The half century old conflict between India and Pakistan became violent on three occasions. Two of the wars were fought over the still unresolved dispute of Kashmir, and the third over the independence of Bangladesh. Each time the level of violence was worse than before. This process now threatens massive destruction of both countries because of the nuclear weapons they have acquired. The object of this essay is to look at the way nuclear weapons in India and Pakistan have built on earlier senses of who the enemy was, shaped views on what the respective nuclear weapons are for, and create obstacles to eliminating them.
It has to be said at the outset that in this kind of discussion it is important not to conflate the views and fears of ordinary people with those of military leaders, and politicians, or some notion of a national view. But, in both India and Pakistan, there are few ways of accurately assessing how people in large numbers feel about themselves and each other, and how they think about their security, and their fears. History certainly sheds some light, but this often only tells the story of how political and military leaders think. Opinion polls also offer insight, as do public debates, but they too largely reflect elite opinion. Most of the time, the overwhelming majority of people in both countries are excluded from history, from polls, from informing public debates, and from making decisions.
With this note of caution, it can be said that Indians and Pakistanis have been deeply suspicious of each other for decades. Each regards the other as a source of insecurity. The fears of Pakistanis are based upon their perception that:
(i) India has never accepted Pakistan's existence, and is doing all it can to undo Pakistan;
(ii) Pakistan has been wronged in the matter of Kashmir, and it has an obligation and a right to support efforts to free Kashmir from Indian rule.
The Indian perceptions fuelling the fears are:
(i) Pakistan is a constant threat to the integrity of India because it extends support to separatist movements in India;
ii) India is poised for an important role in the world politics, and Pakistan is being used to tie it down.
The difference in attitudes in the two countries is also reflected in the way they conducted their foreign policies during the fifty years of their existence India had a strong non-aligned and self-reliant attitude, while Pakistan, seeing the world through an India-shaped lens, and in the face of severe internal weakness, opted to align itself with military powers, taking their dictation even on domestic issues.
The existence of such fears and concerns is at the root of the continuing conflict between India and Pakistan, and because a vast majority of the public in the two states supports nuclear weapons, the conflict assumes potentially fatal proportions.
The story of the nuclearisation of South Asia is also a story of Indian ambitions for modernisation and Pakistan's paranoiac efforts to catch up. It is also cloaked in secrecy. The story begins with a brilliant Indian physicist named Homi Jahangir Bhabha persuading his friend, Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru, to make a heavy national investment in nuclear technology. Bhabha, who had already earned a name for himself in the world of physics, was at the University of Cambridge when many of his contemporaries there were involved in the early research on nuclear energy and the atomic bomb. Bhabha succeeded in planting the nuclear seed in India, in part, because of the use of nuclear weapons by the US at the end of World War II. This use of a revolutionary new technology marked the emergence of the US as a major world power and, in line with the general thinking of the nationalists to see the newly independent India progress rapidly and acquire the best and most advanced technology, offered a goal for India to aim at.
The first step in this direction was the establishment of an Indian Atomic Energy Department in 1948, the subsequent purchase of a nuclear research reactor, APSARA, in 1956, and the purchase of the first power reactor for making electricity from the USA in 1964. These were followed by a few other research and power reactors bought in the late sixties. Eventually, India started to produce its own reactors by duplicating those it had purchased. At the same time, India also purchased a reprocessing plant which was used to extract plutonium from the burnt fuel from its CIRUS research reactor. This plutonium was used in the nuclear explosion test conducted in Pokharan in 1974.
Over the years, India has built up a sizeable nuclear complex - from uranium and thorium mining to fuel fabrication, to indigenously produced research and power reactors, to plutonium reprocessing and uranium enrichment -- everything it needs to produce large numbers of nuclear weapons. It is believed that India already either possesses, or has the capability to make, 80 to 100 nuclear weapons of the kind that the US used to destroy Nagasaki in 1945. It has successfully defied international pressures, mostly from the USA, and continues to produce a variety of fissile materials and is believed to be working on more advanced designs of nuclear weapons.
