Winnable Nuclear War?

The 13 December terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament and all other terrorist acts, especially in Jammu & Kashmir, are absolutely unpardonable. The trail of death and injury left behind by such mindless acts and the fear and hatred that has deeply scarred the psyche of those affected directly and indirectly in various ways are all matters to be treated with utmost concern. The perpetrators of these heinous acts, including their mentors wherever they are, deserve exemplary punishment. The travails, tribulations and privations that the people of the region are forced to undergo under these trying conditions also require to be understood with greater empathy and wider understanding. In the prevailing situation, the strategy for rooting out terrorism should be formulated with special care. Counter-terrorism cannot end terrorism. If terrorism is defined as the indiscriminate and wanton killing of innocent and unarmed non-combatants, every effort should be made to protect the lives and rights of unarmed civilians while conducting operations to bring terrorists to justice.

Unfortunately, some of the shrill rhetoric emanating from responsible quarters does not seem to have taken note of these factors. Also many seem to forget that nuclear weapon is the most potent terrorist weapon in existence. Its use under any circumstance would be nothing but a heinous crime against humanity. Therefore, any talk about winnable nuclear war is preposterous. For the present, therefore, this article will focus on the latter aspect.

The strident statements being made by several leaders of the ruling alliance, including the Parliament Affairs Minister, Pramod Mahajan, have been quite alarming. Reacting to this belligerent mood in the ruling circles, the Strategic Editor of The Hindu, Raja Mohan, could not but make a note of it in his column on 31/12/01. According to him: “Coercive diplomacy has never been a characteristic feature of India’s foreign policy. But by threatening an all out war with Pakistan that could escalate to the nuclear level, India has entered the uncharted waters of nuclear brinkmanship”. Earlier The Times of India (27/12/01) had reported that: “Mahajan told an anti-terrorism rally organised by the ruling BJP party that if circumstances ‘pushed India’ towards a war with Pakistan, New Delhi would make sure the threat of terrorism was completely stamped out.” The report quoted Mr. Mahajan as saying: “If at all the war happens the intensity will be so strong that there will be no need for a future war with Pakistan. And the results will be there for everyone to see.” Surely, this was a statement that could not have been taken lightly. However, Dr. K. Subrahmanyam, India’s leading strategic expert, chose to disagree with Raja Mohan’s view. In his column in The Times of India (02/01/02), he said: “On no issue has there been so much disinformation than on the alleged possibility of nuclear confrontation between India and Pakistan”. Alas, no sooner had this opinion appeared in print, none other than the Indian Prime Minister himself came forward to contradict Dr. Subrahmanyam.

The reported statement of Prime Minister Vajpaee during his speech in Lucknow on 2nd January has not left any room for doubt. According to The Hindu (03/01/02) he stated that: “no weapon would be spared in self-defence. Whatever weapon was available, it would be used no matter how it wounded the enemy.” It is quite explicit what weapon he was referring to. But who is the enemy that he is targeting? Is it the mass of the people of Pakistan or is it the foreign and home-bread terrorists based in Pakistan and elsewhere? Can nuclear weapons differentiate between mass of the people and terrorists when they unleash destruction? Certainly the Indian Prime Minister is fully aware that nuclear weapons do not make any such distinction. Then with what responsibility has Mr. Vajpaee made such a sweeping statement? Or does the BJP-led Government consider the entire population of Pakistan as the enemy. The Government should forthwith clarify its stand, as there are other ominous signs as well.

Holding Pakistan squarely responsible for all the terrorist attacks against India, the RSS mouthpiece has minced no words about the befitting action that the Government of India should take against Pakistan. The Organiser, in its editorial on 30/12/01 stated that: “Its [Pakistan’s] very existence has become inimical not only for India but for the entire civilised world. Pakistan deserves to be punished for all its errors of commission and omissionTime has come to solve the problem of Pakistan forever and for all.” The import of this statement cannot be lost: punish Pakistan by obliterating it! (Mr. Mahajan’s pronouncement, as mentioned earlier, was also on similar lines.) This bizarre advice cannot be dismissed as mere ramblings of some lunatics, because the Indian Prime Minister himself is a prominent leader of that very RSS. Also the lingering memory about the terrible fate of Babri Masjid is still fresh in the minds of most people.

In this context the reported statement of Mr. George Fernandes, India’s controversial Defence Minister, only reinforces the worst fears, which the Organiser has brought to the fore. According to The Hindu (04/01/02), the New York Times has quoted him as saying that India would resort to ‘Military option if diplomacy fails’. (It is almost like saying that India would do all it can to ensure that diplomacy fails so that it can resort to military action!). Replying to questions, he is reported to have said that Pakistan’s possession of nuclear arsenal would not deter India from taking military action. Giving reasons, he said: “I can’t believe they would ever use it for the simple reason that they would be inviting a second strike. That would be devastating given Pakistan’s size.” In fact Mr. Fernandes was even more candid in a statement he had made earlier. According to the Hindustan Times (30/12/01), he bluntly said: “We could take a [nuclear] strike, survive and then hit back, Pakistan would be finished.” The ramblings on the Pakistani side were not very different either. It is simply incredible that people with such irrational and vengeful ideas are at the helm of affairs on both sides!

