Indo-Pak Nuclear Confrontation: First Use Policy and the Race Towards Armageddon 

Photograph Source: Ministry of Defence, Government of India – GODL-India


There are several indications that India’s ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its ideological mentor the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) are obsessed with the perverse urge to wipe out Pakistan with nuclear weapons by unleashing a first or a second strike. Through similar means, their counterparts on the Pakistani side are determined to eliminate many more Indians than the ill-fated Pakistanis before meeting their own disastrous end. Whether through a first strike or a second strike, it is hundreds of millions of lives that are likely to be lost on both sides in a nuclear war and in the “nuclear winter” that would follow – facts that are mostly hidden from the people on the two sides. Unless concerned people in India and Pakistan and elsewhere do all they can to expose the pernicious mindset of such leaders, the game of nuclear brinkmanship would prove too costly not only for the people of the Indian subcontinent but also for those who choose to remain indifferent to the imminent danger.

Unwarranted Utterance

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan on 26 Aug, 2019 had reportedly said that if the Kashmir dispute moved towards war, the world should remember that “both countries have nuclear weapons”. He went on to add that: “In a nuclear war, no one will win. It will not only wreak havoc in this region, but the entire world will face consequences”. (Dawn, Karachi, 27 Aug, 2019) Imran’s warning is a sure sign of the fast deteriorating political situation in the Indian subcontinent. It is part of the latest round of threats and counter-threats that was triggered by the unwarranted utterance by India’s Minister of Defence, Rajnath Singh, on 16 Aug, 2019, which has effectively generated ample confusion about India’s nuclear weapon policy. The Times of India (TOI) published the news under the headline: “’No first use’ of nukes policy is open to review: Rajnath Singh”. The TOI report went on to note that:

“Defence minister Rajnath Singh’s suggestion that India’s no-first-use nuclear posture may not be sacrosanct sparked intense speculation in the midst of heightened India-Pakistan tensions in the wake of the abrogation of special status to Jammu & Kashmir.” (TOI, Delhi, 17 Aug, 2019)

The Defence Minister made this comment at Pokhran — the site of India’s nuclear tests – with the Chief of Army Staff, Gen.Bipin Rawat, at his side. They were visiting the area on the occasion of the first death anniversary of former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee who was instrumental in ordering the Pokhran-2 nuclear tests in 1998. Later Rajnath Singh tweeted the following message:

“Pokhran is the area which witnessed Atal Ji’s firm resolve to make India a nuclear power and yet remain firmly committed to the doctrine of ‘No First Use’. India has strictly adhered to this doctrine. What happens in future depends on the circumstances.” (TOI, Delhi, 17 Aug, 2019)

Indeed, Rajnath Singh’s loaded remark provided sufficient hint that concerted attempts are being made to change India’s existing nuclear weapon policy. In the opinion of the author of the above TOI report:

“The absence of any clarification from the government lent weight to the view that the comments [of Rajnath Singh] were well-considered unlike in the case of the late Manohar Parrikar, whose similar remarks in 2016 were “clarified” as his personal opinion. Parrikar was defence minister when he said at a book launch function, “Why do a lot of people say that India is for ‘no first use’….  why should I bind myself? I should say I am a responsible nuclear power and I will not use it irresponsibly.” (TOI, Delhi, 17 Aug, 2019)

Myth of Deterrence

In the light of the constant attacks on the No-First-Use (NFU) policy, the myth that India had inducted nuclear weapons merely as a weapon of deterrence stands busted. It may be recalled that, soon after the Pokhran-2 nuclear tests, Prime Minister Vajpayee on 27 May, 1998, had given an undertaking to the Indian Parliament as follows:

“We do not intend to use these weapons for aggression or for mounting threats against any country, these are weapons of self-defence, to ensure that India is not subjected to nuclear threats or coercion. We do not intend to engage in an arms race.”