Pakistan's quest for nuclear technology was a little slower for two major reasons: (i) it lacked a scientific base, and (ii) it was not led by such aggressive nationalists as Nehru or Bhabha. Rather than take decisions for itself, it simply tagged along behind India. The Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission was established almost a decade after the establishment of India's Atomic Energy Department. Lacking a scientist of Bhabha's talents and outlook, the man Pakistan put in charge was Nazir Ahmad, a former Chairman of the Cotton Committee of Pakistan, and ex-director of the Indian Cotton Textile Institute. As time went on, Pakistan purchased first its research reactor and then a power reactor in the 1960s. In each case the time lag between the steps taken by India and corresponding steps taken by Pakistan was at most a few years to a decade.
While there may have been some discussion about trying to make nuclear weapons for Pakistan during and after the 1965 war with India, the pursuit of nuclear weapons really began after the defeat in the 1971 war. A meeting was called in Multan in 1972 by the then President, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, to plan an all-out effort to produce nuclear weapons, ostensibly for the Islamic world, but actually to counter growing Indian military strength. It is believed that this meeting was inspired by the renowned Pakistani physicist Abdus Salam who, as the Chief Science Advisor to the President, was playing the role that Bhabha had played in India.
Pakistan decided to build its own research reactor of the CIRUS type to produce plutonium and entered into an agreement with France for a reprocessing plant. But, when France backed out of the deal under pressure from the USA, Pakistan chose to construct on its own an ultra-centrifuge uranium enrichment plant based on the blueprints brought by A. Q. Khan from URENCO in Holland. After an immense investment of resources and effort, sometime between 1985 and 1988 Pakistan succeeded in producing highly enriched uranium (HEU), the only material other than plutonium that can be used to make a nuclear weapon. The enrichment plant continued to produce HEU until around 1991 when, again under intense USA pressures, it started to produce only lower grade uranium, which can not be used to weapons. It is believed that in the meantime, the country had produced somewhere between 200 and 250 kg of HEU, sufficient to make eight to ten simple nuclear weapons. It is possible however to convert the low grade uranium still being produced into weapons grade material within a matter of weeks, and so double the number of nuclear weapons Pakistan can make.
The above story shows three things:
(a) The two countries had different reasons for opting for nuclear capabilities;
(b) Pakistan's program has been reactive to India's;
(c) Pakistan has shown a greater susceptibility to international pressures, while India has maintained an independent posture.
There is some recent opinion poll data that helps clarify how the elite thinks about their respective nuclear programmes in India and Pakistan. The people questioned were academics, doctors, lawyers, journalists, social workers, artists, civil servants, politicians, business people, and representatives of the armed forces and police. On the basis of their opinions they can be divided into three categories: there are nuclear advocates or hawks (32% of the total in Pakistan, and 33% in India), supporters of the official government policy of their country (61% of the total in Pakistan and 57% in India), and the nuclear opponents or doves (6% of the total in Pakistan and 8% in India).
The clearest expressions of who the enemy is can be found in the opinions of the nuclear hawks. In the case of India, one obvious enemy is Pakistan; 57% of the people who thought India should further develop its nuclear weapons said the threat came from a nuclear Pakistan. But, surprisingly, only 20% of the hawks cite China as a threat. There was, in fact, greater concern (27%) about threats from other nuclear powers, i.e. the Western powers, with which India has no recent history of war. Other answers to this question of why India should further develop its nuclear weapons increase the importance of this response. 49% of the Indian hawks wanted nuclear weapons as a means to improve India's bargaining power in world affairs, and 38% wanted the weapons to enhance India's international standing. Taking these together suggests that Indian nationalism, linked to the struggle for independence from centuries of colonial subjugation, and nurtured for half a century, has now become assertive.
Pakistan's hawks offer almost no surprises. All of those questioned said that the threat from India was sufficient reason for Pakistan to develop its nuclear weapons. The only additional reasons offered were from those (3%) who wanted nuclear weapons to increase Pakistan's bargaining power in the world, and the 1% who thought nuclear weapons would enhance Pakistan's international status. Another 1% regard the other nuclear powers as a threat against which Pakistan needs nuclear weapons. The one surprise, for some people, is that not a single supporter of nuclear weapons felt that protecting and enhancing the security of the Islamic world was a reason for Pakistan to have nuclear weapons. All these responses clearly indicate that Pakistani nuclear nationalism is defined in unique opposition to India.
