Article originally appeared in The Hindu

Since Pokharan, we have been witness to an opportunistic shift in the stance of the government, from an outright condemnation of nuclear deterrence to an unabated enthusiasm for the development of a full-fledged arsenal.

Hand in hand, expenditures on non-nuclear military activities and acquisition of conventional weapons have also increased dramatically…The impact of these expenditures, of course, falls primarily upon the poor and the vulnerable.

In 1996, the International Court of Justice offered a historic Advisory Opinion where it ruled that “the threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, and in particular the principles and rules of international humanitarian law” and endorsed unanimously a legal obligation on all States “to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control.” Earlier, as the case was being considered, India submitted a Memorial where it argued that nuclear deterrence should be considered “abhorrent to human sentiment since it implies that a state, if required to defend its own existence, will act with pitiless disregard for the consequences of its own and adversary’s people”. This description is apt. Though just an unproven assumption, nuclear deterrence relies on the accumulation of weapons of mass destruction aimed at killing large numbers of people in the wishful hope that such annihilation would deter another country from attacking because of fear.

Some years later, in January 2003, the Indian government issued a nuclear doctrine which explicitly stated that the country is pursuing nuclear deterrence, though this was qualified as a minimal one. But the doctrine also warns that “nuclear retaliation to a first strike will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage”. Unacceptable damage, in plain English, means that these nuclear weapons would be dropped on cities, each killing lakhs or millions of innocent people. The few years between the clear and forthright condemnation of deterrence and the enthusiastic invocation of deterrence are among the most important in recent Indian history.

The biggest event occurred 10 years ago, on May 11, 1998, when three nuclear devices exploded in the Pokharan desert. Two days later, two more explosions were conducted and Prime Minister Vajpayee proudly announced that India was now a nuclear weapon State. Pakistan’s leaders, showing that they too subscribed to the twisted logic that drives the acquisition of nuclear weapons, conducted six explosions of their own on May 28 and 30. With those tests, the half-century-old conflict between India and Pakistan acquired a nuclear edge.
Nuclear threats

The edge was to be seen soon. Contrary to the claims of nuclear weapons advocates, who promised peace and a cessation of war, India and Pakistan fought over Kargil bitterly within a year of the tests. Though limited geographically, the war is estimated to have cost about 1,700 Indian lives and nearly 800 Pakistani ones. Indian and Pakistani officials delivered indirect and direct nuclear threats to one another at least 13 times. There are also plausible, though not convincing, reports that the two countries did prepare their nuclear arsenals for potential use.

Kargil was the first major confrontation between two nuclear powers. Indeed, the war may even be the first caused by nuclear weapons. The late Benazir Bhutto stated that in 1996 Pakistani military officers had presented her with plans for a Kargil style operation, which she vetoed. It would therefore seem that the 1998 tests convinced Pakistan’s political and military leaders that the operation might be feasible with nuclear weapons to restrict any possible Indian riposte.

The pattern of nuclear intimidation seen in Kargil was to be repeated during the major military crises that followed the militant attack on the Parliament in December 2001. Even Prime Minister Vajpayee warned: “no weapon would be spared in self-defence. Whatever weapon was available, it would be used no matter how it wounded the enemy”. On the other side of the border, former chief of the Pakistan Army, General Mirza Aslam Beg, declared: “We can make a first strike, and a second strike or even a third”.

Although it did not develop into war, a number of factors make the 2002 crisis more dangerous than the Kargil war. Unlike Kargil, where Pakistan is clearly seen to have lost, especially politically, both sides claim the 2002 crisis as a victory. On the one hand General Musharraf’s promise that he would rein in Pakistan-based militant organisations is seen as proof that India’s “coercive diplomacy” worked. Pakistan’s case is simpler. Despite the huge build-up of forces by India, and much talk of attacking so-called terrorist camps within Pakistan, no military attacks actually occurred. That a massive military confrontation with strong nuclear overtones is seen by both sides as a victory increases the likelihood that similar incidents will occur in the future.

