In its election manifesto, the BJP declared that it would study afresh India’s nuclear doctrine, revise and update it to evolve an independent Strategic Nuclear Programme relevant to the challenges of the current times and to maintain a credible minimum deterrent in tune with changing geostatic realities. India’s nuclear doctrine has mainly two aspects to ponder over, namely the no first use (NFU) pledge and the voluntary moratorium on further underground testing of nuclear devices. While NFU is a sociologically and politically important issue, nuclear testing is a technological requirement for credible and effective deterrence. It has enormous political and economical repercussions.
NFU is normally referred to as a pledge or policy of a nuclear weapon state that it shall not use nuclear weapons against any other state unless first attacked with nuclear weapons or such other weapons of mass destruction like chemical and biological weapons. China was the first country to announce it soon after it conducted its first nuclear test in 1964. Chio Kuan-hua, the leader of the Chinese delegation to the UN General Assembly, officially stated the NFU policy in 1972, saying “I once again solemnly declare that at no time and under no circumstances will China be the first to use nuclear weapons.” He continued: “If the United States and the Soviet Union really and truly want disarmament, they should commit themselves not to be the first to use nuclear weapons. This is not something difficult to do.” However, this pledge was misinterpreted by the then two super powers, the US and the Soviet Union who thought the Chinese had announced the policy because their arsenal could be destroyed by any of them in a single preemptive strike. It was also misunderstood to mean that on such a pledge by China no country would attack it on moral grounds. This was proved wrong when China repeated the pledge in 2005, 2008, 2009 and 2011 while it had conducted over 45 nuclear tests and built a large nuclear arsenal. Whether China’s repeated assertion on the issue can be relied upon or not, only time will tell.
India also announced its draft policy of NFU on August 17, 1999, soon after the “Shakti” series of nuclear explosions in May 1998 at Pokhran. By this announcement India neither meant seeking moral shield nor had the fear of preemptive annihilationary strike. With it, India has shown it is a mature and responsible nuclear state and has developed nuclear weapons only as an effective deterrence against rogue states and ill-advised adversaries. But, nuclear weapons will be used in retaliation against a nuclear attack on Indian territory or forces anywhere and nuclear retaliation to a first strike will be massive. Pakistan, which conducted nuclear tests at Chagal just two weeks after the Indian tests, made no such pledge. Instead, in 2001, it announced its nuclear doctrine stating that its nuclear weapons were aimed solely at India and they would be used if India conquers a large part of its territory; destroys a large part either of its land or air forces; proceeds to the economic strangling of Pakistan, pushes it into political destabilisation or creates large-scale internal subversion.
Despite such a confronting posture of Pakistan when India revised its nuclear policy in 2003, it maintained and continues to maintain its NFU pledge. As recently as on April 2 then prime minister Manmohan Singh said the sole function of nuclear weapons, while they exist, should be to deter a nuclear attack and if all states possessing nuclear weapons recognise that this is so and are prepared to declare it, we can quickly move to establish a global “no-first use norm”. Supporting these sentiments the Chinese delegation to the UN General Assembly in 1972 had said: “This is not something difficult to do.” It is praiseworthy India and China have such a noble policy on a dreadful weapon of mass destruction while the other nuclear weapons states have made no such commitment. The US has modified its earlier policy and shall not use nuclear weapons against any non-nuclear state that is a party to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and has adhered to its principles. Even with those states that may not be eligible for this privilege, the US shall use nuclear weapons only to defend its vital interests and that of its partners and allies. The UK has announced that it shall use nuclear weapons against rogue countries where British forces may be threatened with weapons of mass destruction. NATO countries have rejected Germany’s proposal of NFU at their summit meet in 1999. The Russian Federation also has not adopted NFU.
Prime minister Narendra Modi made an admirable beginning by inviting the heads of neighbouring countries to his swearing-in ceremony and all of them participated enthusiastically. The Pakistan prime minister’s daughter Maryam Nawaz Sharif, herself a powerful politician, has recently commented that India and Pakistan should bury their enmity. She queried, “Why can’t India and Pakistan team up to win the wars against diseases, illiteracy and poverty? Why the two nations are living like divided Korea? Why can’t they live like United Europe? Economic bloc, perhaps?” And why not? India and Pakistan have a shared history and heritage. There is also a commonality in genealogy of their inhabitants. There are blood and emotional ties on both sides of the border. Both nations are faced with common enemies like illiteracy, poverty and diseases. It is time for India and Pakistan to shed their mutual mistrust based on misguided notions and sit down to talk together on all above issues including their nuclear policy.
India and China have already declared NFU and there is no reason to disbelieve their commitments. Although India’s nuclear doctrine stipulates that retaliation to a first strike will be nuclear and massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage, it contemplates only overkill of defence targets sparing innocent civilian population. It does not intend to repeat Hiroshima and Nagasaki. India and China also have centuries-old cultural ties that were unfortunately sullied during the 1962 conflict and a few skirmishes on the border but that can be mended and turned to be a part of history with the new regime in New Delhi. In view of the background, these two great nations can and should work together to persuade Pakistan to declare a similar pledge of NFU and make the region free from nuclear weapons’ fear. This will be in the right direction to fulfill the Chinese dream and also India’s dream of “global no-first-use”. They can then concentrate on economic development of the region to “win wars against diseases, illiteracy and poverty” as Maryam Sharif has dreamt. It’s the right time to talk.
The author is a practising lawyer and a retired scientist formerly with BARC, Mumbai, and IAEA, Vienna.