Not to be outdone in the war of rhetoric, the Pakistan President, Gen. Pervez Musharraf has reportedly said: “If any war is thrust on Pakistan, Pakistan’s armed forces and the 140 million people of Pakistan are fully prepared to face all consequences with all their might.” (The Week, 06/01/02). While Mr. Fernandes seems quite content to wipe out Pakistan and its people in retaliation, he appears to be least bothered about the casualties that India would suffer in case of a nuclear attack by Pakistan! Whether through a first strike or a second strike it is millions of lives that is likely to be lost on both sides in a nuclear war is a fact that is sought to be hidden in Mr. Fernandes’ convoluted logic. Thus, it is clear that the Indian Government’s current strategy is certainly not to prevent a nuclear war but to win such a war under any circumstances irrespective of the enormous human and material costs it would inflict on both sides. The propagation of the idea of winnable nuclear war is what is most frightening.

In the light of the above, Mr. Vajpaee’s feeble attempt to deny that he was talking of nuclear war with Pakistan makes little sense since the phrase “no matter how it wounded the enemy” conveys precisely what he had in mind. In whichever way it is interpreted, there is absolutely no ambiguity about his intent. Shocked by the bellicose stance of Mr. Vajpaee, The Times of India in its editorial on 04/01/02 noted: “A mere 24 hours after he promised to go more than halfway to meet the Pakistan President and ‘resolve any issue, including Kashmir’, he was at his combative best, threatening the ‘use of any and every weapon’ against that country. His audience, which no doubt understood it to mean the nuclear weapon, lapped up the brave talk Unfortunately, words have a momentum of their own; even if they don’t translate as actual war, they can vitiate the domestic environment leading to polarisation of people on sectarian lines.” The editorial in The Hindu (04/01/02), therefore, went on to warn the Government that: “Such hawkish rhetoric [on the part of Mr. Vajpaee]does not exactly square with the sort of statesmanship required at the present critical juncture, both on the Indo-Pakistan and the international fronts.”

What is the consequence of this nuclear brinkmanship? According to Raja Mohan: “Brinkmanship is clearly a high risk strategy that would force India to confront rather difficult choices in the near feature” But having said this he goes on to quote John Foster Dulles, the U.S. Secretary of State in the 1950s and a self-proclaimed exponent of pushing the world to the edge of the nuclear precipice on several occasions. “The ability to get to the verge without getting into the war”, Mr. Dulles said, is a “necessary art”. The trouble with this perilous strategy is that if either side (or even one side) fails to (or is incapable of) mastering the ‘necessary art’, the result would be disastrous for both the sides. Part II Dr. Subrahmanyam, who has discounted the possibility of nuclear war between India and Pakistan, claims that his opinion is based on the pronouncement made by the Press Secretary to the Pakistan President, Maj. General Rashid Quereshi, on 27/12/01. According to him: “General Rashid Quereshi tried to assure his countrymen and the rest of the world that both Pakistan and India were ‘responsible nuclear powers’ and that the nuclear weapons were only meant for deterrence. Therefore, he argued, there was no risk of escalation of the conflict to a nuclear level. But his observations have not received the attention they deserve.” The above statement from the Pakistan side was, of course, very reassuring. Yet is there sufficient ground for the optimism that Dr. Subrahmanyam has expressed? Unfortunately, no! That is because Dr. Subhramanyam has failed to address one crucial question.

The problem is what if deterrence fails? Can the possibility of deterrence failing be discounted? Of course not! At least the Draft ‘Indian’ Nuclear Doctrine, that is still in the process of being ‘discussed and debated’, certainly does not think so. It clearly stipulates that “India’s strategic interests requireadequate retaliatory capacity should deterrence fail.” In other words, despite India and Pakistan being “responsible nuclear powers”, deterrence can fail! What would happen then? Just that the entire national edifice (or at least most of it), which nuclear weapons were supposed to protect in the first place, would be smothered to smithereens. The truth is nuclear weapons cannot offer any protection, they can only heap ruin on the adversary. Can ‘nuclear deterrence’ be a credible national security policy, if the cost of its failure is death and devastation on an unimaginable scale?

What is the alternative? If the Indian Prime Minister was indeed not talking of a nuclear war with Pakistan, let him come out with a categorical statement that he is totally against a nuclear war breaking out between India and Pakistan and that his Government was prepared to take all measures to prevent such a catastrophe. What is stopping the Government from initiating steps to ward off the possibility of outbreak of nuclear war? (Not that anybody is wishing that instead of a nuclear war, a ‘conventional’ war should breakout!) All that Mr. Vajapee was prepared to do was to reiterate that India would not be the first to use nuclear weapons in the event of a war. But can it be denied that millions of lives will be lost on both sides if a nuclear war breaks out? Should millions of lives be sacrificed in trying to avenge the death of hundreds of victims of terrorist attacks? After millions of lives are lost will it make any sense in analysing as to who started the nuclear attack first and as to who retaliated? Will the outcome of such an analysis resurrect the countless victims or console those who survive a nuclear holocaust?

