Nuclear Weapons and Conflict in South Asia

Stephen P. Cohen

This is a revised and expanded version of a note originally prepared for the Department of Energy, August 1998, as part of a project on the future of US-South Asian relations.

How did India reach the point where four or five men could and did step across an important threshold and order the detonation of nuclear devices that were unashamedly designed as weapons and then publicly declare that India was a nuclear weapon state?

Reconstructing the events that led to the May tests is not merely an historical exercise. The decision to test these weapons was important. It tenuously set India on the path of nuclear weaponization (tenuously because there is no consensus in India as to what weaponization means). The Indian tests led directly to the subsequent Pakistani tests. The decision to test may also have dealt a death blow to the American-led process of containing proliferation by a strategy of treaty adherence.

The tests certainly made South Asia a more dangerous place, and possibly a less-stable one. It has been known for some time that even a small-scale nuclear incident would produce casualties of unprecedented magnitude given the region’s weak medical and emergency infrastructure and the close proximity of urban areas to likely targets. Even a single nuclear detonation over a major South Asian city would produce considerable devastation. A ‘small’ nuclear war would be an unprecedented catastrophe for the region, a major one would have global physical, environmental and biological repercussions.

Further, there will be future thresholds to cross and perhaps even a reconsideration of India’s nuclear policy. The decision to conduct these tests was initially greeted with widespread praise, but this has given way to an increasingly sober consideration of the new risks and costs that they engendered.

While we do not know all of the details we can draw the broad contours of the history of decision and indecision that led to these tests. Aristotle suggests that the beginning of wisdom is to classify, followed by the development of theories that more fully explain events, decisions, and actions. Our approach is primarily an attempt at classification: to sort out the major variables and trends that made possible the final decision to test. Whether India and Pakistan convert their present devices into deliverable weapons, develop a command and control structure and doctrine and deploy them are questions beyond the immediate scope of this paper.

Our framework derives from the literature that tries to systematically explain why complex events occur. Such events as military coups, airplane crashes, or championship basketball seasons do not happen randomly or by accident, and are usually the product of a complex chain of factors, variables and decisions (or the absence of decision).

In the case of important decisions by states key long term factors typically include geography, the economic and human resources available its leaders, and the deepest assumptions and beliefs held by the Indian policy -making community. The latter is especially important in the decision to test because it was least understood by many foreign observers.

There are also a number of intermediate, mid-term factors, such as economic circumstances, security considerations, and domestic politics that influence foreign and security policy. Such factors do not usually change rapidly and (like the weather) predictions of tomorrow’s events, if based upon today’s policies, are frequently correct.

Finally, there is the short-term: a matter of hours, days, or weeks during which the play of events might lead decision-down one path or another. The coup takes place, the plane crashes, the final basket is scored.

Our overall conclusion is that the decision to test or at least to break out of India’s strategic cul de sac had been influenced by medium-term events that took place largely over the last six to ten years. Most, but not all, of what we call medium-term factors pointed in the direction of a strategic ‘breakout,’ although not necessarily in the shape it finally assumed. For example, immediately before the tests took place the head of the BJP’s foreign policy cell suggested that India might not test but could still declare itself to be a nuclear weapon state—until the tests actually took place this seemed at the time to be the most plausible step that the government might take.

The long term factors that framed this decision had not significantly changed, nor were the short term calculations that critical. The decision may not have been prudent, and certainly its implementation left much to be desired (India’s post-test diplomacy has been roundly criticized by many of those who supported the test itself), but this only highlights the significance of the medium term, over the long or short term.

The long term: a frustrated great state
Several nearly immutable factors influence New Delhi’s foreign and security policy. India’s geographical location, its relative paucity of energy and other natural resources, its environmental circumstances and the uneven level of its technology are all background variables that have been slow to change. So, also, are the civilizational variables of culture and self-image: the way in which Indians see their own country, and the way in which India is believed to have a special place into the larger world.

Two such attitudinal/cultural factors are closely linked to nuclear decisions and have partnered those decisions at critical historical junctures. The first is the way in which nuclear weapons and nuclear energy, might contribute to India’s domestic strength, especially its economic growth; the second is the way in which Indians see nuclear weapons as helping or hindering India’s ’emergence’ as a great state.

