Geostrategy

A Brief History of ‘Indian Nuclear Policy’

Hasan Qureshi
Written by Hasan Qureshi

Post-colonial Indian nuclear policy has historically been confused at best. This piece will argue that India’s policy towards the enrichment of fissile material and its weaponization has been disjointed, changing without reasonable prompt, and lacking in rationality by virtue that it has not always been in reaction to the strategic environment. The decision to conduct nuclear tests in May of 1998 was a symptom of this failure to construct and understand a credible threat matrix, and a failure to read regional and international diplomacy. Consequently, this analysis will attempt to explain the most important underlying factors which have pushed India one way or the other; comprising the early Nehruvian scientific push, India’s inherent insecurity about its place in the world, official efforts for international disarmament based on professed Ghandian notions of morality, perceived regional security concerns, domestic political realities/pandering, and a sense of inevitable scientific destiny. An examination of these influences will hopefully provide a deeper understanding of a multi-headed, puzzling and unclear Indian nuclear policy.

This analysis will attempt to explain the most important underlying factors which have pushed India one way or the other; comprising the early Nehruvian scientific push, India’s inherent insecurity about its place in the world, official efforts for international disarmament based on professed Ghandian notions of morality, perceived regional security concerns, domestic political realities/pandering, and a sense of inevitable scientific destiny.

Many differing justifications have been provided by Indian policymakers for the various positions adopted on India’s nuclear policy. An even greater cornucopia of reasons has been provided by analysts and commentators on why India has adopted the different stances on nuclear weaponization over the years. However, what many observers seem to have misunderstood is the apparent lack of coordination and strategic reasoning behind the various stages of the Indian nuclear program. That is, the reasoning behind positions or shifts in Indian nuclear policies has rarely been the product of consolidated rationality based upon geostrategic realities; but that various influences at different times from diverse actors has pushed the Indian ruling establishment of the time towards one policy or another in a haphazard manner. Thus when we talk of an Indian ‘nuclear policy’, it is hardly a policy as such. Policy is usually thought of as being well-defined, objective-oriented and evidence based, even if it might be the ‘wrong’ policy. Indian nuclear policy for the large part is none of these things. India’s attitude towards nuclear weaponization must be seen as more of a loose, quasi-coordinated, approach (however for the sake of ease, the word policy will still be used here). To understand why Indian nuclear policy is so, a part-chronological, part-thematic analysis of the different periods and influences in Indian nuclear history is necessary.

India very early on embarked upon a path to create a civilian nuclear program centered on research and the eventual production of electricity. Early evidence suggests that the Indian nuclear program was created to serve a purely non-military role. Research was primed at converting the country’s vast thorium reserves into fissile material under the three stages nuclear energy program. Although there were indications that the peaceful only approach could change if and when the Indian security establishment felt that weaponization of nuclear material would serve to stave off an existential threat; this was not a major issue of contention or debate at the time. India, under Nehru was preoccupied with instituting programs of indigenous industrialization and social development, with Delhi attempting to cement its central political authority in a fledgling independent India. An important part of the Nehruvian vision of development -more so in rhetoric than action- was the emphasis placed on science/technology and its ability to rapidly develop India. The civilian nuclear program was a poster child of this stress on science. In Nehru’s vision, independent India would prove to the world its rapid development through science. Together with the lack of any serious threat to Indian territorial security from 1949-1962 and a firm stance on non-alignment, Ghandian principles (which Nehru espoused publicly) and the Ghandian legacy was still very much fresh in the Indian psyche. There was little space or need for serious discussion on nuclear weaponization. This early period is perhaps the only where India could be said to have had a clear nuclear policy. Though there were some advocates among the scientific community that India should eventually move towards weaponization, these voices were not vociferous enough and there was little political will. Even those who advocated eventual weaponization did not base their reasoning on strategic factors, but argued that weaponization (or at least enrichment to the extent that an atomic test could take place) would be the inevitable result of scientific progress. Thus, even in the absence of political will to weaponize there was a broad sense of inevitability among the Indian scientific community, especially those involved directly in nuclear research. Why this was the case (and has been in other nations which have gone on to weaponize nuclear fission) is a separate debate.

