THE recent remarks by union defence minister Rajnath Singh with regard to nuclear weapons have set alarm bells ringing. He said that while India has firmly adhered to No First Use (NFU) policy with regard to nuclear weapons in the past, what happens in the future “depends on circumstances”.
Ever since India came out as a nuclear weapons power in 1998, it has adhered to the NFU, which was formally established as part of India’s strategic doctrine by the Cabinet Committee on Security Affairs on January 4, 2003. It is significant, therefore, that Rajnath Singh made his statement at Pokharan, the site of the 1998 nuclear tests, and on the first death anniversary of Atal Behari Vajpayee.
NFU is a policy declaration by a nuclear weapons power that it will not use nuclear weapons unless it is first attacked by an adversary using nuclear weapons. Thus, under NFU, nuclear weapons are to be used only as a retaliatory measure. NFU is a recognition that nuclear weapons are weapons of mass destruction that threaten humankind itself.
When it declared No First Use, India joined China, which was the first country to declare NFU. It did so when it acquired nuclear weapon status in 1964. The United States and its NATO allies have consistently refused to adhere to NFU. On the contrary, the United States explicitly “reserves the right to use nuclear weapons first in case of conflict.” Russia, the successor state to the Soviet Union, also does not accept NFU.
The BJP-RSS combine sees nuclear weapons as a mark of great power status and its attitude to nuclear power status reflects national chauvinism. Even before Rajnath Singh’s recent statement, a previous BJP defence minister, Manohar Parrikar, had spoken of abandoning NFU.
The motivation for the current statement is obviously Pakistan. After Pakistan’s angry response to the constitutional changes in Jammu & Kashmir, the Modi government is signalling that it will counter Pakistan by all means possible.
To introduce the issue of nuclear conflict at a time when political tensions with Pakistan are high is downright dangerous and irresponsible. The jingoism of the BJP ignores the inhuman character of nuclear weapons. If India and Pakistan were to detonate 100 nuclear warheads (50 each), 21 million people would die initially and half the world’s ozone layer would be destroyed. If one each of the largest bombs tested by India or Pakistan are dropped either on Lahore or New Delhi, immediate fatalities would be in the range of 200,000 to 400,000, and many more would die a lingering death.
If both countries were to adhere to NFU, the danger of an accidental nuclear war (or the escalation of conventional war to nuclear war as a consequence of human error) would lessen. In the India-Pakistan context, when a missile is launched, the reaction time is so short – literally minutes – that an officer concerned cannot judge whether it contains nuclear warheads or not. In such circumstances, NFU lowers the risk of a retaliatory nuclear strike.
Internationally, no first use has become all the more important in the context of the sharp escalation in the worldwide nuclear arms race. President Trump has withdrawn from the Intermediate range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which was signed in 1987 with Russia. The US is upgrading its nuclear arsenal, including its tactical nuclear weapons. Russia, in turn, is developing new missiles to carry nuclear warheads. India should not add to the nuclear arms race but work for international restraint and the reduction of nuclear stockpiles.
The Modi government must give up any idea of abandoning NFU. Indeed, far from abandoning NFU, it should demand that Pakistan, too, declare No First Use to be its official policy, and make efforts towards making South Asia a nuclear-weapons-free zone.
(August 21, 2019)