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IndiaUpdate and Revise India’s Nuclear Doctrine

Update and Revise India’s Nuclear Doctrine


In June, Union minister Manohar Parrikar had vowed not to speak to the media for six months as his statements always seemed to draw him into controversies. However, within four months, at a book release function on November 10, in answer to an innocuous question from a journalist in the audience, Parrikar raised a storm when he went on to question the fundamentals of 's nuclear doctrine, particularly its policy on unleashing its atomic arsenal against an enemy country.

Ever since India's second test in 1998, ordered by the then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, there has been heated debate over what red lines have to be crossed for India to launch a nuclear attack. In January 2003, the Vajpayee government released the deliberations of a Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) meeting on the nuclear doctrine that made it clear what India's threshold was. The CCS explicitly stated that India would have “a posture of No-First Use” and that “nuclear weapons will only be used in retaliation against a nuclear attack on Indian territory or Indian forces anywhere”. It then went on to add, “Nuclear retaliation to a first strike will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage (to the aggressor).” Since then, there has been no official revision of the doctrine outlined in the statement, including the moratorium on conducting further nuclear tests.

In 2014, when the BJP swept to power at the Centre with a clear majority, nuclear experts expressed concern over the party's election manifesto promise to revise India's nuclear doctrine. The manifesto had stated that if the BJP came to power, it would “revise and update” India's nuclear doctrine and “make it relevant to [the] challenges of current times”. Many interpreted the statement to be primarily a demand to alter the No-First Use (NFU) posture so as to send a strong message to an aggressive Pakistan.

However, even before he took charge as prime minister, Narendra Modi made it clear that the policy was “a great initiative of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and there is no compromise on that”. Months later, on his first visit to Japan as prime minister, when questioned about India's nuclear posture, Modi was even more emphatic: “There is a tradition of national consensus and continuity on such issues. Currently, we are not taking any initiative for a review of our nuclear doctrine.”

It was important for Modi to make that clarification because our government had been negotiating with Tokyo since 2010 to sign an agreement to enable Japanese manufacturers to supply nuclear equipment to India. Under the landmark Indo-US nuclear deal that fructified in 2008, the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) made an exception for India and waived the clause that prohibited member-countries from entering into nuclear trade with nations that had not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). (India is not an NPT signatory.) While Japan, which is an NSG member, had no issues with other countries conducting nuclear trade with India, it was unwilling to relax its own stringent rules that prevented its companies from trading with non-signatory countries. Modi was acutely aware that it was critical to get Japan to relax its rules, otherwise India's ambitious nuclear energy programme would be grounded. Three major manufacturers of nuclear power reactors – Areva of France and GE and Westinghouse of the US-were either partly Japanese owned or dependent on manufacturers from there for supplies of critical parts. Between these companies and their Japanese counterparts, 18 large nuclear power plant deals worth over 100 billion dollars were pending.

Nuclear energy was critical to Modi's much-lauded proactive counter to the threat of climate change, including signing the Paris Climate Change pact in November 2015. Under that, India was committed to achieving a target of sourcing 40 per cent of its energy mix from clean energy sources, including nuclear power by 2030. That meant India's current nuclear power generation had to increase tenfold, from around 6,000 MW to 63,000 MW. Foreign collaboration was critical for the great leap forward and without Japan onboard there was no way India could meet the target.

Ever since he came to power, Modi had assiduously wooed his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe to sign an agreement to permit nuclear trade with India. For Japan, it would be a major exception-it had so far never permitted trade with a country that hadn't signed the NPT. Its reservations were understandable because it is the only country in the to have grievously suffered a nuclear attack. Critical to the agreement was India's assurance that it would not go back on the nuclear doctrine it had articulated in 2003 and reiterated in 2008 while signing the Indo-US nuclear agreement.

That included a voluntary moratorium against conducting another test and maintaining its NFU posture and also committing to Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards on all its designated civilian reactors, including the ones it planned to import. To assuage Japanese concerns, India also agreed to append a separate note to the agreement that clarified actions that Japan would take if India were to conduct another nuclear test. While there was some criticism that India was bartering away its nuclear sovereignty, Indian negotiators took pains to clarify that there was no deviation from the reassurances the UPA government had given the US on the question of India conducting nuclear tests.

On the eve of signing the historic nuclear pact with Japan, Parrikar committed the indiscretion of reopening what everyone regarded as a settled debate. He told the audience, “India has a no-first use policy. Why should I bind myself to it? I should say I am a responsible nuclear power and I will not use it [weapons] irresponsibly. This is my thinking. It has not changed in any government policy but it is my concept. As an individual, I get a feeling sometimes why do I say that I am not going to use it first.”

Parrikar was possibly responding to a provocative remark made by his Pakistan counterpart Khawaja Asif who, fearing retaliation after the Uri attack, threatened, “Tactical nuclear weapons have been developed for our protection. We haven't kept the devices that we have just as showpieces. If our safety is threatened, we will annihilate them [India].” Unlike India, Pakistan has maintained a first-use policy and has stated it would resort to nuclear weapons if it was in danger of losing territory, if its armed forces were being routed or if an economic blockade threatened the survival of its citizens. The Modi government was quick to clarify that Parrikar had expressed his personal views and that there was no change in the government doctrine. While the deal with Japan was signed without a hitch, Parrikar's loose remarks went viral in the capitals that matter and are likely to be a subject of debate for months to come.

Parrikar may have been echoing arguments by retired senior Indian armed forces personnel that by changing its NFU posture, India could deter even a potential conventional attack from China or Pakistan. Another point being made is that if India suspected that Pakistan was going to launch a nuclear attack, why should it put its citizens in peril? Why not launch a nuclear strike to disable Pakistan's capability? There is the added danger that if another country is allowed to strike first, India's nuclear arsenal may be depleted and its capability to retaliate may be rendered ineffective.

Yet the idea that India should be using its weapons if it is threatened by another country is not just crazy but abhorrent to the very ethos of the country. India is a firm believer that the world should move quickly to a nuclear zero – a scenario where all such weapons are eliminated. The only reason it developed nuclear weapons was as a deterrent, particularly against China and later Pakistan, so as not to be blackmailed into submission. Our nuclear weapons have long been regarded as a ‘political' weapon, rather than just another part of the military arsenal. Not a weapon to pre-empt a strike but one of retaliation.

That is why, unlike Pakistan, India didn't develop tactical or short-range weapons designed to be employed in battlefields rather than against civilian populations. For India, even a tactical attack on its troops is sufficient for it to respond with massive nuclear force that would annihilate Pakistan as it can never be sure that the next attack from it would be confined to the battlefield.

If India changes its NFU posture, it brings in ambiguity and uncertainty in Pakistan's decision-making and lowers the nuclear threshold. A first-use posture would mean that India would not only have to develop far more nuclear weapons than it now has to enable it to not just strike first but also to conduct repeated strikes if the enemy retaliates. And from its current relaxed nuclear posture, India would move to a taut and stressful situation and have to develop an elaborate command-and-control structure.

Moreover, India has always wanted to ‘demonetise' nuclear weapons as a currency of power. As the first step towards reducing the salience of nuclear weapons, India has called for all nuclear weapon powers to adopt an NFU posture. (China has an NFU, but the US doesn't). India hopes that this would push nations to an agreement to eliminate all nuclear weapons. That is a laudable goal for a nation that was born on the principle of non-violence and one we should continue to strive for. For in a nuclear war, there are no winners, only survivors.

The Northlines is an independent source on the Web for news, facts and figures relating to Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh and its neighbourhood.

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