Wholly contrary to that solemn assurance before the Indian Parliament by the then Prime Minister, concerted plans are now afoot to side-step that policy and convert nuclear weapons, which are purportedly perceived at present as “weapons of self-defence” into the category of “weapons of offence” in the near future with the explicit objective of using such pernicious weapons first. As a matter of fact, neither Rajnath Singh nor his predecessor, Manohar Parrikar, was among the first representatives of the right-wing National Democratic Alliance (NDA) / BJP to question the adequacy or validity of India’s ‘No-First-Use’ policy. Indeed, the BJP’s ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has been a proponent of the first use of nuclear weapons as evident from the editorial in the RSS mouthpiece “Organiser” dated 30 Dec, 2001, which had proclaimed as follows:

“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 omission…. Time has come to solve the problem of Pakistan forever and for all.”

Just three days before Organiser published the said editorial, the then Minister of Parliamentary Affairs, Pramod Mahajan, had expressed similar views. According to The Times of India (Delhi, 27 Dec, 2001): “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 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.”  The then Minister of Defence, George Fernandes, was even more candid in his outbursts three days later. According to Hindustan Times (Delhi, 30 Dec, 2001), Fernandes had bluntly said: “We could take a [nuclear] strike, survive and then hit back, Pakistan would be finished.”

Alarmed by such reckless rhetoric, the then Strategic Editor of The Hindu, Raja Mohan, could not but comment in his newspaper column (on 31 Dec, 2001) as follows:

“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.”

Hawkish Rhetoric

The ranting on the Pakistani side was not very different either. Not to be outdone in the war of rhetoric, the then President of Pakistan, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, responded to threats held out by Mahajan and Fernandes with this retort:

“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.” (CNN, 30 Dec, 2001)

The then Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee (quite contrary to the assurance he had made before the Indian Parliament in 1998) too went overboard with his belligerent views. Reporting about the speech that Vajpayee had made in Lucknow on 02 Jan, 2002, The Hindu (Chennai, 03 Jan, 2002) has quoted him as saying 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 Vajpayee was referring to. But who is the enemy that he was intending to target? 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? These questions are conveniently left unanswered. It is simply incredible that people with such irrational and vengeful ideas were at the helm of affairs on both sides!

While the angry comments by BJP leaders about the readiness to use nuclear weapons were made in the aftermath of the 13 Dec, 2001 terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament that killed ten Indians, the willingness to unleash genocide on non-combatant and innocent Pakistanis on an unprecedented scale by using nuclear weapons as a retaliatory measure is incomprehensible. If terrorism is defined as indiscriminate and wanton killing of non-combatants (and combatants in non-conflict situations), it is incumbent on the Government to make every effort to protect the lives and rights of unarmed and innocent civilians while it conducts combat operations to bring terrorists to justice.

Stunned by the bellicose stance of Vajpayee, The Times of India (Delhi) in its editorial dated 04 Jan, 2002 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.”

Similarly, the editorial in The Hindu (Chennai) dated 04 Jan, 2002, went on to warn the Government that:

“Such hawkish rhetoric [on the part of Vajpayee] does not exactly square with the sort of statesmanship required at the present critical juncture, both on the Indo-Pakistan and the international fronts.”

Gross Indifference

While Fernandes, the then Defence Minister of India, seemed quite content to wipe out Pakistan and its people in retaliation, he appeared 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 hundreds of millions of lives that are likely to be lost on both sides in a nuclear war are facts that are sought to be hidden in Mr. Fernandes’ convoluted logic. In fact, according to The Hindu (Chennai), Fernandes told newspersons on 07 Jan, 2003 that: “…if the [Indian] deterrent is not adequate and Pakistan uses the bomb, we will suffer a little but there will be no Pakistan left later”. (Also see: BBC News, “India Warning Over Nuclear War”, 07 Jan, 2003.)