The policy of No First Use of nuclear weapon against nuclear weapon states and non-use against non-nuclear weapon states, which only India and China (and earlier the Soviet Union) have unilaterally adopted, is a very positive step as an initial confidence building measure towards achieving complete global nuclear disarmament. But if a No First Use policy becomes a mere cover for building a second strike capability then such a policy is clearly dishonest, highly misleading and totally contemptible. If the goal of global nuclear disarmament is not relentlessly pursued, there is every danger that a No First Use policy for all practical purposes would tend to move closer to a First Strike policy and become indistinguishable. From India’s current posturing its No First Use policy seems to be heading in that dangerous direction. Therefore, it is high time that all conscientious people in this country stood up to campaign vigourously to put an end to the present frightening drift towards nuclear war because nuclear brinkmanship can be a very expensive proposition. The simple fact that the two tiny nuclear weapons senselessly used by the U.S. Administration to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 are reaping victims to this day should open the eyes of all those who are still unaware of the havoc nuclear weapons can unleash.

There is yet another disturbing dimension to this debate. According to The Hindu (07/01/02), in an interview to a German newspaper, Mr.Fernandes has reportedly stated that: “India’s nuclear doctrine states clearly that India will never be the first to use nuclear weapons.” While the second half of that statement is India’s formal position, the first half of it is very misleading. This is because, in the name of augmenting self-defence, the BJP-led Government is trying to implement through the backdoor the proposals put forward in the Draft “Indian” Nuclear Doctrine (DND) released by the National Security Advisory Board in August 1999. It may be noted that the DND was supposedly released for public debate and discussion and has not been formally approved by either the Government or the Indian Parliament till date. The DND is unlikely to get the approval of Parliament because it is essentially a nuclear war fighting doctrine.

The most abhorrent proposal in the DND is about the necessity of developing “the will to employ nuclear weapons and forces.” The concept of ‘nuclear deterrence’, which India had comprehensively rejected for over fifty years, also finds a central place in the DND. What is missing from the DND is also very significant: there is no reference at all to India’s long held principled stand that the use of nuclear weapons constitutes a violation of the UN Charter and a crime against humanity. There is not a word in it either about the need to take urgent steps to prevent nuclear war. Under the circumstances the tacit approval sought to be given to the DND in its present form can only be viewed with deep suspicion. Therefore, any move to give official sanction to the DND without radically revising its present thrust has to be thwarted. Otherwise not only will the global nuclear disarmament movement suffer a grave setback but also India’s stature as an astute champion of this overriding cause would further diminish and dissipate.

One way of getting out of the present quagmire is for India and Pakistan to first bilaterally put into practice the expressed desire of the two countries to persuade all nuclear weapon states to initiate steps for reducing the nuclear danger. It may be recalled that in November 1998, at the initiative of India and nine other nations and with the full support of Pakistan, the UN General Assembly had adopted the resolution on Reducing Nuclear Danger (A/RES/53/77). A revised version of this resolution (A/c.1/55/l.32/Rev.1) was again adopted by the UN General Assembly in October 2000 with the support of no less than 102 UN members. But even a cursory glance at the resolution would reveal that both India and Pakistan have either been acting contrary to its letter and spirit or at least have not made any serious effort to pursue its salient objectives in a spirited manner. The resolution had categorically stated: – that the use of nuclear weapons poses the most serious threat to [hu]mankind and to the survival of civilization; – that any use or threat of use of nuclear weapons would constitute a violation of the Charter of the United Nations; – that nuclear disarmament and the complete elimination of nuclear weapons are essential to remove the nuclear danger.

Among other steps, the resolution called for: a review of nuclear doctrines and, in this context, immediate and urgent steps to reduce the risks of unintentional and accidental use of nuclear weapons.

It also called upon: Member States to take necessary measures to prevent proliferation of nuclear weapons in all its aspects and to promote nuclear disarmament, with the objective of eliminating nuclear weapons.

Having been willing parties to this resolution, which was adopted after the nuclear tests of May 1998, nothing should prevent India and Pakistan from taking bilateral steps to reduce the nuclear danger. Both sides have an obligation to uphold its sanctity despite the fact that the other nuclear weapon states have so far opted not to be parties to the same. If India and Pakistan act in a concerted manner, the resolution on Reducing Nuclear Danger has the potential to rouse worldwide public opinion and force the other nuclear weapon states to fall in line.

Is it not a bitter irony that it is in the shadow of this enlightened resolution, to which both India and Pakistan are a party, that the whole game of nuclear brinkmanship is being enacted?

N.D. Jayaprakash is on the board of the Delhi Science Forum/Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace in Saket, New Delhi, India. He can be reached at:

N.D. Jayaprakash is Joint Secretary, Delhi Science Forum and Co-Convenor, Bhopal Gas Peedith Sangharsh Sahayog Samiti (Coalition for supporting the Cause of the Bhopal Gas Victims).