ECONOMIC AND POLITICAL WEEKLY, BOMBAY, 30 MAY, 1998
After the recent round of nuclear explosions, a top nuclear scientist reportedly said that until the tests Indians had to read their ancient classics to feel proud; now they would not have to do so. This scientist, who celebrated the event by popping a champagne bottle, forgot in that moment of glory that our ancient classics were our own; what he was celebrating was just a special case of import substitution; the devices/weapons the Indian scientists and engineers had produced had been invented by the West, then imitated by China and were already within the easy reach of many developed countries.The idea of measuring the achievement of the Indian civilisation on the scale of megatons of destruction can, however, be considered a conceptual breakthrough of a particular kind of Indian!
The quest for the Indian “big bomb”, to use the words of Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee, has produced reams of West-bashing with streams of adjectives like “double-speak”, “hypocrisy” , “Western nuclear theology” and so forth. Until the tests, the adjectives applied to India included “nuclear brahmacharya”, “self-restraint” and such other terms usually applied to sexual abstinence. But now that the devices/weapons have made India enter nuclear ´grihasthashram´, an Indian nuclear ‘varnashram’ theology is taking shape.
The first article of faith in this theology is that nuclear weapons are the currency of international power; the other currencies are secondary. What if Indians are poor? They now have the same currency as the Nuclear Five. The Chinese are supposed to have ´proved´ this point inasmuch as China was given a permanent seat in the UN Security Council and the US was not only forced to recognise it but to ´engage´ with it, despite its anti-China stance. It is a small matter that China, in its non-nuclear incarnation, i.e., the KMT´s ´Republic of China´, was already a permanent member of the Security Council and that the US ´engagement´ with China was contemplated as far back as in 1961 but the Vietnam war came in the way. Closer home, did Rajiv Gandhi go to China because it was a nuclear weapons power?
The second article of faith is that nuclear weapons, exuding power as they do, allow or even lead to, cutting down on conventional forces. No other nuclear country has accomplished this feat but India can. Unless it is assumed that nuclear weapons would, with absolute certainty, eliminate war between India and Pakistan, it is difficult to see how expenditures on conventional armed forces can be significantly reduced by India.
A further article of faith says that a no-first-use pledge by India will clear all doubts about India´s basic peaceful intentions. Those who believe in this must think that an Indian declaration will be ipso facto more trustworthy than the Chinese declaration made in 1964 and repeated many times since. Despite the declaration and the statement “neither side shall use its military capability against the other”, contained in the India China joint agreement of November 1996, India pointed at the Chinese nuclear threat as the principal reason for nuclear testing. India clearly distrusts the Chinese pledge. What if Pakistan, likewise, rejects the Indian pledge as untrustworthy?
India´s nuclear theologians put forward ´deterrence´ as the clinching argument, one which did not work for the West but will work in the case of India. For several years they swore by the concept of ´recessed deterrence´, now they have abruptly switched over to overt deterrence. Perhaps, we should start by asking what is being deterred by what? By the 12 KT fission bomb? By the three types of sub-KT bombs? And by the 45 KT fusion bomb? The first four types can only be Pakistan-specific; the sub-KT variety can only be military target-specific either on the battlefield or in the war-zone. There are rumours in India´s north-east that these mininukes are meant against the insurgents there. Is their use in battlefield situations credible, considering that meteorological conditions in areas close to the Indian border will be entirely unpredictable? Even a neutron weapon would be problematic in that case. The same applies to Pakistani bombs used in border areas. Without credibility, there can be no deterrent effect.
One law of deterrence is that madmen/fanatics cannot be deterred, that for deterrence to be effective, rational behaviour on the part of the adversary must be a prerequisite. But India´s image of Pakistani leaders from Jinnah to Nawaz Sharif does not tally with this. Further, since the new theology has abandoned the notion of recessed deterrence (and also the claim that the 1974 test was a PNE), following another law of deterrence, the Indian arsenal must be made visible in order to make it credible. That means visible deployment of weapons with their carriers in all varieties to deter those on the other side. How can that step be avoided? Deterrence is also a function of holding out infliction of ´unacceptable damage´ on the adverary. How to determine what is unacceptable to the Pakistani rulers or the Chinese rulers? A minimum deterrence against China will not look so minimum vis-à-vis Pakistan.