These ideas about who the enemy is can be found in the responses the nuclear hawks have to a question about what kind of nuclear arsenal India and Pakistan should develop. The largest proportion (35%) of the Indian hawks said they would like an Indian arsenal to be able to strike anywhere in the world, and large enough to be usable against the other nuclear weapons states, i.e. they want a superpower nuclear arsenal. Less than 20% wanted an arsenal capable only of attacking China, and only 12% wanted India to restrict itself to being able to attack Pakistan. In contrast, 96% of the Pakistani hawks said a nuclear arsenal able to attack India was sufficient.
The global view of Indian hawks and the local view of Pakistani hawks finds an echo in those, in both countries, who claim to support the official policy of their respective government. When they were asked what circumstances would justify developing nuclear weapons, the responses were broadly similar to those of the hawks. The largest number of Indian respondents, 52%, said that threats from the nuclear powers would be sufficient justification for India pursuing its own nuclear weapons programme. This was slightly more than those who said that Pakistan testing a nuclear weapon would offer a justification. Those who support official nuclear policy in Pakistan saw justification for developing nuclear weapons if India carried out another nuclear explosion (85%), or if India deployed its Prithvi or Agni missiles (72%). Slightly more than one-third of the official policy supporters thought an increase in Indian conventional military strength would justify a nuclear response.
The single most significant difference between elite opinion in the two countries is about when nuclear weapons could be used. A very large fraction (44%) of those questioned in the Indian poll said that India could never use nuclear weapons. But only 1% in Pakistan thought the same way. There seems to be an overwhelming opinion among the Pakistani elite (98%) that Pakistan could use nuclear weapons if India were about to attack Pakistan across the international border. This opinion was held by almost all the hawks, official supporters, and the doves. In marked contrast, only 33% of the Indian elite thought India could use nuclear weapons if Pakistan were about to take over Kashmir.
There is, however, some small room for optimism. Nuclear doves are obviously a minority in both India and Pakistan, with less than 10% support among the respective elites. But, a significant minority, 13%, of those who support official Indian policy on nuclear weapons said that there were no circumstances that would justify India going nuclear. In Pakistan, a surprising 16% of such people felt there were no circumstances that would justify Pakistan actually going ahead and developing its nuclear weapons. This would suggest that around 20% of the elite in both countries sees no real circumstances that would justify further development of nuclear weapons.
There is enormous support among elites in both countries for an international agreement to eliminate nuclear weapons. The difference however is when they think it will happen, or even if it will happen. Half of those questioned in Pakistan thought a nuclear treaty would be signed within five years, and a further 39% thought it would be signed within ten years. Only 2% thought it would never be signed. In India, there seems to be much greater scepticism. Only 22% think that an international treaty will be signed within five years, and somewhat more think it will happen within ten years. The largest group, over a third of those questioned, think it will never happen.
This support for eliminating nuclear weapons is tempered with a sense of what else may be required for Pakistan and India to feel safe without nuclear weapons. Less than half of those questioned in India thought that a time-bound plan for global nuclear disarmament would be reason enough for India to renounce its nuclear weapons. Almost 20% of them thought there were no circumstances within which India could give up its nuclear weapons. In Pakistan, nuclear disarmament by India was not enough, large sections of the elite (over two-thirds) want a final settlement on Kashmir, and about half want a reduction in India's conventional arms superiority, as conditions for Pakistan to give up its nuclear weapons.
Having established their respective nuclear capabilities, there is now a nuclear stand-off between India and Pakistan. Both admit to being able to make nuclear weapons, but deny having made them. But, if neither state has weapons, yet can make them whenever it wants, the questions are when would they make them and how would they use them. There are no definitive answers to these questions, only suggestions and implications.
India's nuclear weapons are it seems meant to establish some kind of parity with the major nuclear powers and achieve a greater role in global affairs. They are not Pakistan-specific. As a doctrine India may have decided to use nuclear weapons against any country - be it Pakistan or any other nuclear weapon states - that uses or threatens to use nuclear weapons against it. Whether Indian nuclear weapons will be used if there is no nuclear threat is not clear. India may use its nuclear weapons as a deterrent against the superior conventional force of the superpowers.
