An Indian Nuclear Weapons Debate

What do you do if you are a young researcher in India attempting to study India’s nuclear weapons programme – the history, the policy and the setup? Apart from taking stock of the exhaustive list of books and journal articles – by Indian and foreign authors – you would also dig up newspaper editorials, official press releases, speeches, web-commentaries, think-tank reports and interview transcripts of anyone and everyone who could possibly have an authoritative and expert voice on the subject. And if you are lucky to be in New Delhi, with its network comprising of the Ministries of External Affairs (MEA) and Defence (MoD), think-tanks, research organisations, universities and independent analysts, you would find yourself running from one conference hall to another filling diaries-full of running notes. Occasionally, and this depends much on your own public-relations and outreach skills, you’d get to meet and discuss your research with persons whom you think would be ‘in-the-know’ of India’s nuclear weapons programme. And even after a slow and rather painful research trajectory, it is not hard to find yourself back to square one.

Let me come to the point. There is a lack of debate in India on the country’s nuclear weapons programme; let alone a dispassionate and an objective one. The deficiency manifests in two ways: the nuclear policy-making circle appears to be exclusive and with a flippant approach to civil society debates. Lack of documentation and extensive secrecy delimits the scope of informed opinions outside the ‘establishment’. The situation finds a typical justification – the weapons programme is a matter of highest national security and is therefore shrouded with secrecy. Only the country’s top leadership with the Prime Minister at the helm is to be in full knowledge of the weapons programme. The authorities at different levels of the nuclear command and control structure are privy to certain details. Restricting information to such an exclusive group of people has been the legacy of the Indian nuclear weapons programme right from the Nehru-Bhabha era; it safeguards not only the programme but the deterrence that India’s nuclear weapons are meant to impart.

The problem lies not in keeping secrets but in what is to be kept secret and how much is to be kept secret. The last time the Union Government shared meaningful information about the Indian nuclear weapons programme was in 2003 with the press release (of 4th January), where the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) reviewed the operationalisation of ‘India’s Nuclear Doctrine’ – indicating approval and ownership of the draft report of the National Security Advisory Board on the Indian Nuclear Doctrine released on 17 August 1999 – and the setting up of the two-layered Nuclear Command Authority. The doctrine calls for a “constant review” of the nuclear policy under its framework; apart from regular press releases on the MEA website about the Prime Minister reviewing the weapons programme and policy, no such review or its details thereof have surfaced to public knowledge or in official documentation. It is not unusual to hear how the military leadership is not taken into confidence while making nuclear weapons-related policy in India. I was not surprised when a former Chief of Naval Staff (who served a decade before the Pokhran II tests) revealed that he had been given no idea about what was going on in the Indian nuclear weapons programme during the phase of strategic ambiguity. He hoped that the situation has improved post 1998.

To the common man’s eye, it appears that nuclear weapons decision and policy-making takes place behind closed doors and by a handful of bureaucrats. There is a glaring absence of a national-level debate in which the nuclear weapons bureaucracy in India comes on the same platform as that of professional policy analysts, scholars and researchers from universities, think-tanks, research organisations and media to deliberate on some of the most fundamental issues relating to nuclear weapons – deterrence, doctrines, policies, technological and scientific developments, role of the military, security, arms control and disarmament. The secrecy of information, despite the constitutional requirement for declassification after 25 years, makes archival research a difficult task. The dearth of debate also impinges upon breakthrough indigenous research, analyses, critiques and recommendations on the nuclear weapons-policy.

An informed and enlightened public is an important force to the country’s strategic culture. People in India have been eager and ready to understand what it means to be a country in possession of nuclear weapons. Young researchers are keen to theorise, philosophise and contribute to better policy making. Perhaps a knowledgeable generation of scholars and inclusive debates would better equip India to become a significant voice in a nuclear weapons-fixated world.

Posted in , India, Nuclear, Nuclear Security, Nuclear Weapons, Policy, Research

Tanvi Kulkarni

Tanvi Kulkarni teaches Defence and Strategic Studies at the Savitribai Phule Pune University in India. She has a PhD in Diplomacy and Disarmament Studies from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Her thesis examines why states in a nuclear dyad negotiate nuclear confidence-building measures (NCBMs). Tanvi completed her M.Phil in Diplomacy and Disarmament in August 2014, and for her dissertation, she worked on tracing the evolution of the ideas of Credible Minimum Deterrence and No First Use in India's nuclear doctrine and policy. She researches and writes on nuclear politics, national security, and strategic issues. She was a South Asian Voices Visiting Fellow in 2015. Tanvi has previously worked with the the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi and the Chaophraya Track II Dialogue.

