India’s Nuclear Deterrent: A desire for Immunity

“While Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent is for security, India’s is for status.” As soon as I read these words, I wondered if the terms ‘security’ and ‘status’ are mutually exclusive when understanding South Asia’s nuclear deterrent. Also, if ‘security’ is the right term to use for the Indian context. Scholars, including my co-blogger Amina Afzal at South Asian Voices (SAV), have asserted that India’s nuclear deterrent is merely for status, prestige, or greater global recognition. While the arguments are interesting and much needed for greater academic debate, the premise on which the viewpoint rests has some inherent gaps. This post attempts to point out some. The following sections essentially focus on India – mainly because of the need for a greater debate on the issue. Furthermore, I have little disagreement with the points presented by SAV bloggers in the Pakistani context and concur that security indeed drives Islamabad’s nuclear deterrent.

Security or Status?

So, is India’s nuclear deterrent for security or status? I argue it is neither. Although the term security does seem to make most sense, I assert that neither ‘security’ nor ‘status’ can effectively explain India’s nuclear deterrent. Rather it is India’s ‘desire for immunity’ which explains the concept better. Although a large nation-state with a massive population and a gifted geography, India since the early years was plagued by a deep sense of insecurity. These insecurities can be traced to numerous issues ranging from its history, geopolitical developments hampering its sense of security or a discriminatory nuclear regime.

It is worth noting that a desire for immunity is a broader concept when compared to seeking security. Karsten Frey presents a noteworthy argument when explaining a country’s desire for immunity. According to Frey, “The desire for immunity which a state might try to satisfy through the acquisition of nuclear weapons is not equivalent to security seeking. Rather, it denotes both the state’s desire to protect itself in response to perceived insecurity and its desire to do this autonomously. It implies both dimensions: a sense of security and sovereignty.”

The ‘sense of insecurity’ stirred by geopolitical events with regional implications and the need to practice ‘sovereignty’ after centuries of colonial rule, remain relevant in the Indian context. Anyone who views India’s nuclear deterrent as a reflection of its hunger for status needs to understand India’s precarious security situation and its desire to pursue a sovereign foreign policy.

India’s quest for Immunity

In order to understand the role of India’s nuclear deterrent, it is imperative to understand the motivations behind its acquisition of nuclear weapons. The chronological progression of India’s nuclear attitude points out its great desire for a sense of security and sovereignty.

In the early years of independence, India’s atomic energy programme was motivatedby the “pre-1962 years anxieties about establishing a modern post-colonial nationalist identity” and drawing the benefits of this technology for the betterment of the Indian masses. This point is deftly covered by Sitakanta Mishra in his post wherein he argues that “India’s initial motivation to tame the atom came not from a nuclear threat of a declared enemy, but from the then prevailing socio-economic conditions in the country.”

As also stated by him, India’s enthusiasm for an atomic energy project dampened post the Sino-India war of 1962. With the war, India lost a major chunk of territory to China and suddenly its perceived or imagined geostrategic threat from China became ‘real.’ Unsurprisingly, soon after the Indian parliament passed an update of the Atomic Energy Act of 1948, which stipulated that the “Indian state develop a nuclear military option.

While the events of 1962 forced India to rethink its idealism-dictated concepts of ‘peaceful co-existence’, China’s first nuclear weapon test in 1964 further jolted New Delhi. Chinese reasoning for taking the N-route due to the Soviet threat did not convince India. Instead, it made New Delhi acutely mindful of its military and nuclear imbalance vis-a-vis China. After the Chinese nuclear test, the Indian focus shifted largely towards ‘securing’ the nation from external actors (potential adversaries) and deterring them. Debates about accepting a foreign country’s nuclear umbrella (read the US) continued but the issue of sovereignty and the need to minimise India’s dependence on other countries for security matters gained more traction.

In addition, 1960s also saw emerging contours of a Sino-Pakistan partnership further fuelling India’s insecurities. This became more evident in the early-1970s with the outbreak of the 1971 Bangladesh War, when New Delhi witnessed a growing collusionbetween China, Pakistan, and the USA. Pakistan’s facilitation of the Sino-American rapprochement helped Islamabad gain immense American support at the United Nations and even in terms of military supplies. The last straw on the camel’s back was the US decision to dispatch the USS Enterprise, a nuclear powered warship to the Bay of Bengal reflecting America’s gunboat diplomacy. The hostile regional and international environment for New Delhi followed by US nuclear blackmail (even if partially) “prompted Mrs. Gandhi’s decision to go nuclear in May 1974.” Therefore, India’s first peaceful nuclear explosion (PNE) was driven by its desire to protect itself from the insecurities posed due to countries in its neighbourhood and their allies.

However, insecurities only increased in the coming decades. Landmark developments such as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 and US support for Pakistan through the phase affected India’s nuclear thinking. Washington’s heavy economic and military aid (particularly F-16 aircrafts) to Islamabad and its choice to overlook Pakistan’s nuclear and missile developments were worrying signals. Additionally, New Delhi feared the yet-again US-China-Pakistan collaboration against the USSSR.

In the 1980s and 90s, India remained aware of China’s modernising nuclear arsenal and its unabated nuclear and missile-related (particularly M-11 missiles) assistance to Pakistan, something that was largely ignored by the international community. The production of fissile materials in Pakistan’s Kahuta Uranium Enrichment Plant coupled with AQ Khan’s over-the-top statements about Pakistan’s growing nuclear capabilities convinced New Delhi of a possible nuclear detonation test by Pakistan. India’s fear can be gauged from reports which averred that Indira Gandhi had “reportedly authorised preparations for a second peaceful nuclear explosion” in early 1982. The test was ultimately not undertaken, perhaps due to fear of a possible “negative international economic and political fallout.” Notably, this episode brings out India’s nuclear security dilemma.