Thus when we talk of an Indian ‘nuclear policy’, it is hardly a policy as such. Policy is usually thought of as being well-defined, objective-oriented and evidence based, even if it might be the ‘wrong’ policy. Indian nuclear policy for the large part is none of these things.

The geostrategic situation changed dramatically in the 1960’s when a paradigm shift in regional politics of Asia -specifically for India, a more assertive China and the increasingly closer relationship between Pakistan and the US (and between Pakistan and China) which was viewed with apprehension in Delhi- increased pressures and calls at home to move towards weaponization. The humiliating capitulation to China in the short border war of 1962, the surprise Chinese nuclear test in 1964 and the inability of quantifiably superior Indian forces to decisively contend with much smaller Pakistan in 1965, all led to a gradual change of thinking in Delhi. According to the Indian security establishment, India had serious regional threats to contend with, both from China and Pakistan, and it was increasingly feeling isolated and unsure of its place in the international order. Throughout 1964-65 Homi Bhabha, along with leading nuclear scientists, sympathetic bureaucrats, and military officials kept advocating for the weaponization option to be kept on the table. Their arguments were based on perceived threats from Pakistan and China, and the failure of India’s non-aligned status to guarantee security. However, such perceived threats were not based on rational strategic thinking.

Firstly, the threat from Pakistan was purely conventional. Pakistan had also begun a civilian nuclear program in the late 1950’s but it was wholly civilian led in its early stages of scientific research. There was no indication that the Pakistani establishment had any interest in weaponization at the time. In fact, there was little appetite for nuclear weaponization in Pakistan, with economic concerns prevalent, and threat perception analyses indicating no need for such a costly and potentially diplomatically isolating venture. When in 1965, Munir Ahmad Khan, the leading Pakistani nuclear scientist of the day, and Z. A. Bhutto, then Foreign Minister, met with Ayub Khan to discuss the developments in India to move towards weaponization, and the Pakistani response, Ayub Khan denied permission to move towards weaponization citing costs, and stating that Pakistan would be able to ‘buy it off the shelf from the U.S’ if India ever succeeded in testing a working device. The unwillingness and disinterest of the Pakistani establishment to pursue weaponization at the time would have been known in Delhi, and such information would hardly point to an existential threat from the Pakistani side. Further, it was clear that Pakistan would only pursue weaponization if India did. Thus, prudence dictated that India should not weaponize, giving no impetus to weaponization calls in Pakistan, and thus retain its conventional superiority over its neighbor.

The unwillingness and disinterest of the Pakistani establishment to pursue weaponization at the time would have been known in Delhi, and such information would hardly point to an existential threat from the Pakistani side. Further, it was clear that Pakistan would only pursue weaponization if India did. Thus, prudence dictated that India should not weaponize, giving no impetus to weaponization calls in Pakistan, and thus retain its conventional superiority over its neighbor.

Secondly, any threat from China was also far overstated and misperceived. The Chinese nuclear test had little to nothing to do with any rivalry with India. It was purely a product of the politics of the Cold War – a development in China’s rivalry both with the U.S.S.R and the U.S, and historical fears about a resurgent Japan. The Indian security establishment however perceived the Chinese test directly in relation to their own security. This was a psychological fault; a product of misplaced pride, ego, groupthink, and most importantly – insecurity. Indian policymakers have regularly overestimated India’s importance or potential importance in the international order. The desire of India becoming a world power contrasted sharply with India’s actual importance in the world – which at the time was far less than what Delhi thought. This led to (and still does) insecurity in Delhi about India’s place in the world. The weaponization and acquisition of nuclear power would be -in some Indian policymakers’ reckoning- an important step in propelling India up the international ladder, ready to compete with its perceived powerful rivals. This issue of insecurity would come up repeatedly in Indian nuclear history. If China had the bomb, so would India. But, as stated before, this was not based on any credible threat matrix. The threat from China was perceived, not real. Any future Chinese usage of a nuclear weapon (which was very remote) would bring international actors into play against it – militarily. Further, China would not need to threaten India with a nuclear strike as this would only bring it under international pressure and Chinese conventional military superiority would suffice to gain its military goals. More importantly, China had and still does maintain a no-first-use policy.