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2 thoughts on “An Indian Nuclear Weapons Debate

  1. A very relevant post, and I am reacting to it quite belatedly (Sorry!). It is impressive that you highlight that the problem is not secrecy, but “what is to be kept secret.” This is a great point, and I concur. Secrecy is the characteristic of nuclear programs in every country, and India is not an exception. What is worrying is the lack of parliamentary oversight, and much ink has been spilled on this by Itty Abraham, M.V. Ramana and others.

    What must be remembered that there are at least three important stakeholders in the nuclear debate: politically-significant scientists (enjoying the nuclear monopoly), high-ranking bureaucrats and diplomats (many trained in nuclear physics) and military personnel (complaints of nuclear alienation are highest here). Neither of the three groups necessarily get along , which is fine since that operationalizes a system of checks and balances.

    This situation however, leads to at least three sets of challenges that affect the the great Indian nuclear debate:

    1. There is no way of cross-checking facts that these three groups present us with. This is, as you yourself point out, in the absence of Indian primary sources on the subject.

    2. There is a certain intolerance of information that contradicts “conventional wisdom” about India’s nuclear trajectory. Such intolerance permeates other aspects of Indian domestic political life as well, as Ruhee’s post on history textbooks highlight. The problem is owing to the absence of primary sources, such intolerance cannot be convincingly countered.

    3. There is a technicalist bias in the debate, which makes it difficult for scholars not trained in the technicalities of nuclear science (physics/chemistry) to comprehend the completeness of the arguments made in favor or against certain kinds of nuclear technologies. Choice of certain nuclear technologies is not unrelated to national nuclear strategies. Once again, in the absence of the requisite technical knowledge, the generalist scholar is at a loss to assess the veracity of claims made by the nuclear establishment of the country.

    One final point about public debate on nuclear issues:

    In the United States, this was generated only through the propaganda campaigns about civil defense, dating back to the 1951 film “Duck and Cover” during President Truman’s time. The Indian nuclear establishment’s secretive nature and proximity to political power and resources, does not compel it to reach out to the people. Public awareness of both the Indian nuclear program and potential deterrence strategies is therefore low.

    Check out the hilarious Duck and Cover film about Bert, the turtle:

  2. Each state adopts a well-defined and a well-articulated policy to meet its security needs. Henry Kissinger stated that the aim of choosing a particular policy options is ‘to translate the power into policy’, so that states know ‘what objectives are worth contending for and determine the degree of force appropriate for achieving them.’
    The rationale behind shaping a particular nuclear policy option is ‘to achieve intended political, military or other objectives’ and ‘guide procurement, deployment and employment of the country’s nuclear assets’, which results in the structure, force building, use and sustainability of the adopted policy options.’
    Three different perspectives elaborate the understanding of state’s adoption of certain doctrinal postures:
    (a) Stemming from the argument of a realist theoretical explanation, a state adopts certain policy for security reasons.
    (b) Organizational interests and biases of military institutions determine the nature of country’s nuclear policy.
    (c) The national strategic culture comprising the country’s unique history, religion, the development of the perception of a state’s ideology and identity have significant influence on a state’s determination of nuclear policy.
    Nuclear weapons are one component of an integrated defense strategy that includes diplomacy and conventional forces. The principal role of nuclear weapons was and continues to be that of deterring any potential adversaries from an attack on our vital interests. This role is expected to continue for as long as nuclear weapons hold the appellation of “supreme” instruments of military force.
    The role of nuclear weaponry as the ultimate deterrent to aggression and the ultimate destructive force in combat will likely lead to the retention of at least some nuclear forces for decades to come. However, the composition of our nuclear arsenal may undergo significant modification to respond to changing conditions, changing military needs, and changes in our confidence in our ability to maintain credible nuclear forces without nuclear testing or large-scale weapons production. Options for precision delivery of nuclear weapons may reduce the requirement for high yield. Lower yield weapons could be produced as modifications of existing weapons designs, or they could employ more rugged and simpler designs that might be developed and maintained with high confidence without nuclear testing and with a smaller nuclear weapons complex than we envision is required to maintain current nuclear forces.
    There is another aspect which determines nations policy- ‘global strategic culture’, viz. nuclear learning of minor nuclear weapon states from the experiences of established nuclear weapon states.’
    Without getting in to any specific Indian has an articulated policy.
    No first use has been clearly put to send a signal to China and to NSG. India can join the NSG and four other groups dealing with nuclear weapons provide it meets conditions.
    Remember one of the principles of war to have friends.
    Lastly no policy is sacrosant.

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