How little is “little”? While attempting to offer an explanation in this regard, Dr.Subramanian Swamy, former Professor at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology (IIT, Delhi), ex-Union Cabinet Minister, and currently National Executive Committee member of the BJP & Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha, since April 2016), has claimed that if India launches a war against Pakistan, which may escalate into a nuclear war, India would merely lose as “little” as 100 million lives, which is less than 10 per cent of India’s population! Speaking at ABP News’ flagship programme on 23 Sept, 2016, Swamy reportedly said:

“If there is a nuclear war with Pakistan, only 10 crore [100 million] Indians will die. But India will still be left with 110 crore [1.1 billion] population. Our nuclear bombs will wipe off Pakistan from world’s map”.

This is the mindset of one of the top leaders of the BJP: for the pleasure of killing 200 million Pakistanis, India must be prepared to sacrifice 100 million Indians! Are the Indian victims of nuclear attacks supposed to find solace in the fact that in a retaliatory strike far greater number of people on the other side would be killed? If possession of nuclear weapons cannot protect innocent Indians from being victims of a nuclear attack, what exactly is the purpose or advantage in possessing these dreadful weapons of mass destruction? Prime Minister Narendra Modi too has made it clear that he has no qualms about using nuclear weapons. Addressing an election rally in Rajasthan on 21 Apr, 2019, Modi said“Every other day they [Pakistan] used to say “We’ve nuclear button, we’ve nuclear button”…..What do we have then? Have we kept it for Diwali [festival of lights]?” (India Today, Delhi, 21 Apr, 2019). The mute question arising from such mindset is: are nuclear weapons no different from firecrackers?

Thus, it is clear that the Indian Government’s current strategy is certainly not to prevent a nuclear war but to fight and 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 at any cost is what is most frightening. Also many people seem to forget that the 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 absolutely preposterous.

Dangerous Doctrine

It may be recalled that the “Draft Report of National Security Advisory Board on Indian Nuclear Doctrine”, i.e., the Draft Nuclear Doctrine (DND) was released on 17 Aug, 1999 by the then National Security Advisor, Brajesh Mishra, in his capacity as the Convener of the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB). In his opening remarks, the National Security Advisor made it clear that he had “great pleasure in releasing the document for public discussion and debate”.  Unfortunately, for the next three years the DND was neither discussed nor debated in the Indian Parliament or in any other public forum in any substantive manner. However, organizations like Delhi Science Forum (DSF) and Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (CNDP) did try to critique the DND in detail.  Without the Government initiating any public discussion or debate on the DND, the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) suddenly on 04 Jan, 2003 decided to formally adopt and operationalise the DND.  Before adopting it, the CCS did ensure that certain crucial changes were inserted into the DND. However, a final text of the DND has still not been placed in the public domain.

The most shocking proposal in the DND is about the necessity of cultivating “the will to employ nuclear weapons and forces“ [Objectives, Para 2.6(e)].  This was the core proposal around which rest of the DND had evolved. Any conscientious human-being would have found the mindless act of committing genocide absolutely revolting. So the authors of the DND have come up with a bizarre solution: they thought it was imperative to inculcate the much-needed pernicious will for perpetrating a horrendous crime against humanity. Injection of insensitivity into the thought processes of sane human beings was an intrinsic requirement for pursuing that objective. Essentially it would entail de-humanization of the individuals involved in the execution of the dreaded decision to use nuclear weapons. (This kind of molding of the thought process would be no different from the way terrorists are conditioned to indulge in senseless killing of unarmed and innocent civilians.) The DND was, thus, essentially a document that sanctified and sanitized the use of nuclear weapons. In short, it is essentially a doctrine for fighting a nuclear war, not for preventing one!

No-First-Use: A Basic Commitment

While the DND is essentially a nuclear war-fighting document, para 2.4 of the DND made it clear that “India will not be the first to initiate a nuclear strike”. Thus, para 2.4 of the DND was basically a retraining clause to prevent the Government of the day from indulging in nuclear adventurism. Moreover, para 8.2 of the DND had gone a step further and had affirmed that “no-first use of nuclear weapons is India’s basic commitment”. In addition, the same para had asserted that “every effort shall be made to persuade other States possessing nuclear weapons to join an international treaty banning first use.”