On the other hand, an Indian nuclear weapons program would bring international condemnation, sanctions, and would be very costly on the exchequer. Rationally, the risks far outweighed any perceived rewards. India’s real problem was its non-aligned status which left it without a strong international ally in matters of conflict. India needed such a friend, and this was the policy path advocated by the anti-weaponization dissenting voices – for India to place itself under a nuclear umbrella of sorts, as many other countries had. Nehru was familiar with both arguments but was undecided. However, he gave his approval for the Indian nuclear community to move towardseventual weaponization, whilst at the same time trying to look for such a nuclear umbrella. This was the first tentative push towards weaponization.

On top of the expected arguments on it being the ‘right’ of India to test, India argued that only an India with nuclear capability would be strong enough to push for world nuclear disarmament. India had made the bomb, to get rid of the bomb.

The period 1965-1974 marked the next phase in India’s uncertain nuclear policy. In the mid 1960’s there was a change of leadership, both in Delhi and of the nuclear program. Their successors, notably the so-called Trombay scientists continued the push towards weaponization in earnest. In 1968, Indira Gandhi officially gave the go ahead to move towards the bomb, redoubling efforts and resources. Gandhi’s arrival introduced more elements of uncertainty to India’s nuclear policy. Though the decision to move towards weaponization was firm, its underpinning reasons were not.

In the late 60’s and early 70’s international efforts to curb proliferation and testing resulted in the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty (starting in 1968), and moves towards a test ban. The official Indian position had always been total international disarmament, and it had been a leading voice in bringing about concerted movement on the NPT in particular. However, when the time came, it did not sign the NPT citing discriminationin that the treaty places limitations on non-nuclear states but makes no effort to limit weapons development by declared nuclear weapons states. This transpired whilst India was ramping up preparations for a ‘hot’ nuclear test. Meanwhile, after Pakistan’s torrid experience in East Pakistan (1971) and confirmed intelligence on the advanced nature of the Indian program, a change of leadership in Islamabad had put the development of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program on a war footing – bringing to fruition by Indian actions, initial Indian fears.

The test also reaffirmed Pakistan’s commitment to weaponization, with Bhutto giving his famous ‘1000 years of war’ speech to a more than ever motivated Pakistani nuclear scientific community.

So why did India decide to test in 1974? A number of reasons present themselves. India’s official explanation was that this was a ‘peaceful test’. On top of the expected arguments on it being the ‘right’ of India to test, India argued that only an India with nuclear capability would be strong enough to push for world nuclear disarmament. India had made the bomb, to get rid of the bomb. It was little surprise that this explanation was received with skepticism in the international community. The test also reaffirmed Pakistan’s commitment to weaponization, with Bhutto giving his famous ‘1000 years of war’ speech to a more than ever motivated Pakistani nuclear scientific community. Indian relations with China, already fraught, also soured further. The Indian bomb, despite its claims to be wholly indigenous, was made possible by diverting peaceful technology and fissile waste material from the U.S, Canada, France, U.K and the U.S.S.R to the weapons program. These states were less than happy that they had inadvertently caused proliferation. Looking at such drawbacks as a result of testing, there need to have been more pressing reasons for the 1974 test. Reasons which were not part of the official account.

