South Asia courts nuclear insecurity

17 May 2008
Instead of abandoning nuclear weapons, India is trying to have them legitimised through the US nuclear deal.
Imagine being asked whether you’d undergo a high-risk operation under a surgeon who’s unaccountable to you. Or being asked to let a distant, supposedly wise, uncle decide about your family’s safety in your absence during civil war conditions. If you’re normal and rational, you’d refuse to surrender your right to make an informed choice — no matter how skilled the surgeon or wise the uncle. You wouldn’t want decision-making authority about your loved ones’ safety be usurped by “experts”. In this Age of Democracy and Transparency, you’d use the same rationale for state decisions. Now consider what happened three weeks after the Vajpayee government took office in India in 1998. Four men met the Prime Minister, Principal Secretary Brajesh Mishra, Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) secretary R. Chidambaram and Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) chief APJ Abdul Kalam-to discuss India’s response to an April 6 missile test-flight by Pakistan. They decided to retaliate not by test-flying a missile, but by upturning India’s nuclear policy of 50 years’ standing: not to make nuclear weapons although it might have that capability. Thus came about the Pokharan-II tests, according to Mishra (Hindustan Times, May 7), without consultation with the Cabinet, the defence minister and services chiefs. Only one of the four men was an elected leader. Two ran inept outfits famous for missing every single deadline, incurring huge cost-overruns and committing terrible safety breaches. The DAE-DRDO had a vested interest in nuclear testing and had lobbied every government since the 1980s. Vajpayee alone succumbed to them in keeping with Hindutva’s nuclear obsession. The BJP/Jana Sangh is the only party, since 1964, to demand that India become a nuclear weapons-state (NWS). The decision was made without the promised “strategic defence review”. Its stated rationale-Chinese and Pakistani hostility-, wasn’t relevant. And Pakistan was testing missiles since 1989. No wonder the tests surprised India’s Bomb Lobby. True to type, it mounted a convoluted defence. First, if India hadn’t tested, Pakistan would have, embarrassing India. Second, nuclear weapons would make South Asia safe. Third, they would force its leaders to behave responsibly and maturely, preventing conflict. Fourth, nukes would cap India’s fast-rising conventional arms-spending. Fifth, they would give India leverage in demanding global nuclear disarmament. Sixth, they would raise her global stature and expand policy options. Today, these arguments stand discredited. India initiated the region’s nuclear and missile programmes. Reactive Pakistan had nothing to gain politically or militarily by testing first. Both had a nuclear capability before 1998. But Indian nuclear scientist-managers believed Pakistan didn’t. It would stop “bullying” India after Pokharan-II. This was hubris. Nukes are nothing to be proud of. They are weapons of mass extermination and terrorism against non-combatant civilians, not weapons of peace or of self-defence. Their use or threat of use is “generally contrary” to international law, according to a 1996 World Court judgment. Nuclearisation has made South Asia less secure. Millions of its citizens are vulnerable to nuclear-tipped missiles which cannot be recalled or intercepted. A single first-generation Bomb will kill 800,000-plus people and radioactively contaminate vast swathes of land for centuries. There’s no defence against nuclear weapons. Yet, we’re being asked to erase what India preached for half-a-century: namely, nuclear weapons don’t give security; the “repugnant” nuclear deterrence doctrine spells an arms race and insecurity-as in the Cold War, when nukes multiplied from the low hundreds to 80,000, enough to destroy the world 50 times. Deterrence is a flawed doctrine. It’s based on unrealistic assumptions: perfect knowledge about each other’s capabilities, always-rational cool — headed behaviour under trying conditions, and impossibility of accidents. The real world is far messier, with little perfect knowledge, panic-prone decision-makers, and a high accident probability. India and Pakistan fought Kargil a year after Pokharan-history’s first war caused by nuclear weapons, and the greatest conventional conflict between NWSs. Pakistan started the misadventure thinking its Bombs would pre-empt Indian retaliation. This devastatingly falsifies the sobriety/maturity argument. During that war, India and Pakistan exchanged nuclear threats 13 times even as 2,500 soldiers died. The threats were backed by preparations for using nuclear weapons. Kargil highlighted Pakistani military leaders’ adventurism. But India had taunted and chided Pakistan into crossing the threshold. Kargil sharpened the Sharif-Musharraf rivalry, precipitating a coup, which reversed democratisation. The dangerous precedent for nuclear escalation again became evident after December 2001, when India and Pakistan mobilised 1,000,000 soldiers and India planned a “limited” cross-LoC strike. This would have triggered full-scale war, making a nuclear catastrophe distinctly probable. India and Pakistan are now locked in a nuclear and a conventional arms race. Since 1998, India’s military spending has tripled and Pakistan’s more than doubled. India is the world’s biggest arms buyer. Pakistan is straining to follow. But the guns-vs-butter argument hasn’t lost its moral force. Leave alone “leveraging” its nukes for disarmament, India is trying to have them legitimised through the US nuclear deal. India has reneged on its global disarmament agenda. India’s global stature has risen despite nuclear weapons and because it’s seen as an emerging economy and a successful democracy. Nukes don’t give prestige. For a reality check, one need only look at North Korea, or Pakistan, considered a “failing” state until late 2001. Nuclear weapons haven’t helped India expand the space for independent policy-making. Pokharan’s toxic legacy must be rolled back. Or, it will poison the India-Pakistan peace process. So long as they exist, nuclear weapons will remain a menace. They must be abolished.
Praful Bidwai, a fellow of the Transnational Institute, is a senior Indian journalist, political activist and widely published commentator. He is a co-author (with Achin Vanaik) of New Nukes: India, Pakistan and Global Nuclear Disarmament.