Pakistan's nuclear strategy is relatively simple. Since the threat comes from India alone, and since Pakistan's conventional defence is unable to match India in such forces, Pakistan's nuclear weapons will be used to prevent an Indian venture across the border. This Pakistani thinking can be spelled out a little more: if in any future war we find that our forces are losing ground, we shall not hesitate to use what nuclear weapons we have. They may be few, but they will surely cause damage that cannot be acceptable to you. We also know that you have a much larger stock of nuclear weapons, and you can inflict much worse damage on us, but destruction is preferable to capitulation.
An obvious consequence of nuclear deterrence has been an increase in proxy wars across the border. Both the countries have increased support, military and otherwise, to dissident and separatist movements in each other's territory. Pakistan has been more of an adventurer in this respect. Assuming that India is sufficiently deterred from initiating a full-scale military response, Pakistan has gone all the way in supporting separatist movements, first in the Indian Punjab and now in Kashmir. India on the other hand is known to have provided sanctuaries and support to groups in rural Sindh and in Karachi.
Nuclear deterrence has thus increased the level of tension between the two countries. On at least two occasions in the last decade they came very close to the breaking point. Some reports insist that Pakistan on one of these occasions actually moved and loaded their nuclear arsenal in preparation for a nuclear attack. The two countries are now involved in a race to build longer range missiles, which could carry nuclear weapons. The short time of five minutes or so for these missiles to reach targets makes this development extremely dangerous. The short time leads to much greater tension, and the need for much quicker responses to any incident, both of which dramatically increase the chances of making a mistake. Any mistake would prove catastrophic for the region.
Efforts to resolve this dangerous situation are stalled. The nuclear diplomacy of the two countries also reflects their differing security perceptions. Although it has the distinction of proposing several major international disarmament measures, such as the nuclear test ban treaty (now called the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty) and a treaty to stop the production of nuclear weapons, India refuses to sign any international nuclear weapons agreements unless the nuclear weapon states give a firm commitment to eliminate all nuclear weapons within a set time. India has also persistently refused to participate in any regional de-nuclearisation effort. This looks like a principled stand for achieving a world free of nuclear weapons, but detractors prefer to see it as a way for India to buy time in which to increase its military strength and fulfil the dream of superpower status.
Pakistan's eyes, on the other hand, remain firmly focused on India. Its position in international arms control negotiations is to support every treaty that comes along in principle, but refuse to sign it unless India does. In this way, Pakistan has found an easy solution to a dilemma, how to ease international pressure on its nuclear program on the one hand, and keep a nuclear deterrent against India on the other. This solution however amounts to giving up any initiative. It is a policy that can only remain viable as long as India and the nuclear weapons states remain locked in their own dispute.
The situation appears to be intractable; Pakistan will not move till India moves and India will not move till the nuclear powers move. One solution is to speed up the process of global nuclear disarmament by exerting sufficient pressure on the nuclear weapon states. This is a task that must be accomplished in any case, irrespective of what happens in S. Asia. There are several strong international movements trying to push the nuclear powers in this direction, but they remain adamant. There is a determination, especially in the US, to retain nuclear weapons for the indefinite future. As long as this attitude continues, there is no possibility of India renouncing its nuclear weapons and without that Pakistan will not do that either.
On the other hand, India must also realise that its sheer size and strength evokes a deep fear in Pakistan. In such a situation, it should expect only two responses. Either Pakistan capitulates to Indian hegemony, or the mad race goes on unabated on the two sides, until Pakistan collapses - as it surely will. Given the fatalistic attitude that Pakistanis have adopted, the first possibility seems rather remote. The alternative, the collapse of Pakistan, would create a massive crisis that India would find impossible to handle.
There is a third possibility, or rather a hope. It is within the means of India to take unilateral steps that would help assuage fears in Pakistani minds. India could declare that it would under no circumstances use nuclear weapons first in any conflict with Pakistan. It could stop the deployment of its Prithvi and Agni missiles. It could remove its armed forces several hundred miles away from the border with Pakistan and create a unilaterally demilitarised zone. There are many other possibilities. India needs to assure Pakistan that it has no hegemonic ambitions in the region. A less fearful Pakistan always to India's good.