The time has come again for India’s Bheema to tear open the breasts of these infidels and purify the soiled tresses of Draupadi with blood…For what have we manufactured bombs? For what have we exercised the nuclear option?
Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh Newspaper, Panchjanya, 20 June 1999
I don’t believe in the fantasy that India can ever attack Pakistan. This is not the Pakistan of 1971. Our Nukes are not for museums either.
Hafiz Saeed of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa on Twitter, August 2013
Concern about militarism among Indian leaders is over a hundred years old. It is apparent most notably in Mahatma Gandhi’s political manifesto Hind Swaraj, written in 1909 in the form of a dialogue between himself as a newspaper editor and a reader representing the ideas and aspirations of the emerging Indian nationalist elite. Gandhi, writing in the voice of the Editor, asks the Indian Nationalist Reader, “Why do we want to drive out the British?” The Indian Nationalist Reader replies, “Because India has become impoverished by their Government. We are kept in a state of slavery. They behave insolently towards us, and disregard our feelings.” Under Gandhi’s probing for a vision of Indian self-government, the Nationalist Reader declares “we must own our own navy, our army, and we must have our own splendour, and then will India’s voice ring through the world.”
The idea that a people’s national voice and standing are measured by the state’s ability to project military power is as straightforward a description of militarism as one could expect. Reflecting on this theme in his 1920 essay The Doctrine of the Sword, Mahatma Gandhi wrote: “The high-souled men, who are unable to suffer national humiliation any longer, will want to vent their wrath. They will take to violence… If India takes up the doctrine of the sword, she may gain momentary victory. Then India will cease to be the pride of my heart.”
Gandhi was by no means alone in opposing militarism in pre-Independence India. Rabindranath Tagore, the poet and author of two national anthems, warned: “Those who would have you rely on material force to make a strong nation do not know history, or understand civilization either. Reliance on power is the characteristic of barbarism; nations that trusted to it have already been destroyed or have remained barbarous.”
Nuclear weapons, as the most extreme manifestation of militarism, also came in for harsh opposition and criticism. Even Sardar Vallabhai Patel, who is today invoked as a ‘strong leader’, warned of the dangers of the path of militarism and the profound resistance offered to this ideology through non-violence. Just after the Second World War had ended, following the wholesale destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Patel cautioned: “The present war had taught a lesson not only to the vanquished but to the victors as well. For if one country invented the Atom bomb, the likelihood was that in course of time some other country would devise something even more deadly. But India and the Congress entertained no such fears as the most deadly missile in their armoury was non-violence.” Clearly, Patel was not enamoured by the nuclear pursuit.
There were, however, others who, even in those days, believed in the need for an India that could and would use armed force, none more so than the Hindu nationalist party Bharatiya Jana Sangh (Indian People’s Association), the political arm of the Hindu fundamentalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteers Corps) which had been founded in 1925. In India’s first ever general elections in 1952, the Jana Sangh manifesto called for compulsory military training for all young men and the organisation of a vast territorial army in order “to prepare the country physically and psychologically for self defence”.
When it came to nuclear weapons, leaders associated with this end of the political spectrum were even more ambitious. Addressing a meeting at the Ramlila grounds in New Delhi in May 1957, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar declared: “The call of non-violence and peace was not a new thing to India. It had been preached to the Hindus since the Vedas, after every Vedic mantra the Hindus invoked peace. But because those mantras could not protect them they took up the arms. They should of course struggle to attain prosperity and more production, but they should not forget to prepare the nation for the defence; since for want of proper defence their plans for prosperity and more production would be of no avail. The rising generation of Hindus should invent more dreadful bombs than the atom and the hydrogen bombs and then and then alone would they be able to survive in the struggle for existence” (emphasis added).