Nuclear costs

The obvious lesson of these two military crises, that nuclear weapons cause insecurity, has been ignored by nuclear advocates. Instead, they claimed that just testing nuclear weapons is insufficient for deterrence and called for the kinds of steps that India had earlier criticised nuclear weapons States for taking. Following their advice, India has not only adopted use-doctrines and practices similar to those of nuclear weapon States, but has also embarked on developing the paraphernalia needed for the adoption of these doctrines. These include a triad of delivery vehicles, including aircraft capable of dropping nuclear bombs, missiles launched from land and sea, and a nuclear submarine; training the military to use these; a command and control structure to oversee the deployment and use of nuclear weapons; components of an early warning system and an anti-ballistic missile (ABM) defence system. No one has been keeping count of the crores of rupees being spent in this process. Hand in hand, expenditures on non-nuclear military activities and acquisition of conventional weapons have also increased dramatically. This is in direct contradiction to the erstwhile claims of nuclear advocates that the acquisition of nuclear weapons would reduce expenditure on conventional weapons. The impact of these expenditures, of course, falls primarily upon the poor and the vulnerable.

A growing arsenal

One of the adjectives appended to deterrence in India’s nuclear doctrine is minimal. (The other adjective – credible – is superfluous. A deterrent that is not credible cannot deter.) When asked to delineate what constitutes minimal, policy makers resort to obfuscation. Minimal, they claim, is a dynamic concept and one which cannot be specified in advance. Given the massive destructive power of nuclear weapons, it should be obvious that a dozen or so suffice to obliterate several cities and millions of people in Pakistan or China. But going by current public estimates, the fissile material stockpile just from CIRUS and Dhruva, the two reactors reportedly assigned for making plutonium for weapons, should be sufficient for over a hundred nuclear weapons. Perhaps the meaning of minimal is simply that it is not maximal.

That the future arsenal size sought by policymakers is much larger was made clear during the negotiations and public debates surrounding the nuclear deal that is being negotiated with the United States. As a report from the International Panel of Fissile Materials, which the author is a part of, shows, the number of reactors that the DAE strenuously kept outside of safeguards can produce several dozen nuclear weapons worth of plutonium every year (available at

New attitudes

During the 1990s, one oft-heard argument from those espousing nuclear weapons was that while these were evil, they were a necessary evil. To the extent that the pressures of this lobby were resisted, India acquired weapons only reluctantly. That was then. What is on display today is unabated enthusiasm for the ongoing development of a full fledged arsenal. And all the attitudes that go with being a State possessing nuclear weapons.

Such a shift in attitude was on display during the unexpected vote against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency in 2005. While much attention was focused on US pressure, there was something deeper too. In an earlier era, Indian leaders would have denounced the hypocrisy of the United States, with its immense nuclear arsenal, lecturing Iran about its small uranium enrichment plant. Now, one heard many policy-makers talking about why nuclear proliferation was dangerous and Iran should not be allowed to have nuclear technology. Non-proliferation, which used to be seen as immoral, has come to take the place of disarmament, the truly worthwhile goal.

The opportunistic switch in stance is somewhat akin to what has been called the third class railway compartment syndrome. Those waiting on a crowded platform clamour in the name of justice and fairness to be let into compartment. But once inside, the opportunist shuts the door and keeps the others outside, with force if necessary.

In July 1946, following the US attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Mahatma Gandhi observed, “the atom bomb has deadened the finest feelings which have sustained mankind for agesŠIt has resulted for the time being in the soul of Japan being destroyed. What has happened to the soul of the destroying nation is yet too early to see.”

Unfortunately in our case, the first decade after Pokharan has already started making the impacts quite clear. It is not too late to reverse these.

M. V. Ramana is Senior Fellow, Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies in Environment and Development at the Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bangalore, and co-editor of Prisoners of the Nuclear Dream.