Reborn India
Nuclear technology—and now, by extension—nuclear weapons have long been seen as contributing to an economic and technical base that could transform India from a poor country to a modern, relatively rich state. This theme long predates the Chinese test in 1964, and is at the core of the scientists’ recent arguments in favor of weaponization. Their central proposition is that the technologies underlying nuclear weapons can help make India a great scientific and ‘modern’ power. Even if his views have been adapted (and distorted) by the Hindu right, Nehru led the way in developing this argument. It is gospel within India’s government-supported strategic/scientific enclave, although the newly emerged environmentalists, as well as the remnants of the Gandhian movement, would challenge it.

Jawaharlal Nehru saw nuclear power, in its peaceful capacity, as providing India with the ability to leapfrog many technologies. India could go from dung power to nuclear power in a single step. He proclaimed India’s new dams and power stations as modern ‘temples.’ Nehru, and the Indian government, set out to create one of the finest science training systems in the non-Western world (neglecting primary and secondary education in the process).

Without much of a sense of irony, Indians worship science, particularly nuclear science. This worship of science and the adulation of scientists is widespread among the Indian strategic elite. The Nehruvians see science as salvation, the more rustic BJP-inclined backwaters of the political and security elite agree and argue , as did Nehru, that India was a supremely advanced scientific state when the West and the Islamic world were mired in ignorance. For both groups, the nuclear program only reclaims India’s birthright.

Nehru was strongly opposed to an Indian nuclear weapons program, although he did not foreclose the possibility of the ‘option’ strategy. His closest confidant and advisor, V.K. Krishna Menon, was even more anti-bomb. Menon scorned K.C. Pant’s advocacy of nuclear weapons and in 1965 told me that Pant was reading from a text figuratively and literally prepared by Homi Bhabha (the head of the Indian nuclear program). Nehru and Menon could keep Bhabha and the scientists in check by diverting their energy to the civilian (i.e. ‘peaceful’) program with a bit of fudging on the side. While the full story of the sheltering of the bomb program within the Indian nuclear establishment has yet to be told, a forthcoming book by George Perkovich will provide an initial overview.

However, the civilian nuclear energy program staggered under its own conceptual limitations. India’s badly conceived and d worse-implemented power program was hard-put to compete with cheaper energy sources, and was crippled by restrictions on the transfer of technology from Canada, the US and other states. At this point, beginning about fifteen years ago, support for the weapons program began to draw upon existing support for the rebirth of India through a number of new and seemingly marvelous science and technology programs. This was one reason why India made technology cooperation the central focus in its attempt to develop a new relationship with the United States in 1984-86, and even today technology transfer is singled out as a key demand made of the United States in exchange for future restraint on the weapons program.

The overall strategy for high-technology programs was that they would produce spin-offs that would benefit the development effort. The nuclear program, the space program, and other dual-use technologies were all assumed to be cost-effective when these spin-offs were taken into account. However, when various technologies were denied by others, as in the case of the second US supercomputer, the enhanced effort put into developing an indigenous technology was thought to make India that much stronger, because the country was forced to be self-reliant. The scientific/strategic enclave, and their publicists, boast that technology denial thus helps India. Additionally, these efforts at self-reliance have become important rallying points for nationalist sentiments, as India is portrayed as defying the combined might of the West (and Japan), standing on principle.

Lacking an accurate understanding of how little such advanced technologies actually contribute to development, and the opportunity costs incurred by trying to cobble together advanced systems given India’s poor industrial and technology base, the programs have become totems, and are patriotically supported and defended by a wide variety of scientists, journalists, and politicians. Thus, support for civilian programs, including the defunct power program mutated into support for the nuclear weapons program and academic critics of the civilian nuclear program have been harshly dealt with by the government while critics of the test have been accused of being foreign agents. Ominously, the BJP’s Home Minister (L.K. Advani) has stated that the new ‘threat’ to India comes not from the ‘secularists’ (by which he meant Indians not sympathetic with the BJP’s notion of Hindutva), but from ‘liberals,’ i.e. those few Indians who dared to speak out openly against the tests.