No surprise then that the first call for the development of nuclear weapons in the Indian Parliament was from a member of the Jan Sangh, the forerunner of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). On 25 March 1963, Ramachandra Bade declared in the Lok Sabha, “Only those who wish to see Russians or Chinese ruling India will oppose the development of nuclear weapons”, and called for making “full use of our research in atomic energy”. Invoking the Russians and the Chinese as the rationale for the acquisition of nuclear weapons was in line with the RSS identification of communists as ‘internal threats’. Indeed, in his Bunch of Thoughts, M S Golwalkar, the second head of the RSS, had talked about the ‘menace of communism’ in the same breath as he attacked Muslims and Christians. With China’s first nuclear weapons test in 1964, countering the Chinese arsenal became a staple rationalisation for practically any nuclear weapons-related ambition in India.
The idea that a people’s national voice and standing are measured by the state’s ability to project military power is as straightforward a description of militarism as one could expect.
To start with, the call for a nuclear-armed India officially became part of the Jana Sangh’s political platform in January 1965, at the party’s plenary session at Vijayawada. And in 1998, the first time the Jana Sangh’s successor, the BJP, came to power for long enough to do so, it ordered five nuclear weapons tests that were carried out on 11 and 13 May of that year. Their role has been aptly described by Indian analysts and pro-democracy activists Praful Bidwai and Achin Vanaik, who wrote in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists soon after the 1998 nuclear tests:
One cannot comprehend why India crossed the nuclear Rubicon without giving decisive weight to the changing self-perceptions of the Indian elite and the profound transformations the country has undergone in the last 10 years with the rise of a viciously sectarian, fundamentally undemocratic, and deeply belligerent political force, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its affiliates.
Unlike Indian leaders like Gandhi, Mohammad Ali Jinnah – the founder of Pakistan – was seen by supporters, and at times presented himself during the Independence struggle, in military terms. Followers said that they were soldiers in Jinnah’s army, while Jinnah described the Pakistan movement as an ‘army’ with himself as its ‘general’ and even as its ‘field marshal’. It is perhaps no surprise that upon Independence, Jinnah took the title of governor-general of Pakistan, a British colonial position that was both political and military in nature. The fascination with the idea of leadership as requiring military values may perhaps be due in part to the historical self-image of Pakistani Muslim elites as descending from the Arab armies of Mohammad bin Qasim which, in the 8th century, conquered Sindh and parts of Punjab in modern-day Pakistan.
The defining politics of newly-independent Pakistan was its relationship with India, and this was seen as simply an extension of the political struggles before Partition. This perspective led Pakistan’s leaders to see everything as proof of Indian hostility; the dispute over Kashmir, the division of rivers, the distribution of financial and military resources could all be explained using this logic. The feeling of being in an unequal race also allowed the justification of military spending. In presenting the first national budget, Pakistan’s finance minister said, “I confess that the expenditure on defence is higher than would normally be justified for a young state like ours… money some of which, under better conditions should have been available for the social, industrial and economic development of the country.”
Pakistan’s military expenditure consumed two-thirds of total government spending in its first year as a state in 1947, and increased to almost three-quarters of total government spending in 1949. Pakistan’s military spending did not fall below 50 percent of total government spending until after the 1971 war that led to the breakaway and freedom of East Pakistan as Bangladesh. It was not just Pakistan’s generals, who have ruled the county for over half its life, who were militarists. Civilian leaders were just as bloody-minded. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who served as Pakistan’s foreign minister, and was later president and prime minister, famously wrote: “Pakistan’s security and territorial integrity are more important than economic development.” Not only did Bhutto’s priorities veer towards militarism, but his fascination for that ideology is said to have inspired him into wearing quasi-military uniforms with ornate stripes and ordering his ministers and party leaders to do the same.
Bhutto’s primary fascination was, of course, with nuclear weapons. He had been exposed to nuclear thinking in the early years of the Cold War, while a student in the United States in the late 1940s, and then in Britain in the early 1950s. A populist, deeply insecure autocrat who built his subsequent career around slogans of Islamic socialism and anti-Indianism, Bhutto argued for the bomb both in Pakistan’s cabinet as well as publicly. In 1965, asked about Pakistan’s response to the prospect of India developing nuclear weapons, Bhutto replied famously “we should have to eat grass and get one, or buy one, of our own”. Bhutto’s dreams had to wait till 28 and 30 May 1998, when India’s nuclear weapons tests gave then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and other Pakistani nuclear advocates with perfect excuse to test.
