When India was threatened with nukes
When India was threatened with nukes
WHY did India, a nation born on the principle of non-violence, decide to build and equip itself with the atom bomb, the world’s most destructive weapon? Shivshankar Menon, the erudite National Security Adviser, speaking at a global nuclear conference in New Delhi last week, gave two reasons: The first “is the contribution that it makes to our (India’s) security in an uncertain and anarchic world.” And the second, he said, was that “on at least three occasions before 1998 other powers used the explicit or implicit threat of nuclear weapons to try and change India’s behaviour.”
In his speech Menon did not reveal the details of the three occasions on which India was threatened. When I called to check, he preferred to direct me to an analysis given in a lecture delivered in 2000 by India’s renowned defence strategist, the late K. Subrahmanyam. In that lecture Subrahmanyam had pointed out that three senior Pakistani strategists had gone on record to state that Pakistan’s threat of a nuclear counter had deterred India from attacking it on three occasions.
According to Subrahmanyam, the Pakistan analysts claimed that in 1984, India and Israel planned to combine forces and launch an attack on Pakistan’s Kahuta nuclear installation but abandoned it when Islamabad sent out signals that it would retaliate with a nuclear strike. Then in 1987 they claimed that during the Indian military exercise “Operation Brasstacks”, India had contemplated invading Pakistan but was again deterred when Islamabad flashed its nuclear card. It was the same year that veteran Indian journalist Kuldip Nayar interviewed Pakistan’s top nuclear scientist AQ Khan, who revealed that Islamabad did have the bomb.
The third time was in 1990, when Kashmir was on the boil and war clouds loomed over the sub-continent. Pakistan threatened India with a nuclear strike. I can confirm that episode because along with a colleague I interviewed the late former Army Chief Krishnaswami Sundarji in April 1990. Though retired, Sundarji told us that Islamabad would be living “in a fool’s paradise” if they thought that India would not hesitate to use its atomic weapons if Pakistan decided to launch a nuclear attack. The US was so perturbed that it sent one of its envoys, Robert Gates, to Pakistan and India to bring down the temperatures.
There was actually a fourth time too that India was threatened with implicit use of nuclear weapons, something Subrahmanyam also pointed out. That was in 1971, towards the end of the Bangladesh war, when the US sent its nuclear armed aircraft carrier USS Enterprise into the Bay of Bengal to warn India against launching a full-scale invasion of Pakistan.
Menon also cited the Enterprise incident to me as did Brajesh Mishra, the former National Security Adviser, when I called him up to check on his list of nuclear threats to India. So the logic given by Indian strategic experts is sound: that given the nuclear sabre-rattling being done by our neighbours and the US, there was enough justification for India to develop nuclear weapons as a credible deterrent, though not as an offensive weapon.
My own research on the subject, which I published in my book Weapons of Peace (it’s out of print, so this is not a plug!), pointed to India deciding to go nuclear much before these events. If anything, the threats of attack only speeded up the decision-making. Though India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru championed the cause of a nuclear-free world, he did give tacit support to Homi Bhabha, the then chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, to go ahead with developing the technology to build the bomb around 1955.
Before the 1962 Chinese invasion, when India had evidence that China was preparing to explode a nuclear weapon, Bhabha apparently told Nehru that India should “take precautionary measures” and optimistically estimated that if given clearance the nation’s atomic scientists could make a bomb in two years. Nehru is said to have brushed aside Bhabha’s offer. It was only after Nehru’s death in 1964 and after China exploded its first nuclear device, that Indian scientists were cleared by the then Indian Prime Minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, to develop a device for a Peaceful Nuclear Explosion (PNE) in 1965.
After Shastri’s death in 1966, India’s nuclear bomb plans were put on hold for a while, till his successor Indira Gandhi gained in confidence and stature. In 1970, Indira Gandhi ordered a reluctant Vikram Sarabhai, the then Atomic Energy Commission chairman, to begin preparations for a PNE. This was almost a year before the Bangladesh war. But the threat by the USS Enterprise did firm up Indira Gandhi’s decision to go ahead with testing a nuclear device. The formal order was given in 1972 and India conducted its first nuclear test in May 1974.
I beg to differ with Menon on one point though. In his speech last week the National Security Adviser asserted: “Since we became a declared nuclear weapons state in 1998 we have not faced such threats. So the possession of nuclear weapons has, empirically speaking, deterred others from attempting nuclear coercion or blackmail against India.”
My research indicates this statement is not quite correct. During the 1999 Kargil, when Indian threatened to invade Pakistan, Islamabad did send out signals that they may resort to the use of nuclear weapons. Brajesh Mishra confirms that India did keep its nuclear weapons ready during the Kargil War but states that Delhi had no evidence that Pakistan was preparing to carry out a first strike.
The US, though, seemed most concerned that the Kargil War would end in a nuclear conflagration. The then Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif confirmed this to me in an interview in 2004, when he was in exile in Jeddah, stating that it was the first question Bill Clinton asked him when he met the US President in Washington DC in the midst of the Kargil crisis in 1999. It may not suit the argument put forward by some of India’s strategic analysts, but the danger of India and Pakistan going nuclear in the event of a major war between them does remain.
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