Make your own free website on

From Ambiguity to Abstinence: Towards Nuclear Disarmament in South Asia

By Praful Bidwai

It should now be clear that neither India nor Pakistan will be a willing participant in the near future in any initiative for nuclear restraint, leave alone nuclear disarmament. New Delhi's and Islamabad's firm refusal to sign the comprehensive test ban treaty (CTBT), and India's strong condemnation of it as a "charade", is only the most obvious indication of this. The trend in the domestic debate on the issue of an international or regional agreement concerning weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) is an important factor too.

A strongly negativist attitude towards WMD restraint among Indian and Pakistani policy-makers, their cynicism about the possibility of progress on the part of the nuclear-weapons states (NWSs) towards disarmament, and domestic political equations, all play a major part in reinforcing the two governments' refusal to be drawn into a process of achieving nuclear restraint. Regrettably, the countervailing forces may be far too weak to alter this in the short run.

This paper argues that India and Pakistan represent a unique case of (rapidly deteriorating) nuclear ambiguity, and that it would be virtually impossible to rope them into a process of accepting even non-discriminatory forms of nuclear constraint, in the absence of real, tangible, genuine progress on the part of the NWSs towards nuclear disarmament, in the form of deep reductions in nuclear weapons arsenals and a series of restraint agreements. There are few pressures, domestic or international, on New Delhi and Islamabad to change their cynical and negative attitudes. Genuine considerations of security are unlikely to alter them either.

India and Pakistan represent a different case of ambiguity from Israel. The motivation behind Israel's pursuit of a nuclear capability is relatively clear: the drive to retain a position of strategic superiority in the West Asian-North African region by compensating for its lack of strategic depth through nuclear weapons, and also to create a deterrent to the use of conventional weapons and other WMDs such as chemical and biological armaments. It is also relatively easy to identify the conditions under which Israel could move from nuclear ambiguity to abstinence: a larger Middle Eastern peace, and elimination of the potential for acquisition of a WMD capability in the region.

In the Indian and Pakistani case, considerations of security are far from clearly visible. In the Indian case, the acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability has had more to do with notions of national pride and prestige than with actual or perceived threats to national security. While Pakistani policy has been more reactive than India's, it is hard to argue that it has really been driven by a half-way coherent strategic calculation, although ex post rationalisations can be made for it. It is thus wholly unsurprising that India and Pakistan do not have any strategic doctrines or philosophies for the threat of use, or use, of their nuclear weapons capabilities.

India's ambiguity is much deeper and more basic or foundational than Pakistan's. While it is reasonable to assume that Islamabad can be persuaded to give up ambiguity in case India embraces nuclear abstinence, the obverse cannot be said. It is hard to predict under what circumstances New Delhi will roll back its nuclear weapons capability--short of substantial progress towards, if not the imminence of, global nuclear disarmament. When the rationale for such a capability is somewhat intangible and not strongly rooted in national security considerations, it is difficult to revise policy pertaining to that capability.

India's stand on restraint in respect of WMDs has hardened in recent years, in conjunction with, and under pressure from, a rightward shift in domestic politics. This in part is a reflection of a deeply insecure nationalism, which feels frustrated at India's social and economic failures or poor performance, and fuels aspirations for a Great Power status, even when it might mean acquisition of WMDs. Thus, New Delhi, which had championed the chemical weapons convention (CWC) as a model non-discriminatory international treaty, and signed it enthusiastically, started getting jittery over the process of ratification. It formally ratified the treaty in October 1995--in India, this only needs a Cabinet resolution of the Central government, and not parliamentary approval--but delayed depositing the instrument of ratification till September 1996.

More important, under hawkish pressure, it virtually threatened to withdraw from the treaty only weeks before it entered into effect in April 1997, citing the extraordinary argument that unless the treaty had universal adherence, it would be "discriminatory". Pressure for withdrawing from the CWC was to an extent internally generated within the foreign ministry by those who had earlier launched a campaign to oppose and block the CTBT and who have now fashioned a whole pro-active diplomacy based on opposing any restraint on India's WMD capabilities. Newspapers stories were systematically planted about the non-universal and partial character of the CWC, about how its regime of verification is intrusive and open to abuse, how it is `meaningless' for India to join the Convention unless both China and Pakistan ratify it, and so on.

