In the progress of nuclearisation in South Asia, India has been the leader in the sense of provoking the next stage of escalation at every turn. In this context one of the questions that needs to be asked is the degree to which nuclear weapons in Pakistan has now become part of the Pakistani identity and the extent to which getting rid of nuclear weapons would need a certain kind of vacuum at least within the elite circles.
May 1998 was a turning point in South Asian nuclear history. The tests at Pokhran were initiated by the F3IP government which had just come to power through a process which was characterised by extreme secrecy so much so that even the ministry of defence was one of the last to find out about it. The tests ended a period which had been underway from 1974, characterised by nuclear ambiguity or nuclear opaqueness. In 1974, India conducted its first nuclear test, which was described as a peaceful nuclear explosion. For the next 14 years, India worked hard to increase nuclear capacity, and Pakistan tried to systematise a haphazard nuclear programme. By the mid-1980s it was clear that Pakistan had in fact the weapon, but it took till 1998 really for that weapon to become public and the official nuclearisation of South Asia to happen.
New Delhi’s decision to proceed with the nuclear explosions in 1998 is confusing from the point of view of international relations. At one stroke, India managed to get rid of its strategic advantage over Pakistan. India is many times more powerful and has resources far greater than Pakistan. The explosion allowed Pakistan to equate itself with India simply by setting off their own weapons. It became very clear that the aim of setting of these weapons was in fact to provoke Pakistan to do the same. Paradoxically, the fact that Pakistan was able to respond in the way that it did, came as a surprise to many in India. Until then, within the scientific community in particular, there had always been a suspicion that Pakistan’s claims to have nuclear weapons were in fact bogus. But among a number of political leaders the attitude was that if India managed to provoke Pakistan into following suit, it would replicate in South Asia the putative cold war scenario of the United States exhausting the USSR into submission.
What is confusing, however, is why a country which already had a strategic advantage over another would decide to take an action which equated the two of them. The argument, confusing to some scholars, was that once the two countries had nuclear weapons it would result in a series of agreements and conventions which would prevent further escalation and impart greater stability in the relations between the two countries. This seemed logical from a theoretical point of view. Ironically of course this so-called theory of deterrence did not seem to work in South Asia because within a year of the tests, the Kargil war took place, initiated not by the stronger but the weaker country. This clearly seemed to suggest that not only had Pakistan equalised its strategic position vis-à-vis India, it also acquired a certain amount of freedom to take actions which in the past would be seen as extremely provocative and would perhaps have led to full-scale war. So the logic, now, of nuclear weapons in South Asia appears to be that it does not prevent war but prevents war from escalating. So, we can now assume that the series of confrontations and low-intensity conflicts that have been taking place in the region for a long time will only increase.
No matter how sure political leaders are that nuclear weapons are not meant to be used—that they are simply meant to be brandished as political weapons rather than as military weapons—all that is needed is a small miscalculation on one side or the other for the threat of nuclear use to become closer than it is today. Studies have shown that under conditions of crisis, decision-making time is reduced as the crisis advances. The time available is not sufficient for a response based on an understanding of what has happened and the true nature of the crisis. That is why mistakes happen, even if there is a well-established path by which decisions are meant to be taken, namely there is a chain of command, and a set of minimum conditions to be met before each succeeding step is taken. A burgeoning crisis creates the compulsion to take decisions which under normal circumstances may not have been taken. As the crises follow one another, the danger of the use of nuclear weapons becomes higher, and the possibility of something going out of control comes closer each time. The whole problem with nuclear weapons is that if they have to be a credible threat, they have to placed in a position where they can actually be credibly used, which means that they cannot be kept as far away as one would like for security purposes. They have necessarily to be kept in a somewhat vulnerable position. The Indian establishment claims that the chain of command is very secure. But, these arrangements are only as good as the first failure.
There is also one school of thought which believes that actually India and Pakistan have nuclear weapons completely under their control because they are only political weapons not ever intended for use as military weapons. In the present context where there is one global super-power and both countries are vying with each other to gain its attention, what better way of getting its attention than to threaten the use of nuclear weapons. There is a great deal of truth to this.