After the nuclear tests
The nuclear tests of May 1998 led to government-inspired mass celebrations in Pakistan. On television, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif congratulated cheering citizens against the backdrop of the Chagai mountain test site, now whitened from multiple underground nuclear explosions. School children were handed free badges with mushroom clouds while poetry competitions around the bomb were organised. In a symbolic occupation of public space, replicas of nuclear missiles and of the mountain, where the nuclear tests were conducted, were erected in major cities across Pakistan.
These efforts at valorising the bomb have succeeded, and has now become a major part of the Pakistani national sensibility. Belief in the bomb has been nurtured by national leaders like Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and later his daughter and two-time Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto; the current Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, now in office for the third time; generals Zia-ul-Haq and Pervez Musharraf, who ruled the country for almost a decade each; and Pakistan’s political and military elites as well as the bomb-builders and much of the media. It has taken hold of the country’s imagination and is now regarded as common sense by many in Pakistan.
In India too, the bomb was pronounced as proof of the nation’s greatness and the harbinger of wonderful benefits. India’s minister of science and technology claimed that the tests “reflected India’s endeavors to find a rightful place among the World’s powers”. Several commentators expressed the as-yet-unrealised hope that the tests would fetch India a position in an expanded UN Security Council. Ashok Singhal, head of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, another right wing group associated with the BJP, went to the extent of proclaiming that India had finally demonstrated its ‘manhood’ and that earlier the country had been “ruled by a bunch of hijras (eunuchs)”.
In 1965, asked about Pakistan’s response to the prospect of India developing nuclear weapons, Bhutto replied famously “If India builds the bomb, we will eat grass or leaves, even go hungry, but we will get one of our own.”
At a more strategic level, then-Home Minister L K Advani confidently proclaimed in 1998: “India’s decisive step to become a nuclear-weapon state has brought about a qualitative new state in India-Pakistan relations, particularly in finding a lasting solution to the Kashmir problem.” No such lasting solution came the way of the poor Kashmiris. What they got instead was the Kargil conflict in the summer of 1999, which has been the largest direct war between two nuclear-weapon states to date. Earlier, the most serious episode was the clash between the Soviet Union and China in March 1969 along the banks of the Ussuri River, which led to about 300 casualties. In contrast, there were at least 453 Pakistan (according to a 2010 disclosure by the Pakistan Army), and 527 Indian (according to a Press Information Bureau release) casualties in Kargil. Unofficial estimates are much higher.
The conflict was to also have a long-lasting impact on military strategy in the subcontinent. For Indian military planners, Kargil meant that they would have to find ways of waging limited war that would not lead to the eventual use of nuclear weapons. The experience of the 2001-2002 crisis following the attack on the Indian Parliament also led them to conclude that any limited war would have to be prosecuted very expeditiously without allowing time for diplomatic intervention by other powers, especially the United States.
In 2004, the Indian Army reportedly adopted a new and dangerous war doctrine called Cold Start, which aims to give India the ability to launch a quick, potentially decisive attack across the border into Pakistan. Some analysts argue that the most ‘favourable’ outcome of such an attack would be ‘to cut Pakistan into two at its midriff’. The strike is meant to be so swift and decisive that it would “preempt a nuclear retaliation”. Several Indian military officials have stated that no such plan was sanctioned but that there have been many war exercises since then that can all be construed as trial runs for Cold Start-style operations.
Notwithstanding official denials, Pakistan’s military planners appear to be taking Cold Start seriously and have threatened to use nuclear weapons on the battlefield to counter the kind of conventional attack India has been rehearsing. To make the threat credible, Pakistan has been testing Nasr, a 60 kilometre range nuclear-capable missile intended for use on the battlefield against conventional ground forces. Independent analysts estimate that this would have limited utility and would, at best, be ineffective. This has not prevented Pakistan’s policy makers from proceeding with planning for the use of tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield in the event of an Indian military invasion.