On April 15, the Indian delegate to the CWC Preparatory Committee at The Hague said: "We will have to review our options, taking account of the lack of representative character of the Convention." An unbalanced CWC would be discriminatory, just like the CTBT. "Universal adherence (to the CWC) is the only way to achieve the balance", the leader of the Indian delegation told the PrepCom, adding "if this is not achieved, we will have to review our options." This clearly confused universal adherence with the non-discriminatory character of the CWC and its imposition of equal, verifiable obligations on all signatories.

In the event, once the U.S. and China ratified the CWC in the critical few days before the April 29 deadline, New Delhi did not execute the threat. But that it came pretty close to doing so is itself noteworthy. Since then, Prime Minister I.K. Gujral has repeatedly talked, with reference to Pakistan's non-ratification, of "keeping the option open" of walking out of the CWC if "the need arises". Domestically, the government has been under pressure from the Hindu right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party to summarily reject all proposals for arms restraint. Given its minority character, it is hard-placed to resist such pressure.

An example of how pressure against arms restraint measures works is provided by the change in the government's stand on the medium-range (1,500 km-2,500 km) Agni missile programme too. A year ago, Defence Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav announced that the so-called Agni "technology demonstrator" programme had achieved its purpose and was being put on hold. However, in the summer of 1997, media stories appeared in the U.S. on "deployment" of India's short-range Prithvi missile near the Pakistani border. These were strongly denied. But, as if in retaliation, there were reports of a "routine test flight" of a Pakistani missile, said to be a modified version of a Chinese design.

The political response to these reports, whatever their veracity, was to demand that India revive and resume the Agni programme. In late August, Yadav declared that the programme would be resumed, although it is not clear that it will lead to a genuine battlefield-usable ballistic missile. (The present design uses cryogenic liquid fuels and needs long preparation time.)

The rationale of New Delhi's opposition to restraint on missile development in South Asia parallels its rationale for rejecting the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as "discriminatory": if "they" can have missiles, why can't "we"? However, this wholly ignores the dangerous bilateral dimensions of a missile race in South Asia, with its potential for a serious crisis. Missiles will cut flight time between the two countries to under 10 minutes, justifying a launch-on-warning or quick-retaliation response. Given lack of transparency between India and Pakistan about each other's intentions, nuclear preparations or doctrines, this could have horrifying consequences in case there is a sudden escalation of skirmishes across the border.

Such fears are not far-fetched. A recent instance is a reported August 22-23 exchange of fire in the Uri sector of the Kashmir border, in which India claimed to have killed 70 Pakistani soldiers. (Pakistan maintained there were no casualties and no serious exchange of fire). Whatever dispute or issue of conflict was involved could have been resolved--as it was expected to be-- through a routine "hotline" conversation between the Indian and Pakistani directors-general of military operations. This line is meant to be activated every Tuesday. But it was not activated on August 26 for reasons that remain obscure but are extremely worrisome.

Beneath all these events and processes, a silent doctrinal divide is emerging in India. The new doctrinal dividing line is not between those who believe that nuclear weapons should actually be used in war, and those who don't, but those who believe in nuclear deterrence and those who oppose it as the foundation of a sane defence policy. Indian policy-makers and -shapers have moved dangerously close to legitimising and internalising nuclear deterrence which India has all along condemned as an "abhorrent" and "repugnant" doctrine.

The classical Indian position going back to the Nehru period opposes even the threat of use of nuclear weapons as a "crime against humanity". India opposed use or threat of use during the World Court hearing and argued at Geneva in April 1996 that nuclear weapons are "not essential to national security" anywhere. Today, there is a drift away from this stand towards nuclear deterrence-based thinking.

Indian cycnicism in respect of WMD restraint is duly replicated in Pakistan. Islamabad refused to sign the CTBT because India did not sign it, although it would have conceivably gained considerable political advantage without losing anything much in strategic terms had it done so. Pakistan has also not ratified the CWC and continues to be under domestic-political and army pressure not to do so, despite some recent improvement in bilateral relations and two rounds of talks at the level of their foreign secretaries (chiefs of diplomatic service), the first since January 1994--which were themselves a disaster. The slight upturn in diplomatic relations since Gujral and Nawaz Sharif's assumption of office looks vulnerable and could be quickly reversed in case tension builds up over missile or nuclear programmes, or Kashmir, or any number of other disputes, coupled with domestic tub-thumping by jingoists in either country.