The BJP understood perfectly how nuclear weapons had come to stand for much more than a military device. The tests were gleefully welcomed as evidence of the great accomplishments of Indian culture. From the beginning, a prominent theme surrounding the tests was that they demonstrated how outside powers tried, but failed, to keep these technologies out of Indian hands. The fact that one of the key scientists was a Muslim reinforced the linkage between national integration, national unity, national pride the atom, and science. Ironically, the Hindu-oriented BJP’s greatest public triumph came through an event which was widely seen as an accomplishment of India’s secular identity.

India as a great state
Most Indians, especially those in the Delhi-centered strategic and political community strongly believe that their country is once again destined to become a great state, one that matches the historical and civilizational accomplishments of the Indian people. To varying degrees this view is shared at nearly all points along the Indian political spectrum.

Over the years, there developed a complex linkage between the greatness of India and the nuclear question. Nuclear weapons were first seen as an evil badge worn by Cold War great powers. This position, first and best expressed by Jawaharlal Nehru, concluded that India would demonstrate its global leadership by rising above and attempting to end the global nuclear arms race.

At the other extreme, the militant Hindu nationalists, such as the Jana Sangh (the BJP’s precursor party), and some of the secular nationalists, such as those inspired by Subhas Chandra Bose and Ram Manohar Lohia (George Fernandes’ mentor) favored nuclear weapons because they would demonstrate Indian civilizational superiority through the acquisition of the most destructive and advanced form of military power known to mankind. They assured their followers that because of India’s inherent civilizational greatness that such weapons would only be used for peaceful and defensive purposes, an argument that is prominent in the Government’s White Paper and all recent official statements on the bomb.

For thirty years the compromise between these pro- and anti-nuclear positions was maintained by the inherently ambivalent ‘nuclear option’ policy. The hawks could be assured that work would continue on the bomb, the doves could hope that the problem would go away, or that political progress would make the bomb unnecessary.

In the end both anti-nuclear and pro-nuclear positions have been merged. Although the secularists and modernizers and the BJP come at the nuclear question from two different perspectives—the former began with a faith in the peaceful use of atomic energy, the latter had always emphasized the military use of the atom. The two positions have been synthesized in the writings of several Indian strategic writers, most notably K. Subrahmanyam and the person of George Fernandes, the Minister of Defense in the BJP-led coalition government.

Subrahmanyam is a secularist but spent much of his career trying to prove that Nehru really would have favored nuclear weapons; like many of his generation he respected Nehru’s commitments to a democratic, secular state, but felt that Nehru had been too weak and pliable, and bore some of the responsibility for both the disaster of 1962 and India’s failure to deal decisively with Pakistan (and Kashmir) at an early stage. More recently Subrahmanyam has tried to make the case that Gandhi, also, would have favored nuclear weapons. The formula he and others developed thirty years ago has now become fairly widely accepted: India would acquire nuclear weapons in order to pressure the nuclear ‘haves’ to disarm (a theory reminiscent of the notion that the village in Vietnam had to be destroyed to be saved). Indians could have their nuclear cake and eat it: an Indian nuclear program came to be seen as an instrument of resistance to the blackmail tactics of the nuclear weapons states—and thus entirely justified. Further, if nuclear weapons were evil, then the so-called disarmament plans by the nuclear weapons states (whose hands were dirtied by their use or threat of use) of nuclear weapons) were also evil, and such arrangements as the NPT and even the CTBT could be opposed on moral grounds.

Some Indian advocates of nuclearization have always seen nuclear weapons in terms of realpolitik. In a world based on self-help, nuclear weapons were both a mark of a nation’s greatness and an instrument of power because of their deterrent effect. Such long-standing advocates of weaponization, such as K.C. Pant (who gave his first public speech in 1965 advocating the acquisition of nuclear weapons, and who was Defense Minister at the time of India’s 1974 test) have favored nuclear weapons for military and strategic purposes. While Pant and the BJP leadership speak of the moral, defensive and principled qualities of an Indian weapons program, their primary perspective is that these are devices which bring status, power and military capability to India vis a vis its neighbors and other states, especially the United States The most articulate proponent of this position is the conservative strategist, Bharat Karnad, who has argued that the supporters of ‘minimum deterrence’ are short-sighted, and that India needs a deterrent capability that will be able to reach all countries in the world, including the United States—only then will it be taken seriously.