Some of the Delhi think-tanks are convinced that despite the concept of deterrence, which is of 1950s vintage, the reason why ´Western nuclear theology´ went on to advocate several other concepts such as the ´flexible response´, ´battlefield nukes´, ´neutron bombs and so forth and psyched the political leaders into getting weapons designed and manuactured in quantities to suit each such concept was because of the burgeoning growth of the US nuclear military-industrial complex. These strategic think-tanks fondly believe that there is no such thing in India and there never will be. Such beliefs need to be treated with abundant caution.
Already the fact that there were five different tests as well as supplementary claims about other achievements tells us that they were nuclear laboratory (and the Defence Research and Development Organisation/DRDO) driven. It is not the political leaders who, through a discussion among themselves, told them what kind of devices/ weapons the labs were to work for and make. Funds were allocated and the labs were left to themselves. The only role played by the political leaders was about when to go public. We know from the reactions of the scientists and engineers to the debate over whether India should sign the ctbt that they panicked at the prospect of their ´scientific research´ coming to an end if India signed the treaty We also know that the nuclear labs have been working on uranium enrichment, thorium enrichment, nuclear propulsion for submarines, miniaturisation, ruggedisation and a host of nuclear military related technologies. How many of these owe themselves to political directives? How many at the labs´ own initiative? Since secrecy is ] paramount, we will never know But now that the government is speaking about signing the CTBT after “negotiating with key interlocutors”, we will need to see whether by using the prime minister´s latest slogan, “Jai Vigyan”, they seek exponentially higher allocations to weaponise the devices for serial production and then for stockpile stewardship as well as ´fail safe´ and ´command-and-con-trol´ technologies. In all nuclear weapon countries, experts have a way of bamboozling their political leaders with science fiction projects in the name of national security. Can India be the sole exception? By taking over BARC (Bhaba Atomic Research Centre), the government has already created a barc-drdo complex under the ministry of deence. ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation) and the air force can be integrated into that at appropriate times. It will become an even more formiable lobby.
New revelations about the genesis of the Indian bombs show that successive prime ministers of India, with the sole exception of Moraji Desai, have supported the Indian weapons programme. Even Rajiv Gandhi, while he initially had doubts, did nothing to curtail support to the labs. Thus, there never have been any internal constraints on the labs, only external US pressures to prevent actual testing. Thus, for all practical purposes. India´s nuclear (and space) labs have been functioning as autonomous entities, with the most tenuous of political controls, making demands on the exchequer under the cover of secrecy. In case the government does attempt financial control as is supposed to have happened in the case of development of the Agni, well-placed leaks pressurise the government to give up the attempt. Now, after the tests, the new mood is to defy US pressure. No cost is too high for national security. So the labs have an open field. So of course do the strategic think-tanks which will soon be incorporated into the National Security Council.
Indian nuclear theology holds that there can be no nuclear arms race in the Subcontinent unless Pakistan reeives technical help from other powers. We will leave it to history to prove whether the Pakitani scientists are hopelessly dependent on foreign technology. But we have all along been led to believe that the US has deliberately allowed Pakistan to buy technology from the US market and it has moreover turned a blind eye to China-Paistan nuclear collaboration. What will prevent both from continuing to do just that in the future and thereby sustaining an arms race between India and Pakistan. Or are we prepared to conduct an Osiraq-type raid on Pakistan´s Kahuta which will nip the race in the bud?
Our own brand of nuclear theology raise more questions than it can answer. The deed is done; the nuclear labs have presented the country with a fait accompli. Those who have asked them to do so have given no evidence that they have thought through the consequences of their action; the damage limitation exercises currently underway bear testimony to that. While the prime minister has to some extent controlled the aggressive political clamour made against the background of the new ´geo-strate-gic situation´, the scientists continue to air plans for hyper planes firing missiles from space, reusable precision guided missiles with nuclear warheads and such other Star Wars-like technological ad vances to enable India to achieve a global nuclear reach well beyond Pakistan and China. To encourage the whole country to move in that direc tion, the prime minister has declared the day of Pokhran II, 11 May, also the day of Buddha Purnima, as “Technology Day”, effectively equating technologi cal progress with nuclear bombs. The scientist quoted at the beginning of this piece was not speaking out of turn. The bombs have indeed produced a new worldview for Indian civilization.