The United States’ interests have to do with the western side of Pakistan much more than the eastern side of Pakistan. The Indian side is hoping that the Americans will put pressure on Pakistan to stop cross-border terrorism, as it is called in India in relation to Kashmir. But the Americans show no interest, it seems, in taking further steps to resolve the Kashmir issue. Rather what is done is, what Pakistan has always wanted, namely to internationalise Kashmir. Given the strategic asymmetry between the two countries, every time Pakistan threatens the use the nuclear weapon it invokes Kashmir in the same breath. Therefore, Kashmir, is always on the table. It is not at all clear that we have gotten any closer to a resolution of this problem, which all said and done is the primary issue between India and Pakistan.
These aspects constitute the general backdrop against which the nuclear question in South Asian needs to be discussed.
Polished shoes, dirty feet
India began its nuclear programme even before independence. It was at that point clearly seen as an energy programme, restricted to producing nuclear power for civilian consumption. A peculiarity of the Indian programme is the location of its facilities. Bombay is not the place where you want to have these facilities, if the idea was to make nuclear weapons. You want to have them in the south or east, as far away from a potential threat from Pakistan as far as possible. This in a sense corroborates the view that the Indian programme to begin with was part of the larger developmental effort.
Homi Bhabha came back from England during the second world war and without much difficulty convinced Nehru and the political leadership that India needed nuclear power if it was to develop. It was as simple as that.
In 1955, India in the pursuit of this objective made a critical decision that was to open up other possibilities later. This was the choice of reactor, an aspect that does not always get the attention it deserves. The choice at that time was between a light water reactor and a heavy water reactor. Light water reactors were the most common form of nuclear reactors at that time. The United States had it and General Electric was willing to sell it. The Russians were also developing light water reactors. Heavy water reactors were much more of an unproven technology at that time, and only the Canadians had gone in that direction. Because of the heavy capital costs involved, India had to make a choice between the one or the other, as changing course subsequently would not be easy. At a closed door meeting of Indian scientists, it was decided to opt for the heavy water reactor because the case was made that one of the advantages of heavy water reactors was that plutonium was a by-product. Plutonium as a byproduct should have been seen as something that is dangerous because it is an incredibly toxic metal. Ironically plutonium was the reason that clinched choice. So, by 1955, the initial idea of 1943-47 that India’s nuclear programme was to be oriented towards civilian purposes had already gotten modified to the extent that the option was now kept open. Accordingly, contracts were signed with the Canadians.
As time passed, the amount of money sunk into the nuclear programme began to escalate. There had also been from the beginning some criticism from scientists not involved in this programme that nuclear energy was being monopolised by one or two centres and a very small team of leading scientists. Also, the financial resources they had access to were far in excess of what they actually needed, which was depriving other parts of Indian science of funds. In addition, there were no results to show for all this expenditure. They had have a working nuclear reactor producing power. This promised in 1948 that within five years India would I was far from the case. Even in 1969, Vikram Sarabhai, who took over from Homi Bhabha, had promised that in a decade there would be 20,000 MW of nuclear energy being produced every year in India. It is still, today, under 3000 MW
A programme that began with enormous attention had by the mid-1950s and even more so by the early 1960s lost its way and clearly was not going to fulfil its original objective. Some time in the early-1960s, the nuclear establishment decided that all Indian nuclear scientists were going to consider themselves nuclear weapons scientists as well. This would, incidentally, save the nuclear programme from public scrutiny.
Within the Atomic Energy Commission there had always been more than one faction. One of these was committed to the original energy objective. There was another group, perhaps more politically minded and perhaps less sure of their technical ability, which felt that the energy programme was not going anywhere and therefore the best way to hedge the bet was to start a weapons programme. This would in the long run always ensure that this particular set of institutions and people would be protected from any kind of resource crunch.
