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India - Pakistan: Courting yet more nuclear danger?

by Praful Bidwai, 13 December 2014

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prafulbidwai.org - 14 December 2014

Eighteen years after it rejected the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the Indian government remains implacably hostile to it, and bristles even at attempts to raise the issue of its entry into force (EIF). This was demonstrated again last week when a member of an eminent persons’ group, established by the Preparatory Commission for the CTBT Organisation to promote EIF, visited India. He was given the cold shoulder by the foreign ministry. India professes a commitment to global nuclear disarmament, but doesn’t support an important, indispensable, step towards abolishing these mass-destruction arms — the only weapons which can exterminate all life on earth, and against which there’s no real defence.

India, like Pakistan and North Korea, hasn’t signed the CTBT, which now has 183 signatories. Another five states — China, Egypt, Iran, Israel and the US — have signed, but not ratified, it. Unless all these eight countries (among the 44 identified as “nuclear-capable” because they possess nuclear-power or research reactors) ratify the CTBT, it can’t come into force. India had announced a unilateral moratorium on testing after its 1998 nuclear blasts, and promised not to block EIF.

But India’s position has hardened. During the debate on the US-India nuclear deal, some nuclear-establishment figures demanded that India detonate another hydrogen bomb since the 1998 test of that assembly was a dud. Hints were dropped during the last national election campaign that the BJP would radically revise India’s nuclear doctrine based on a “credible minimum deterrent” and “no-first-use” of nuclear weapons. These reports were refuted, but in keeping with the 56-inch-chest boast, never quite convincingly.

Indeed, significant hardening of India’s nuclear posture, including embrace of nuclear deterrence, earlier termed “morally abhorrent”, occurred when the BJP was in power last. In 2003, it revised the no-first-use commitment to allow nuclear retaliation to biological or chemical-weapons attacks “against India, or Indian forces anywhere”.

On the ground, India is driving a furious nuclear and missiles arms race in one of the world’s most volatile and poorest regions, marked by a continuous hot-cold war since 1947. A reactive Pakistan is building up its arsenal (estimated to be bigger than India’s) and also developing “tactical” (battlefield) weapons, adding to regional insecurity and instability. India’s nuclear weapons are directed not just at Pakistan, but at much more economically-militarily powerful China. This second arms race could prove ruinous.

India and Pakistan have learnt no lessons from the Cold War and from their own scary recent standoffs about the perilously contradictory and unstable nature of nuclear deterrence. Deterrence ordains that nuclear weapons-states don’t go to war. But nuclear India-Pakistan fought a mid-sized war at Kargil in 1999, and again came close to war’s brink in 2001-02!

Deterrence can at best work uncertainly — provided there’s complete clarity about nuclear capabilities and doctrines, and there are no misperceptions, accidents or unauthorised use of nuclear weapons. These assumptions simply don’t obtain in the India-Pakistan context given their history of misperceptions, miscalculations, adventurism, accidents and appalling safety cultures. The US and USSR spent $8 trillion on nuclear command-and-control systems whose sophistication lies beyond India-Pakistan’s reach, but had hundreds of dangerous accidents and near-misses, each with a globally catastrophic potential.

The BJP’s unique, enduring obsession with nuclear weapons is likely to be strengthened today by the powerful official positions occupied by super-hawkish former members of the Vivekananda International Foundation, including National Security Adviser Ajit Doval. They have convinced themselves that they can stand Pakistan down in a conventional confrontation. This is a recipe for nuclear escalation and mass destruction. Sanity demands a shift towards nuclear restraint and a return to the global nuclear-disarmament agenda.

The author is a writer and columnist based in Delhi