Such efforts to utilise nuclear weapons on the battlefield or in other roles are profoundly dangerous. Even if these have relatively small explosive yields, their effects would still be horrendous. Worse still is that their use would almost inevitably lead to the use of larger and more destructive weapons in retaliation.
The Nasr tests are but the latest round in the escalating nuclear arms race between Pakistan and India. Pakistan in recent years has been testing air-launched, ground-launched and sea-launched cruise missiles and an array of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles, with ranges of over 2000 kilometres. It has also been expanding its capacity to make nuclear weapons material.
Like Pakistan, India has been expanding its nuclear arsenal. It has been adding to its capacity to make nuclear weapons materials by building new facilities, and has developed a variety of land-based missile types and carried out frequent tests in recent years. In 2010, it tested the 3500 kilometre range Agni-III mobile missile, and is now working on a missile with a range of over 5000 kilometres. India has also been testing components of a ballistic missile defense system aimed at intercepting Pakistani ballistic missiles.
The nuclear arms race is also heading out to sea. India launched its first nuclear-powered submarine in July 2009, and plans to deploy several more of these. India has also carried out underwater launch tests of a 700 kilometre-range ballistic missile intended for the submarine. Pakistan already has a naval strategic-forces command and there are reports that Pakistan seeks to build its own nuclear-powered submarine and may anyway arm some of its conventional submarines with nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.
These developments taken together mean that the two countries can now wage conventional and nuclear war on a massive scale at very short notice on land, from the air, and at sea. With war that could devastate both countries just a misstep away, a determination to make peace should be the highest priority for leaders both of Pakistan and India. Unfortunately for the people of Southasia, the focus of these leaders seems to be the acquisition of greater volumes of destructive weapons.
The price tag
Militarism as a way of organising national security has a firm hold in Pakistan and India. Pakistan, in particular, has spared no effort in trying to achieve what it considered military parity with India, to force a resolution of the Kashmir dispute in its favour. The wars in 1947, 1965, 1971 and 1999 and the military alliances with, and arms purchases from, the United States and China all attest to this. All this despite the limited capacity that Pakistan has in terms of domestic financial resources and scientific and industrial infrastructure to maintain its conventional and nuclear arms race with India, to say nothing of keeping up in the larger economic and political rivalry. India, for its part, has strived to not just stay ahead in this destructive race, but to widen the gap as far as possible.
The decade and a half since the 1998 nuclear tests have been particularly costly. As India’s economy expanded, its military spending grew rapidly, and at a significantly higher rate than Pakistan’s for most of the past decade.
Hawks in India point, as always, to China as the reason for the arms buildup. In December 2009, General Deepak Kapoor, India’s army chief and chair of its chiefs of staff, revealed that the military has been working on a new doctrine and seeks major new capabilities that would allow India’s armed forces to fight a two-front war (against Pakistan and China). The Indian defence elite also want to be able to project military power from the Persian Gulf to the Malacca Strait (which connects the Indian Ocean to the Pacific). To even dream such dreams is a recipe for buying vast quantities of arms.
The decade and a half since the 1998 nuclear tests have been particularly costly. As India’s economy expanded, its military spending grew rapidly, and at a significantly higher rate than Pakistan’s for most of the past decade. In its 2014-2015 national budget, India increased military spending by 12 percent to INR 2.29 trillion (USD 38 billion). India has been the world’s top arms buyer since 2010, responsible for over 10 percent of global arms purchases, as it tries to replace old Soviet-era weapons with more modern systems, with nearly USD 39 billion worth of arms on order from Russia. India also has become a major market for French, Israeli and US arms sales, with potential deals worth billions of dollars.
