While the global diplomatic circuits, international media and opinion makers are busy discussing whether North Korea would de-nuclearise itself, or if Iran would go nuclear, there seems to be a complete silence this month as the world’s only nuclear-armed neighbours with ongoing conflicts complete 20 years of their nuclear tests conducted in May 1998.

Real and escalating danger

Even a cursory look at these 20 years would dispel the carefully-crafted myths around nuclear weapons, and would bring out their sheer absurdity. Far from providing security and strategic stability, introduction of nuclear weapons in the region has pushed both the countries into an ever-spiraling arms race – of both nuclear and conventional kinds.

Ever since the 1998 nuclear tests – in the Pokharan desert by India on 11th and 13th May and in Chagai Hills by Pakistan on 28th May – both countries have spent heavily on expanding military infrastructure mostly imported from the US, Russia, Israel, and China. As per the March 2018 SIPRI Report titled ‘Trends in International Arms Transfer’, India leads the global imports of conventional weapons while Pakistan is on the 9th position this year. India has become the world’s largest arms importer, with a share of 14% in the entire world’s weapons’ trade. India’s weapons imports have grown by 90%, between 2006-10 and 2011-15. There is a steep upward curve in this trend and India has topped global weapons imports for most years since 1998. The security that the nuclear weapons were supposed to bestow is conspicuously absent.

The overall military expenditure has also grown in this period. In terms of military budget, India is now the world’s fifth largest spender on the military, spending $55.5 billion in 2017, a hike of 6% since the previous year. The country’s defence expenditure has escalated sharply particularly since 2006, its share in the world’s military expenditure rose from 2.5%-3%. This amounts to 2.3% of India’s total GDP.

The obscenity of this massive militarism becomes apparent when compared with the widening wealth gap, and the steep decline in government expenditure in crucial sectors such as health and education. More than 194 million Indians go hungry daily and 37% of deaths in India are still caused by “poor country” diseases such as TB and malaria. Even India’s middle classes – flag-bearer of nuclear nationalism – are actually poor as shown by recent data and their numbers are often inflated.  Similarly, Pakistan’s 22% population is hungry and it was ranked 107 in a ranking of 118 developing nations in the Global Hunger Index. On other indices, such as child undernourishment and mortality rates, education, sanitation, both India, and Pakistan are among the worst-performing nations on the world map.

On average, India and Pakistan have flight-tested one nuclear-capable missile every year since 1998. A 2012 report by the Nobel-winning International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear Weapons(IPPNW) warned of a severe nuclear war-induced famine in South Asia that would kill a staggering two billion people in its hypothetical study on the consequences of a nuclear exchange in the region.

Rising belligerence and nuclear war-drums

The risk in South Asia has become worse with the rise of ultra-nationalist politics in both India and Pakistan with avowed religious fervour. Open nuclear threats to each other by top-most political and military leaders have severely undermined faith in strategic stability in the recent years.  While the former Indian Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar made a dangerously frivolous statement in 2016 about revising India’s nuclear doctrines of No-First-Use and credible minimum deterrence, his counterpart in Pakistan raised concerns internationally when he threatened Israel with nuclear war, merely over a fake tweet! Revision of the ‘No-First-Use’ policy and a ‘credible minimum deterrence’ posture, that India adopted in 2003 as part of its Nuclear Doctrine, is being openly discussed by strategic experts and political leaders as the incumbent PM Narendra Modi fought his elections in 2014 with a poll promise to revise the nuclear posture.

The Doomsday Clock statement this year mentioned the “simmering tensions between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan”. It refers to the “threats of nuclear warfare” hanging in the background “as Pakistan and India faced each other warily across the Line of Control in Kashmir”, a reference to the surgical strikes by the Indian military across the LoC on September 29. The 2017 statement also mentioned the militant attacks on two Indian army bases in 2016 – the September 18 Uri attack that killed 20 soldiers and the Nagrota attack on November 29, in which seven soldiers died – that led to the exchange of not-so-veiled nuclear threats in South Asia.

Inching closer to nuclear midnight

Unsurprisingly, the escalating nuclear tensions between India and Pakistan have been cited in the Atomic Doomsday Clock in the past two consecutive years, as the clock reached closest ever to midnight.

Even as the world saw some progress towards disarmament last year as the UN adopted the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, or the Nuclear Ban Treaty, India and Pakistan joined the Nuclear Weapons States(NWS) in boycotting the negotiations and voting. This went against India’s carefully crafted image of a reluctant nuclear-armed nation ready to disarm if the world discusses it seriously going beyond the NPT. When the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons(ICAN) was awarded Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo last year, diplomats of both India and Pakistan remained away from the ceremony, citing rather lame excuses.

Celebration of murderous weapons

A few weeks ago, when the doctors of IPPNW organised an international seminar in New Delhi on the Nuclear Ban Treaty, they met with shockingly disappointing treatment devoid of basic courtesy. The Indian government did not just deny the visa for participants from Pakistan and Bangladesh, the government-appointed Chair of the cross-party Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence refused to meet their delegation despite prior approval. While the world has made progress in criminalising nuclear weapons, a Bollywood movie glorifying nuclear tests is getting released this month to commemorate the Pokharan nuclear tests of 1998. Such apathy towards nuclear insanity does not bode well for the region, and calls for an urgent attention by the international civil society.