account both the best-case scenario as well as the worst-case scenario. The NFU doctrine is based entirely on the best-case scenario that in the event of hostilities India will worst the enemy in a conventional conflict. To this extent NFU is an extremely inadequate strategic doctrine. The inadequacy becomes even more stark if you take into account the fact that India's best-case scenario is the enemy's worst-case scenario, one in which the enemy has made clear its intentions to use nuclear weapons!

Imagine a hypothetical situation in which the Pakistanis manage to break-through Indian defences, occupy large tracts of Indian territory, cut the lines of communication of Indian forces deployed in Kashmir and then sue for a settlement on their terms? What if Pakistan is about to seize territory where India's Prithvi missiles are deployed? Will India withdraw these systems or will it fire them? Given that Prithvi has a range of only 250 Km, at what stage of retreat will India use these missiles? Or will India wait till Delhi falls?

The time has come for India to call Pakistan's nuclear bluff, which has been used to sponsor terrorism inside India with the knowledge that India will never retaliate. India should not only exclude Pakistan from its NFU doctrine but also adopt a doctrine of pre-emptive nuclear strikes against an adversary (read Pakistan) that is planning to use nuclear weapons against India. The ante needs to be upped, not just to give the Pakistanis a taste of their own medicine but also put the fear of India in them. After all, nuclear brinkmanship is a game that two can play.


    <1200 Words>                    31st December, 2008



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