Within the Atomic Energy Commission, from the 1960s onwards, the development of nuclear weapons became an option being taken ever-more seriously. As it became clear that the energy option was becoming less and less viable commercially and otherwise—the weapons option became stronger. In the 1960s, scientists did not play an active role in the debate that took place after the Chinese tested, but from that point onwards, especially with the death of Homi Bhabha in 1966, and the death of his successor Vikram Sarabhai in 1971, the so-called bomb faction within the Atomic Energy Commission began to dominate. It has dominated ever since. That they had an interest in testing long before 1998 has become clearer with the admission by a former Indian prime minister, that every Indian prime minister has been approached as soon as they have came to power with a request from the Atomic Energy Commission to be allowed to test. Every Indian prime minister until Vajpayee said no.
All the five countries that have become nuclear powers before India have all had well-established separate military programmes of which the civilian programme was an off-shoot. In India, it was the other way around, a civilian programme having developed a military programme as an off-shoot. Because the Indian nuclear programme had an openly disclosed civilian energy objective, it was allowed access to technology from around the world, from which a secret military programme was created.
The Pakistani model took this one step further. It had a civilian programme of some kind in place but the bomb came about through a completely parallel route. It used covert means, using, for instance, connections with the underworld. Both India and Pakistan broke the mould for what new nuclear powers are meant to do.
If you consider the production cycle from the extraction of uranium to the processing of it, and making plutonium to the manufacture of the bomb material, and the final placement—and if you drew a line on the map from the starting point to the end-point, the process in a sense travels across the country. It begins at Jadugoda in Jharkhand where most of India’s uranium is mined. From here it goes to Hyderabad, where the nuclear fuel complex is located. The mined ore passes through Jharkhand and Orissa to Andhra Pradesh. There are no emergency mechanisms in case of a spill or an accident. At Hyderabad, the uranium is converted into fuel rods, and from there you could take it in any one of a number of different directions, given that there are reactors in Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka. From there they are going to go all over the place. If the material gets converted into bombs, they could be sent to strategic storage facilities that may be located anywhere.
Nuclear fuel, if its properly managed, is relatively safe. We have no clear idea at this time what kind of safety precautions are being taken—for instance whether these trains that are carrying the material are in fact protected by troops in anticipation of a hijack. In case of an accident, are hospitals along the route equipped to deal with radiation poisoning? The answer clearly is no, because there are very few places in India where this kind of facility in fact is available.
Finally, there are the corrosive effects that nuclear weapons have on the form of democratic functioning. The secrecy that envelops the nuclear programme means that there is a certain kind of immunity given to those within the institution. This often leads to arrogance, and a tendency to take certain decisions without considering the full costs. Insulation from public pressure, accountability and responsibility makes you prone to being aggressive and hostile in posturing. These actions take place through the decisions of a small number of people without proper discussion, debate or scrutiny of publicly accountable institutions.
This happens even within polities based on democratic party systems. Within a system which is less than democratic and less accountable, the problems are even greater. For instance, over in Islamabad, decisions are being made for Pakistani citizens over which they have no control. The media and the public find out about developments well after the fact, and even then only in passing. The danger is that even after a democratic system comes back in full form in Pakistan, there may well he critical areas which are off-limits.
Pakistan also had a nuclear programme since the 1950s. There were two phases to it. There was the early nuclear programme during the 1950s and then the second phase which began in the 1960s but which really took off in the 1970s. In the 1950s 3 to 4 percent of Pakistan’s science and technology budget went towards the nuclear industry. This was a comparatively small figure, because in the Indian case between 15 to 20 percent of the whole science and technology budget goes towards the nuclear industry.
After 1972, with the creation of Bangladesh and Bhutto coming to power, it became very clear that Pakistan was going to go full speed ahead and produce a weapon. There were obviously very clear indications that Pakistani decision-makers knew that India was well on its way to acquiring nuclear capability. But, this was going to be a deterrent against India, which had helped dismember Pakistan once and clearly they were going to do it again. The entire edifice of what is called deterrence is premised on a certain kind of communication that takes place between two sides. In the India-Pakistan case this communication has been always been a bit distorted because it has always gone through some indirect form.
The surreptitious manner in which weapons emerged in the two countries, the history of intractable problems, and the secrecy surrounding the control and command systems and the tendency towards brinkmanship in bilateral politics makes the idea of a real deterrence somewhat weak in South Asia. This is a factor that needs to be kept in mind in reflecting on the nuclear situation in the Subcontinent.