- Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, appears to have altered a key pillar of India’s nuclear doctrine when he tweeted that India’s future commitment to a posture of No First Use of nuclear weapons ‘depends on the circumstances’.
- On the first death anniversary of former Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee, and in the nuclear proving ground in Pokhran, the Minister said two things: that the no-first-use has served India well so far, and that what happens in future depends on circumstances.
- On August 17, 1999, the then caretaker Bharatiya Janata Party government released a draft Nuclear Doctrine in order to generate discussion and debate on India’s nuclear posture.
- There was much discussion and criticism of the doctrine, as indeed of the timing of the release of the draft, coming as it did just weeks before a national election.
- It was known that the first National Security Advisory Board, a group of 27 individuals convened by K. Subrahmanyam, and comprising strategic analysts, academics, and retired military and civil servants, had completed their draft some months earlier.
- Following criticism of the draft doctrine, the government appeared to move away from it. It was never discussed in Parliament and its status remained unclear for three and a half years until it was abruptly adopted by the CCS with minor modifications in 2003.
- The draft’s emphasis on NFU, however, remained unchanged.
- The adoption of the nuclear doctrine came soon after Operation Parakram (2001-02), when the threat of a nuclear exchange on the subcontinent had figured prominently in international capitals, if not in New Delhi and Islamabad.
- The public adoption of the doctrine was in part an attempt by New Delhi to restate its commitment to restraint and to being a responsible nuclear power.
- The announcement marks a significant revision of India’s nuclear stance, seemingly without any prior structured deliberation or consultation.
- The nuclear doctrine, like any directive guiding national security, needs to be a dynamic concept that responds to changing circumstances. However, this raises the question of what has changed in India’s strategic outlook that requires a revision of one of the two foundational pillars of its nuclear doctrine.
- India is one of two countries, China being the other — that adheres to a doctrine of No First Use (NFU).
- A statement circulated on January 4, 2003 by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), said that it had ‘reviewed progress in operationalizing India’s nuclear doctrine’, and was making public the relevant details as appropriate. It said:
- India would maintain a credible minimum deterrent.
- “No First Use”: nuclear weapons will only be used in retaliation.
- The remaining five points flow mainly from these two points mentioned.
- India has maintained that it will not strike first with nuclear weapons but reserves the right to retaliate to any nuclear first strike against it (or any major use of weapons of mass destruction against Indian forces anywhere) with a nuclear strike that will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage.
- With two nuclear neighbours, the NFU simply raises the nuclear threshold in order to bring stability into a volatile environment.
Restraint as a pivotal point:
- Restraint has served India well.
- India used the strategic space offered by its repeated proclamations of restraint to repulse the intruders in Kargil 20 years ago and regain occupied land despite the nuclear shadow created by India and Pakistan’s nuclear tests of 1998.
- Raising the nuclear threshold gave India the space for conventional operations and gained it sympathy in foreign capitals despite the fears of nuclear miscalculation that were widespread from Washington DC to London to Tokyo.
- India’s self-proclaimed restraint has formed the basis for its claims to belong to the nuclear mainstream — from
- the initial application for the waiver in 2008 from the Nuclear Suppliers Group in order to carry out nuclear commerce with the grouping
- its membership of the Missile Technology Control Regime
- its membership in the Wassenaar Arrangement and the Australia Group
- to its ongoing attempts to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group.
Consequences of revoking the commitment to NFU:
- While revoking the commitment to NFU does not necessarily equate with abandoning restraint, it does leave India’s doctrine more ambiguous.
- Ambiguity, in turn, can lead to miscalculations.
- Neither does adhering to the NFU symbolise weakness, for India is committed to a devastating response to nuclear first use — a stance which underscores India’s understanding of nuclear weapons as meant primarily to deter.
- But there is a danger that the minister’s remark could spark off a nuclear arms race, given the strategic paranoias that have been at work in this part of the world for over half a century.
- It is conceivable that nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of non-state actors in Pakistan, but even in such scenarios that warrant pre-emptive action, a nuclear strike cannot be a viable option.
- NFU has had its critics among those who advocate a more muscular nuclear policy for India.
- Bharat Karnad, a member of the first National Security Advisory Board that drafted the basis of this current nuclear doctrine, made it known that NFU would be ‘the first casualty’ if war were to break out.
- However, consensus among the remaining members of the board clearly coalesced around an understanding of nuclear weapons as weapons of last resort, meant to deter the threat and use of nuclear weapons.
- It is also this understanding that has formed the basis of India’s nuclear posture, from force structure to numbers to its overall nuclear
- All of these points are up for revision with the announcement by the defence minister at Pokhran.
- It would have been much better if Mr. Singh had elaborated on his thoughts so that a debate could have taken place.
- In this respect it is a good idea for the government to make public any periodic review in its strategic posture.
- The no-first-use policy comes with being a confident nuclear power. In matters of nuclear doctrine, it is important to be clear above all else. Nothing must be left to interpretation.