A leading cause of the 1974 test was the inevitably factor. The nuclear community had been working on the bomb in earnest for a number of years and most scientists accepted that the eventual result would be a hot test – reinforcing a fait accompli. Secondly, in the 1970’s India felt that it was gaining prestige in the international community. Pakistan had been dealt a serious blow in 1971 and a nuclear test would cap the international prestige that Delhi yearned for. Third, there were pressing domestic concerns. Gandhi’s popularity had been declining in part as a result of the 1973 OPEC crisis, raising prices and making the economy unstable. Domestic pressure was also being exerted upon the center by the provinces and also by newly emerging separatist movements. If there is one thing that united different policymakers in Delhi, it was the need to consolidate the authority of the center. A successful nuclear test would go some way into assuring this. These reasons may have been seen to be sufficient to go ahead with the test at the time, but in hindsight do not appear so. This is because they were not based on strategic concerns as the development of a nuclear weapon should be. The test was not part of any geopolitical strategy; it was geared to address non-strategic concerns. This is evidenced by the fact that India did not begin to develop viable delivery systems till much later. A nuclear bomb is more or less useless if it has not been weaponised into a delivery system. India’s strategic adversaries would have known this (so would China and Pakistan) and thus the test did not improve India’s strategic position at all.

After the Smiling Buddha test, the overall Indian nuclear stance retreated once again. On the political front, India managed to gain defence assurances from the Soviet Union, bringing India partly under the Soviet nuclear umbrella. India relied on this security agreement till the power of the U.S.S.R waned in the late 80’s. On the scientific front, after having conducted the test, 1974-1990 was a period of quiet development of methods of delivery (repeated failures in the missile program) and refining the yield of the Indian atomic bombs. But there was little appetite for full-scale ramping up of the program. On the diplomatic front, India stuck to its position of non-proliferation and global disarmament, whilst still refusing to sign the NPT.

Concerted domestic pressures, uncoordinated pushes towards weaponization and failures to understand the regional strategic environment have been the hallmarks of the Indian nuclear approach. This has not only left India strategically weaker than it would have been had it not weaponised; but it has also meant that Indian nuclear policy has been responsible for creating and sustaining a dangerous arms race, fostering a strategic imbalance in the region.

The global and regional environment once again changed in the late 1980’s as the Cold War took its toll on the Soviet Union. India was losing its main benefactor and in a new unipolar, U.S dominated world, India once again fell victim to insecurities. In the late 1980’s Rajiv Gandhi stepped up the nuclear program once again, with India attempting to create an effective nuclear deterrence. In 1983, there were intelligence reports that Pakistan had ‘cold’ tested a Uranium based bomb, backing up earlier unconfirmed reports of a similar cold test in 1978 and a possible proxy ‘hot’ test facilitated in China in the mid-70’s. However, Pakistan was still hesitant to hot test a nuclear device, understanding that such a move would heat up the fragile regional environment; even though estimations from Islamabad were that the U.S, because of Pakistan’s crucial role in Afghanistan, would have let a hot test pass without much serious condemnation or sanctions.

With the 1974 test India had pushed the region into a nuclear arms race whilst simultaneously weakening its own position compared to the conventionally stronger position it would have enjoyed if the Subcontinent had not be nuclearized. Pakistan, though it had developed the bomb, was unwilling to test or announce its success. China, though it continued testing throughout the 80’s and early 90’s and was also building an effective deterrence arsenal, understood and was adapting to the political realities of the new post-Cold War world. In the early 90’s China attempted to move away from its disastrous economic policies and integrate into the world market. India was doing the same. It was in the interest of China, Pakistan and India to decrease tensions and create a business-friendly atmosphere. There were indeed overtures to this end by the Chinese and Pakistani sides. And for the most part India did reciprocate. In light of these developments, there was no strategic rationale in extending the nuclear arms race further. Thus, the 1998 Indian tests went against all rational strategic thinking. The decision to undertake these provocative tests -as had been the decision in 1974 and Indian nuclear policy as a whole- was instead the product of a number of non-strategic factors.

