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.