The argument in favor of a large scale nuclear capability was long and successfully opposed until recent years by some of India’s leading strategists. “What purpose would weaponization serve,” they asked, “if India only became the sixth or seventh nuclear weapon state, with a nuclear capability far weaker than all of its likely rivals except Pakistan.” A number of mainstream India strategists (most prominently retired Gen. V.R. Raghavan and a retired Chief of the Navy Staff, Admiral L. Ramdas, certainly not doves, pointed out after the tests that overt weaponization has done Pakistan more good than India, and has brought Delhi down to Islamabad’s level rather than raising it to Beijing’s. This group, which includes a number of foreign policy specialists associated with the Congress party and Janata Dal, would have preferred a continuation of the option strategy, preferring to delay weaponization until India could be taken seriously, i.e. , when India had already developed an IRBM and perhaps a blue water nuclear capability.

To summarize,
The original moral impetus against nuclear weapons that dominated Indian thinking from 1947 onward has not disappeared, but has been projected upon those states that are regarded as nuclear ‘haves.’ This, in turn, made it possible for Indians to argue that their own acquisition of nuclear weapons was a moral act, in that it was one way in which Delhi could pressure the nuclear weapons states into eliminating nuclear weapons.

The number of Indians who saw nuclear weapons as instruments and symbols of national power has increased gradually over the years. As we shall see, their ranks were swelled by the diplomacy surrounding the extension of the NPT and the passage of the CTBT, which were effectively portrayed as treaties that would forever keep India as a second rate state.

The original faith in nuclear technology as a way in which India could leapfrog intermediate technologies and dramatically improve the lot of the average citizen was appropriated by the nuclear weapons lobby: they have turned the argument of non-proliferationists inside out. Instead of arguing that nuclear weapons were closely linked to nuclear technology, and the latter must be controlled in order to eliminate or reduce the former, they argue that the nuclear weapons option, or actual weaponization, is necessary for India to maintain an independent civilian nuclear program.

Thus, there has been a gradual shift in Indian attitudes towards weaponization over the past thirty years. From widespread hostility a majority of Indians came to believe, by 1990, that because of considerations of both idealism and self interest the weapons option had to be preserved. But a majority of both the strategic elite and the broader public did not believe that the option had to be immediately exercised. Several events in the past six to eight years eroded significantly this long-standing Indian opposition to exercising the option.

Four Medium-Range Variables
While cultural assumptions do not change quickly, it is possible for a state’s economic, political, and strategic environment to alter within a matter of months or years. India’s strategic position seemed (to many Indians ) to have dramatically worsened after 1990; its political system underwent important changes, making the bomb issue politically salient for the first time in decades, and the calculation of the economic price of ‘going nuclear’ seemed, in the minds of many Indians, a rather minor issue. Thus, strategy and politics, and to a lesser extent economic calculations, changed rather quickly from 1988 to 1998, and in such a way as to strengthen markedly the pro-bomb position in the strategic elite and the larger public.

The Strategic Environment: Pakistan, China, the United States
Many observers, especially in India, have stressed the worsening of India’s strategic position as critical in leading to the decision to test. They also argue that this explains the enthusiasm with which the tests were received. However, a review of the strategic situation in the years and months before the decision to test reveal a more complicated situation, one of ebb and flow rather than a sharp deterioration. Indeed, if a disadvantaged security position was the critical factor then India should have tested much earlier than 1998.

India emerged from the 1971 war with Pakistan as the dominant power of South Asia. The nuclear test, three years later, demonstrated Delhi’s potential for nuclear weapons status. However, an unsettled domestic political order, plus an unwillingness to press the advantage over Pakistan, turned India away from the nuclear option and into a period of strategic stagnation. Yet neither China nor Pakistan were standing still, and by 1979 China had put its economic house in order and was actively assisting Pakistan in the latter’s attempt to acquire a nuclear weapon.