This apart, there is a fairly strong domestic consensus in both India and Pakistan that past attempts by the Great Powers, in particular, the U.S., to pressurise the two governments to "cap, roll back and eventually eliminate" their nuclear capabilities were largely a failure. Most political parties resent such efforts. The hawks use this sentiment to promote their own agenda, of going overtly nuclear.

Although there is only limited support for overt nuclearisation, there is a real danger that some kind of tacit understanding is crystallising in favour of the nuclear status quo: there must be no rolling back, no restraint, both counties have become de facto nuclear states, and this is well-nigh irreversible. This is the main message emerging from some of the Track II-level discussions between retired diplomats, generals, political leaders and journalists from the two countries.

Thus, "non-weaponised", "recessed" or "existential" "deterrence", which was only a few years ago presented by some arms control proponents as a positive achievement, could be turning into an unstoppable, irreversible, nightmare--not as a first step in the cessation of a nuclear arms race, but as licence to continue nuclear-military preparations along with nuclear warhead-capable missile development. There is growing confidence among policy- makers in both countries that their de facto nuclear weapons- state status will not be seriously questioned or opposed for some time to come.

India's "successful" defiance of the CTBT is seen as a victory by large chunks of the Indian (and Pakistani) media, notwithstanding India's unprecedented and humiliating defeat last year by 142 to 40 votes at the hands of Japan in a contest for a non-permanent seat on the Security Council--a circumstance closely related to her isolation on account of the CTBT stand. (India, a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement, totally failed to mobilise a respectable level of support in spite of extremely energetic efforts, including hectic campaigning by all Indian missions abroad and Gujral's meetings with more than 70 foreign ministers during his two-and-a-half-week stay in New York last autumn).

Besides this, a strange overlap has emerged in the Conference on Disarmament at Geneva between India and Pakistan, on the one hand, and the Non-Aligned Group of 21, on the other, on the issue of a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT). The G-21 has taken the stand that the FMCT talks must be conditional upon the NWSs agreeing to negotiate complete nuclear disarmament. This position is worthy of support in itself. But the G-21 stand conceals the fact that the Indian and Pakistani agendas are different from just securing a commitment to disarmament from the NWSs. Rather, they derive from resistance to any and all steps for nuclear restraint. India and Pakistan, which differ on the scope of an FMCT--New Delhi does not want existing stockpiles to be included in the FMCT, but Islamabad does--are able to take shelter behind the common NAM position.

It might be possible to bring out the real differences between India-Pakistan and the rest of G-21 by making creative proposals both within and outside the CD, although care must be taken that this does not weaken the pressure on the NWSs to put nuclear disarmament on the table. However, this still might not impel New Delhi and Islamabad to moderate their stand and adopt a positive approach.

A far better alternative, which India and Pakistan would find it difficult to resist, would be solid, tangible progress on the part of the NWSs towards nuclear disarmament: ratification and accelerated implementation of START-II, launching of START-III, deep, class-by-class reductions in nuclear weapons stockpiles, negotiated decoupling of warheads from delivery systems, a no- first-use treaty and, equally important, extension of nuclear weapons-free zones (NWFZs) to include parts of the Global North, e.g. a Nordic NWFZ and a Central European NWFZ, besides a Central Asian zone.

These could generate sufficient momentum for disarmament and hence put pressure on India and Pakistan to stop pretending that the end of the Cold War means nothing so far as WMDs go, and impel them to put nuclear restraint on the agenda. Perhaps the best way of beginning the process is to have bilateral confidence-building measures and agreements not to use nuclear weapons capabilities against each other, and to freeze missile development. With this in place, and once a global momentum is generated, talks could begin for a South Asian NWFZ.

Such an NWFZ should improve upon some of the existing arrangements (e.g. in Latin America and Southeast Asia) and must include strict commitments and guarantees against stationing nuclear weapons in, targeting them at, or transporting them through, the South Asian region, including its territorial waters. A useful contribution at the multilateral level would be to revive the 1987 Rajiv Gandhi Plan for Nuclear Disarmament.

If this does not happen quickly enough, and if the NWSs do not move seriously towards disarmament, there is every danger that South Asia's march towards nuclearisation would become irreversible, and "existential deterrence" would become a permanent condition of India and Pakistan's existence. Nothing could be worse for the security of a restless region with over 1.2 billion people.

Back to Praful's articles