Ffirstly, the primary threat to Indian national security during the 80’s and especially the 90’s was the rise of freedom movements across the country. Kashmir was a quagmire which the Indian Army had created, the Sikh independence movement was ebbing and flowing, and the Maoists were gaining traction. In total there were more than two dozen serious separatist or anti-center militant movements. Most of these were (and are) indigenous, but some like Kashmir are also aided by Pakistan. However, India’s strategy to deal with Kashmir (and other foreign aided insurgencies) was to tackle the state-aider directly. This meant that Indian policymakers made strategies not to quell the domestic insurgency itself but against Pakistan as a state. This was a serious miscalculation. Doing so by nuclear means not only ratcheted up the stakes but was also ineffective. Pakistan and China had adopted a strategy of ‘bleeding India through a thousand cuts’, using proxies, PSYOPS etc. Conventional warfare was not part of this as neither wanted an arms race or regional destabilization. For India to respond to non-conventional threats in a conventional manner forced Pakistan especially to respond in kind – destabilizing the delicate peace in the region.

Secondly, all actors in the region were well aware of each other’s nuclear capabilities.  Conducting another round of tests was illogical as it would prove little to one’s adversary. All it would do is force the other to respond in kind in the interest of face-saving. There was little strategic reward in the 1998 tests. The only reason India would have to conduct another round of tests was to announce and strategically warn others of its reaching the next stage in nuclear deterrence – total nuclear deterrence in the form of second-strike capabilities. This though, was not the case.

In fact, once again, India chose to embark upon testing without any valid strategic underpinnings to the decision. Throughout the 90’s, several Indian administrations planned for the tests to go ahead. Once, U.S pressure dissuaded them, and a second time, the BJP under Atal Bihari Vajpayee ordered testing within 13 days of coming to power but was unable to do so because the coalition lost power soon after. The next time the BJP gained power, it again ordered testing within weeks. Why was the BJP so hell-bent on another round of tests? The BJP had made a number of promises during the election, of which it was unable to keep most due to the need for coalition building. But, because the Indian nuclear scientific community was strongly in favor,Vajpayee was able to move forward on his promise to conduct more tests. The BJP had to also appease the greater Sangh Parivar and the RSS who have their own vision of India and are essential to BJP electoral success. With India’s historic geostrategic/domestic insecurities andits desire for recognition and prestige, the addition of an even more insecureand fundamentalist government under the BJP created the perfect storm for India to conduct more nuclear tests.

The Indian government also at the time miscalculated international reaction. Though theycorrectly assumed that the world would eventually accept the Indian nuclear weaponization program (even though testing would likely bring about some condemnation and sanctions);they were caught off-guard when Pakistan so quickly conductedits own tests and its nuclear program was alsoeventually accepted by the great powers. Even though the Indian tests were a success for domestic politics, they once again achieved nothing strategically. But the 1998 tests did raise regional tensions to dangerous levels, propelling the Asian nuclear arms race into fifth gear.

This piece has provided a brief examination of the main reasons why India’s nuclear policy has been anything but a policy or a series of policies. Concerted domestic pressures, uncoordinated pushes towards weaponization and failures to understand the regional strategic environment have been the hallmarks of the Indian nuclear approach. This has not only left India strategically weaker than it would have been had it not weaponised; but it has also meant that Indian nuclear policy has been responsible for creating and sustaining a dangerous arms race, fostering a strategic imbalance in the region.The 1998 detonations were a part of this haphazard attitude towards weaponization – there was no change in approach, and no significant departure from any policy. This is because there is no capital ‘P’ policy.

Post 1998, India has still been ambiguous and contradictory about its nuclear approach. Now that the genie has been forced out of the bag (twice), it will be an uphill task to undo the disastrous consequences that Indian nuclear weaponization has wrought upon the region. Only a serious, rational and threat matrix-oriented nuclear policy re-evaluation based on elucidated Indian interests and strategic priorities will ease the concerns of its neighbors and the international community. Perhaps then a strategic dialogue between the actors maydecrease tensions.

About the author

Hasan Qureshi

Hasan Qureshi

Hasan Qureshi is a geostrategist and commentator on Pakistani Defence, Development and Foreign Affairs. He is currently studying Pakistani governance related issues at the University of Oxford. He can be reached at hasan.q@stratagem.pk and tweets at Hasan_QureshiPK

Leave a Comment

14 − 2 =