For its part, Pakistan has been furiously building up its own conventional forces, paid for in large part with US military aid, with arms sales agreements worth almost USD 7 billion since 2001 (and additional military support worth over USD 10 billion). Pakistan in its 2014-2015 budget allocated PKR 700 billion (USD 7 billion) to its military forces, including military pensions. US military assistance payments raises this figure to PKR 1113 billion rupees (USD 11 billion), about 28 percent of the country’s total budget. It is not clear if this includes spending on the nuclear weapons program. This has been estimated at about USD 2.5 billion per year.
In 2013, Pakistan’s elections brought Nawaz Sharif, a rightwing conservative Islamist and nationalist from Punjab province, back to power. Sharif came into politics in the 1980s as a protege of the late General Zia ul-Haq, who ruled Pakistan from the time of his military coup in 1977 to his death in 1988. Nawaz Sharif’s previous tenures as Pakistan’s prime minister (1990-1993 and 1997-1999) were marked by support for the nuclear weapons program. As Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif ordered Pakistan’s nuclear tests of May 1998 and was in charge during the Kargil war of May-July 1999. He was removed from power in October 1999 in a military coup by General Pervez Musharraf.
India’s 2014 elections brought the BJP back into power, under the leadership of Narendra Modi, a conservative politician from Gujarat state who has been a lifelong supporter of the Hindu rightwing RSS. The BJP’s 2014 election manifesto promised to “study in detail India’s nuclear doctrine, and revise and update it, to make it relevant to challenges of current times”, as well as “maintain a credible minimum deterrent that is in tune with changing geostrategic realities”. This has led to a media debate on whether the BJP would renege on India’s traditional No First Use (NFU) of nuclear weapons policy. Although Modi has claimed that he is committed to an NFU policy, numerous media commentators and former military personnel have advised him to revise it and move to a posture where nuclear weapons could be used in a pre-emptive fashion.
If this advice is taken seriously and acted upon, it could likely set in place a chain of policy changes that eventually ends with the deployment of nuclear weapons. Deployment means keeping the warheads armed with nuclear explosives on delivery vehicles (ballistic missiles or aircraft) and keeping them ready for attacking a designated target. The US and Russia keep thousands of nuclear weapons deployed on high alert, ready to be launched in a matter of minutes, owing to a combination of Cold War crises, military planning, technological advances, and nuclear doctrines, all tied closely to each other.
At least two dangers would result from such deployment. The first and the greatest danger is that deployment opens up the possibility that nuclear weapons may be used accidentally or by unauthorised personnel, especially during a crisis. Deployed nuclear weapons pose conflicting demands. On the one hand, they have to be dispersed and in the possession of the military so that they could be used upon warning of an attack. On the other hand, the decision to use these weapons is so momentous that one would like only the highest political levels to be able to order their use, that too after due deliberation. All this is complicated by the widespread, large-scale effects of nuclear war, which could disrupt communication systems that link leaders or commanders with field personnel. The complexities involved in preparing for all contingencies, especially given the short flying times for Indian and Pakistani missiles and airplanes to each other’s territory, would inexorably involve situations where military personnel would have the authority to launch a nuclear attack without explicit orders from the highest levels of political authority. The second risk from deployment is of catastrophic accidents involving nuclear weapons and their delivery vehicles. Such accidents may occur as a result of an explosion or fire on the missile or aircraft delivering them.
There is also the possibility that India may conduct one or more nuclear weapons tests. There has been a long-standing demand from several quarters – including from strategists, former defense personnel, and even some retired chairmen of the Atomic Energy Commission – to do so. Arguments in favour of this came soon after the 1998 nuclear tests. At the time, the nuclear establishment claimed four different designs were tested: a regular fission design, a thermonuclear (hydrogen bomb) design, a boosted fission design that served as the primary explosive to produce the radiation that compresses the secondary (fusion) part of the two-stage thermonuclear weapon, and a design that produces a relatively low explosive yield. These were said to have given India the capability to build fission and thermonuclear weapons with yields up to 200 kilotons. In practice, however, it is likely that only one or two of these have been incorporated as weapons in the arsenal since it seems likely that some of the designs may not have worked.