Direct Chinese nuclear assistance to Islamabad was paralleled by a revival of the US-Pakistan alliance after the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union on Christmas day, 1979. Washington was suddenly willing to overlook Islamabad’s nuclear program, and the Carter administration reversed its policy of sanctions.

Suddenly India was relegated to a back-bench in South Asia. From a position of supreme dominance in 1971, India had fallen to the position of a strategic (and nuclear) also-ran in 1981, Delhi saw its relative position vis a vis Pakistan or China rapidly deteriorate. The United States, which had moved closer to both of India’s adversaries, appeared to be an additional enemy.

New Delhi attempted to meet this situation by increasing its dependence on Moscow and embarking on the largest arms-buying spree in the Subcontinent’s history. Fully aware of Islamabad’s nuclear weapons program, there is evidence that Delhi contemplated direct action against Kahuta in the mid-1980s, and it is very likely that the Brasstacks crisis was conceived in part to provide cover for an attack on Pakistan before its nuclear program reached fruition. There was also in 1984-87 an attempt to ‘wean’ the Americans away from Pakistan. This was mirrored by an American attempt to wean India away from the USSR and led to a brief conjunction of policies, if not of strategic objectives.

The threat of military action against Pakistan, as epitomized by the Brasstacks crisis, only hastened the Pakistani nuclear program. India’s two other military gambits in 1987-88 also led nowhere: there was a brief inconclusive confrontation with China at Somdurong Cho, and a catastrophic military intervention in Sri Lanka, an operation which came to be regarded by the Indian army as their ‘Vietnam.’

The confrontation with China raised the issue of what response was available to the Indian army should the Chinese threaten to use tactical nuclear weapons in the Himalayas. The story, heard from several military sources, is that the local division and corps commanders, and ultimately the Eastern Corps Commander, all asked what response India would have to the Chinese use of tactical nuclear weapons, or even a nuclear threat—and that there was no specific response from New Delhi.

Thus, even before the fall of the Soviet Union, India’s expectations that it would emerge as South Asia’s truly dominant and unchallenged power went unfulfilled. The final calamity was the 1989 outbreak of insurgency in Kashmir, which, coming after several years of bloody struggle with Sikh and Naga separatists, drove home the lesson that internal security problems had become acute. Hitherto, domestic insurrectionary or separatist groups were active in the far South or the inaccessible Northeast, but Punjab and Kashmir were closer to home, and turned the Indian capitol into one of the most insecure cities in the world.

Not only had the Indian position vis a vis China and Pakistan deteriorated during the 1980s, New Delhi’s relations with the United States never reached a ‘normal’ stage. First, India deeply resented Washington’s renewed support for Pakistan because of the Afghan war, and the American propensity to turn a blind eye to the Pakistani nuclear program (and its Chinese connection). But India was helpless—it had no leverage against Washington, especially since the Soviet Union was fast-fading as a serious power. There were several years when Indians expected that Washington itself would begin its own decline, and the origins of the ‘look east’ policy were an effort to establish India as a significant factor in South East Asia and with Japan (which was widely believed, in India no less than Washington, to be the most likely candidate to emerge as Asia’s greatest state, and to eventually supplant the United States).

This was not a worrisome prospect for India. The core Indian strategic view holds that not only was New Delhi potentially one of the four or five great states of the world, its true emergence would come about through a combination of its own movement from middle-power to great-power status, and the decline of the superpowers that towered over the next tier of states. The Soviet Union had gone, and ‘declinist’ theorists—Japanese, Chinese, British, and American—found a ready audience in India. The United States would soon retreat from Asia in general and South Asia in particular.

This scenario never materialized. The United States not only refused to go into decline, but its logical successor, Japan (from the Indian perspective, a benign and friendly state), tentative and cautious in its post-Cold War diplomacy, showed no interest in a special relationship with New Delhi. India wound up with the worst of all possible worlds: the continuation of a China-Pakistan relationship, a still-meddling America, no likely new Asian partners, the collapse of the Soviet state, and a burgeoning domestic insecurity problem, abetted by a Pakistan that, after 1990, had to be treated as if it was a nuclear weapons state.