India-Pakistan relations continued to worsen, particularly after the Brasstacks crisis (1986-87) and the Pakistan-aided insurgency in Kashmir (1990). Meanwhile, the USSR collapsed in 1991 marking the end of the Cold War-era. The change in balance of global power left India to fend for itself, thereby leading to greater uncertainties. The end of USSR implied that India no longer had a strong Soviet backing at international fora such as the United Nations or a credible counterweight to China.

International rebuke of India during the 1995 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference and growing pressure on New Delhi to sign the NPT left India with little hope to retain its nuclear option. In the same year when the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) was moving towards a conclusion, New Delhi knew that the culmination would make testing politically and strategically prohibitive. It was convinced that conclusion of the treaty would amplify the already existing divide between ‘nuclear haves’ and ‘nuclear have-nots’.

For India, the option was either to sign the NPT and CTBT and forgo nuclear status, or to overtly declare its nuclear status by testing. Owing to these fears, the Indian government under PM Narashima Rao sought to undertake a nuclear test in December 1995. He intended to undertake the tests before joining the treaty just like France and China. However, US intelligence sources detected India’s plans and put extreme pressure to stall it. Narashima Rao capitulated under pressure. The desperation to test also pressurised the 13-days BJP government to authorise a nuclear test in May 1996, although it was called off because the government would not have survived long enough during that period which was marred by political uncertainties. Even after failed attempts, India’s desire for immunity continued to impact the government’s decisions and finally under immense secrecy, New Delhi conducted nuclear tests in May 1998.

‘Status’, the main driver or a by-product?

Although some scholars perceive the concepts of ‘status’ or ‘prestige’ as the main factors affecting India’s nuclear decision, evidence negates this viewpoint. ‘Status’ is largely a by-product of India’s nuclear deterrent or rather an additional inherent variable. As aptly stated by Sannia Abdullah in her post, “the rationale for the pursuit of nuclear capability often begins with the hardcore security premise, coupled with the pursuit of prestige or status.” Even in case of India, the issue of ‘status’ is an additional factor but considering it as a sole-motivator for India’s nuclear journey would be imprudent.

On the security vs. status debate, Bhumitra Chakma deftly argues that, “It is indeed difficult to conceive that India has invested such huge resources in a nuclear programme merely to derive national prestige. India had to build its nuclear programme against the need to invest resources in social and economic sectors.” He adds, “From a cost-benefit analysis, it appears unconvincing to argue that India has built a nuclear arsenal for only gaining prestige.”

After all, if only the desire for status had forced India to go nuclear, it would have been relatively easier for the strategic restraint regime to convince India in giving up its weapons; especially now, when India’s economic progress and greater role in the global politics bestow on it a sense of higher status and prestige.

Another argument brought out in previous SAV posts is about the technological element, which scholars argue largely governed India’s nuclear decisions. At this juncture it is worth questioning if technological momentum was the main force behind India’s nuclear deterrent. If yes, then why did Indira Gandhi abandon former Indian PM, Lal Bahadur Shastri’s ‘Subterranean Nuclear Explosion Project’ (SNEP), which had come into effect in November 1965 and authorised the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) to undertake research to a “point, when, once the go-ahead signal was given, it would take three months to have an explosion.” Also, India had achieved technological capability much before its scheduled nuclear tests but did not go overtly nuclear. This again belies the claim that technology alone drove India’s nuclear deterrent. Akin to many other factors, technology too remains a relevant feature in understanding India’s nuclear deterrent but not the main driver.

Pakistan Nuclear Deterrent

Moving on to the case of Pakistan, a majority of the scholars seem to have a consensus on security being the main driver of its nuclear deterrent. Considering that there is little disagreement on this issue, I choose to only reiterate some aspects than offer a detailed analysis.

Pakistan’s acquisition of nuclear bomb after the 1971 East Pakistan crisis and further nuclear progress reflected Islamabad’s conviction that nuclear weapons could deter India and avoid a large-scale war. Debak Das rightly notes “adoption of a no-no-first-use policy and a blurring of the lines between conventional and nuclear forces definitely augmented Pakistani security, thus serving the purpose of nuclearisation.

However, if like in the Indian case, Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent was to be viewed largely through the status lens, the security angle would get undermined as well (wrongly though). In his analysis, Sitakanta Mishra highlights the element of status in Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent. He writes, Pakistan’s nuclear thinking is currently driven by the “urge to maintain parity with India’s nuclear weapons strategy.” He adds “Pakistan perceives that its capability to maintain parity with India in nuclear weapons bestows on it the status or image of a strong nation which can effectively deter India.” Worth reasserting, even Pakistan’s nuclear programme is driven by a sense of prestige and status but that remains a part of the complex basket on nuclear deterrent, rather than a motivating factor.

One can also contend that Pakistan’s technological prowess and successes, which get attention due to its nuclear deterrent, are largely to boost the country’s prestige quotient. Islamabad has periodically emphasised that it is the only Islamic nation to have attained a sophisticated nuclear weapons programme. If looking through this lens alone, it may be argued that Islamabad’s nuclear deterrent is for prestige, especially given the country’s small size and limited prospects of achieving the level of status that nuclear weapons offer. Though such an assertion would present an incomplete and perhaps a grossly wrong picture.

Akin to the Indian case, prestige and status are attached to Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent. However, it is more of a by-product (desirable though) than the sole motivating factor. In the case of South Asia, it would not be wrong to state that the desire for immunity, security dilemmas, and other related fears drive strategic calculations of a country; while pride, prestige and technological developments are related factors, if not unconnected.

Source: South Asian Voices, January 22, 2015,


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