Nevertheless, as noted above, the CCS, while deciding to operationalise the DND at its meeting on 04 Jan, 2003, did attempt to dilute the scope of the NFU pledge.  The following rider [in Para 2(VI)] was inserted for that purpose:

“However, in the event of a major attack against India, or Indian forces anywhere, by biological or chemical weapons, India will retain the option of retaliating with nuclear weapons;…”

Thereby, as per this rider, the decision to retaliate with nuclear weapons was dependent on subjective interpretation of who used what, when and where. Moreover, it gave the impression that there was an attempt to deploy Indian forces “anywhere” in the world to indulge in military adventurism. It appears that Dr.K.Subramanyam, the doyen of Indian strategic thought, who was associated with the drafting of the DND and who was a member of the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) until 2001, was not entirely pleased with the attempt to tinker with the NFU pledge. Therefore, Dr.Subrahmanyam was forced to reiterate that the DND:

“… accepts the no-first use doctrine; it accepts minimum credible deterrence; it accepts that India will only use its nuclear capability for retaliation; and it accepts absolute civilian supremacy, and no delegation of [nuclear] arms to the military…. The logic behind the no-first-use policy is that India considers nuclear weapons as weapons of mass destruction, not as weapons of war, and therefore it should not be used.” (Voice of America, 26 Oct, 2009)

NFU under Attack

There is no doubt that the NFU policy is under attack from a sizable section of the BJP/RSS leadership. In this regard, it would be pertinent to refer to the comments made by two experts on strategic policy, namely, Prof. Rajesh Rajagopalan of Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, and Dr. Manpreet Sethi of Centre for Air Power Studies, Delhi, in response to Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s reported remarks on the possibility of revising India’s stand on the NFU. In an interview to The Hindu (23 Aug, 2019) Rajagoplan commented as follows:

“The doctrine is only valid for as long as the government says it is valid. It would be foolish to suggest that doctrines cannot change or that they will hold for all times and under all circumstances. All he [Rajnath Singh] was suggesting was that we cannot guarantee that the doctrine will hold for all times.”

Rajagopalan has obviously not made an attempt to distinguish between “principled” position and what is passed off as “pragmatic” position. It was India’s “principled” stand that “no-first use of nuclear weapons is India’s basic commitment”. India was also committed “to persuade other States possessing nuclear weapons to join an international treaty banning first use.” (DND, Para 8.2)  Therefore, it would not be right to claim that “principled” position can be changed according to someone’s whims and fancies since the impact of such arbitrary changes would be severe. How could “basic commitment” be turned into “no commitment” overnight? When India has made a commitment to persuade other nuclear weapon states to join an international treaty to ban first use, how could or why should India move away from that commitment?  However, Rajagopalan did concede that “if we did change the NFU policy, that would not be particularly useful.”  Similarly, Manpreet Sethi (who too attempted to downplay the implications of Ranjnath Singh’s statement) was nevertheless of the view that there was no need to move away from the commitment to NFU. She emphatically said: “I do believe it’s a good policy and there’s no reason for the country to change it”. Sethi went on to caution the Indian Government that “we will be sucking ourselves into an arms race if we were to go for a first use doctrine.” (The Hindu (23 Aug, 2019)

It was not just few odd leaders of the BJP, who were making off the cuff remarks about abrogating the NFU policy. In fact, the third NSAB, which submitted its final report to the National Security Advisor, Brajesh Mishra, on 20 Dec, 2002, did recommend that the NFU policy be reviewed. According to a news report“The National Security Advisory Board, India’s top panel of national security experts, has asked the government to review its no-first-use of nuclear weapons policy in light of the history of the last four years.’” (, 09 Jan, 2003)  In view of this recommendation from the NSAB, it is evident that several concerted moves were made to change the NFU policy during the last twenty-one years. In all probability, the overt influence exercised by strategic experts like the late Dr.K.Subrahmanyam may have helped stave off such attempts till now. In their absence, the looming threat that moves may be afoot to change India’s NFU policy is very real.

[To be continued.]

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).