India’s security environment seemed worse than it was because of the very high expectations of a strategic breakthrough in the 1970s and again after Rajiv Gandhi’s accession to power. These expectations were sustained through 1992 by the hope that China and the United States would abandon Pakistan. The latter did reduce its commitment to Islamabad after the end of the Afghan war, but the Chinese remained Pakistan’s good friends. The long-held if fantastic Indian view that the United States was guided in its Asian policy by a desire to contain India, and a willingness to use both China and Pakistan for that purpose, remained one of the core assumptions of a good portion of the Indian strategic elite.

A final component of India’s worsening strategic position came from an unlikely direction: the surprisingly ease with which the Non-Proliferation Treaty was permanently extended, and the strong effort made to then develop a treaty to comprehensively ban nuclear explosions. The idea of a CTBT had been introduced originally by India, but it in its new incarnation was seen by many Indians as a way of permanently closing off India’s nuclear option. This belief was strengthened by the many statements issued by American officials to the effect that the US’ goal was to cap, reduce, and then eliminate India’s and Pakistan’s nuclear weapons capabilities. It is harder to imagine a formulation that was more threatening to the vast majority of Indian security experts, whose chief goal was to retain the option, not to exercise it or to abandon it. Incredibly, senior American officials continue to use this formulation in public speeches, ensuring that the bomb lobby’s interpretation of a malign American policy will remain dominant for the foreseeable future.

No better example of the consequences of this misguided American strategy can be found than that of George Fernandes, who became Minister of Defense in the BJP-led government that finally decided to exercise the option. Fernandes came out of the liberal trade union movement, and had been vehemently anti-nuclear during his entire political career. He has stated that he remained opposed to the bomb “from Day One till the nineteenth of July, 1996,” when the Lok Sabha began its debate over the CTBT. For Fernandes, who was morally opposed to nuclear weapons, the pressures from the five nuclear ‘haves’ was even more obnoxious. When the BJP leadership informed him of their decision to go ahead with the tests he heartily concurred.

Costing the Bomb
One of the central issues in the first Indian debate on nuclear weapons (which took place immediately after the Chinese test of 1964 and lasting through the end of 1965) was financial cost. A number of economists weighed into the debate, and various politicians argued the merits of a weapons program vs. that of maintaining a strong conventional force, or seeking other strategic remedies, such as an alliance with a friendly nuclear weapon state.

The cost of a nuclear program was less important in the subsequent (1967-68) Indian debate that had been triggered by the question of whether or not to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The dominant concern in 1967-68 was preventing India’s option from being foreclosed by the NPT. By the time of the Indian test (1974), cost was relegated to a minor issue, and the entire bomb issue was swallowed up by domestic politics. India had emerged as the dominant South Asian power after its defeat of Pakistan, and there was no strategic pressure to exercise the option. In the 1970s it was widely thought that India could easily afford a nuclear weapon program, but with Pakistan crushed, and China in domestic disarray (and the United States a distant factor), there was no urgency.

The American-led response to the 1974 Pokhran test revived the economic factor in Indian nuclear calculations. Delhi was surprised at the intensity of the international reaction and shocked by the severity of the sanctions imposed upon the Indian civilian nuclear program. Subsequent American legislation (the NNPA), and the establishment of various international regimes to deny dual-use technology to incipient nuclear-weapons states had reintroduced and transformed the idea of ‘cost.’ Until then, cost was a purely Indian calculation of economic advantage or disadvantage. The burden of investing in a weapons program (when weighed against strategic need) had, for years, led to the conclusion that the decision could be deferred.

The various sanction and technology denial regimes developed after 1974 changed this calculation. Technology denial regimes were seen as not merely targeting India’s military programs, but as punitive and vindictive, directed against the civilian energy program if not the whole Indian economy and the very emergence of India as a modern state. While not much is known about the internal debate, it is possible that the decline of the civilian program (for reasons noted ab


Get daily updates from Brookings