The BJP’s 2014 election manifesto promised to “study in detail India’s nuclear doctrine, and revise and update it, to make it relevant to challenges of current times”, as well as to “maintain a credible minimum deterrent that is in tune with changing geostrategic realities”.
In 2009, one of the senior members of India’s Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO), K Santhanam, revealed that the yield of the thermonuclear device test was “much lower than what was claimed”, and this meant, he argued, “India should not rush into signing the CTBT [Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty]”. There is also considerable uncertainty about the low-yield devices tested in 1998. Officially, the low-yield devices that were tested in 1998 had “all the features needed for integration with delivery vehicles” and were for “developing low-yield weapons and of validating new weapon-related ideas and subsystems”. Seismic evidence suggests, however, that these did not explode with the claimed yields.
Because of these uncertainties and questions, many strategists have called repeatedly for conducting more nuclear weapons tests. But the Congress-led UPA government never acted on these calls. With the new BJP government, many of these nuclear test advocates would likely be trying to influence it to do so. Such a test could well result in another round of testing by Pakistan.
What will likely persist under the BJP is the testing of longer-range delivery vehicles. Most important of these are the longer-range versions of the Agni missiles. During its stint in power from 1998 to 2004, the BJP government had tested the Agni-1 and Agni-2 missiles with ranges of 700 kilometres and 2,500 kilometres. Over the last decade, India’s DRDO was reported to have been working on the development of the Agni-6, with an estimated range of over 8000 kilometres and said to be capable of carrying up to 10 warheads. There will be calls from DRDO to test and these may find a willing listener in the BJP.
Any or all of these actions will surely be justified by the BJP, or for that matter the government of Nawaz Sharif, on strategic and military policy grounds. But that should not blind us to the role that they serve as performative gestures. This is particularly true of India where the rise of Hindu nationalism or Hindutva in the last two decades has been traced by many to a new ‘elite insecurity’ arising from the increasing social and political assertion of marginalised groups and the uncertainties associated with economic liberalisation. Hindutva’s answer to this uncertainty is a quest for ‘international status’ through the deployment of symbolic gestures of ‘great power status’ such as the ability to acquire and test nuclear weapons. The May 1998 nuclear weapon tests, or for that matter the 1992 destruction of the Babri Masjid, a 16th century mosque, are acts that demonstrate how it envisions making India ‘strong’. Pakistan’s elite, confronted with the larger failures of the nation-state and the growth of the Baluch insurgency and the rise of the Taliban, is quite receptive to such symbolism.
Two other countries play critical roles in the future of the Indo-Pak conflict: China and the US. Over the last three decades, China has become Pakistan’s close military, political and economic ally, while at the same time it has joined hands with India in a variety of economic and diplomatic forums. The cooperative alignment between China and India in these situations has to be viewed in conjunction with a larger dynamic of regional military confrontation and resource competition, all of which have become more pronounced as the Indian elite has begun seeing India as a global power. And finally each of these countries is deeply imbricated in a set of relationships with the US, so much so that the US can be seen as crucial to the political goals and security policies of each of the three Asian states.
As time passes, these relationships are only becoming more deeply embedded. Pakistan, dominated by its army, seeks Chinese and US military and economic support in its struggle with India; India seeks US support against China, and to satisfy its great power ambitions; China seeks to establish itself as an emerging global power able to reorder the international system; and, the US tries to defer and limit its decline as the dominant world power by constraining and balancing the rise of Chinese power and influence.
Militarism in Pakistan and India imposes a tremendous human cost by diverting scarce resources from other potential purposes, such as education, medical care, sanitation, and the provision of clean energy. There is no need here to compare budgetary allocations for war with allocations for any number of development related programs in either of these countries to point out the obvious: these governments spend a great deal more on their militaries than on the needs their populations are truly faced with. The only possible challenge to this state of affairs can come from civil society in India and Pakistan, which needs to more directly question this larger structure of competition and conflict that underlies the militarism of the two countries. At this point, one cannot envision any stronger source of hope.
~M V Ramana is at Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security (www.princeton.edu/sys).
~Zia Mian is at Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security (www.princeton.edu/sys).