Point, Counter-Point: Nuclear Weapons – Status or Security?

Earlier in this series:

The South Asian Nuclear Trajectory – From Reluctance to Readiness


The western narrative “why do [and don’t] states build nuclear weapons” has its limitations when non-western, especially South Asian, nuclear discourse is concerned. Firstly, the motive behind ‘nuclear technology’ drive is often interchanged with ‘nuclear weapons’ aspirations; secondly, terminologies like ‘status,’ ‘image,’ ‘prestige,’ ‘reputation,’ ‘power,’ etc. are employed to interpret national nuclear pronouncements detached from their native nuances. Given this ‘perception differential’ between the West and the rest, let us examine the motives behind, and trajectories of, Indian and Pakistani nuclear programs.


India: Technology for Status, Weapon for Security

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. During the decades following 1947, while initiating to reap the benefits of civilian use of new technology, India resorted to “no weapon” policy advocating comprehensive disarmament. Accordingly, her foreign policy goal was set to spearhead new era following distinctive foreign policy based on the Nehruvian principle of “global influence without military power.”

On 24 July, 1957, Nehru had declared that India “will in no event use atomic energy for destructive purposes. … I hope that will be the policy of all future governments.” Soon after independence the first Commander-in-Chief of the Indian armed forces, General Sir Robert Lockhart, presented the paper outlining a plan for the growth of Indian Army to Prime Minister Nehru. Nehru’s reply was: “We don’t need a defence plan. Our policy is non-violence. We foresee no military threats. You can scrap the army. The police are good enough to meet our security needs.”

During the introduction of Scientific Policy Resolution in Lok Sabha on March 4, 1958, Nehru mentioned “the scientific temper and the application of technology must be made consistent with responsible internationalism and reconciled with the highest ideals of the age.” It was Nehru’s enthusiasm “to reap the fruits of nuclear science and technology for social benefits that within 12 days of getting freedom, a meeting of the Atomic Energy Research Board was held.” All these initiatives were solely driven by Nehru’s scientific temper to make India a technologically advanced country.

The research and development of atomic energy in complete secrecy and “state ownership of all relevant raw materials” is argued by Western scholars as indicative of India’s weapons intention. In fact, a nascent nation emerged from centuries of colonial exploitation rightly felt the need to protect materials and prospective know-how from being exploited by the industrialised countries in a colonial manner – therefore the secrecy. The country-wide nuclear infrastructure today is largely the outcome of the Nehru-Bhabha leadership that earned India the “responsible state with advanced nuclear technology” status.

In regard to India’s motive behind nuclear technology, weapons, status, and benefits, Nehru’s reply in the Lok Sabha in 1948 is worth noting:

“Somehow, we cannot help associating atomic energy with war. That is the present context of our lives. … The point I should like the House to consider is this, that if we are to remain abreast in the world as a nation which keeps ahead of things, we must develop this atomic energy quite apart from war . . . we must develop it for the purpose of using it for peaceful purposes. …Of course, if we are compelled as a nation to use it for other purposes, possibly no pious sentiments of any of us will stop the nation from using it that way. But I do hope that our outlook in regard to this atomic energy is going to be a peaceful one ….”

–  (Constituent Assembly of India, Legislative Debates, 1948: 3333-34)

At present, in the medical sector alone, more than 57,443 medical X-ray units are in operation in various parts of the country. According to a 2008 Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) estimate, radioactive materials used in India for industrial and medical applications are estimated at over 12,000 devices, which include 300 telecobalt therapy units, 130 accelerators, over 2,000 computed tomography scan units, 155 nuclear medicine centers, 1400 industrial radiography cameras, 7,800 nucleonic gauges, and 15 gamma radiation processing plants.

The turning point in national nuclear discourse can be marked in the 1960s, starting with the 1962 Sino-Indian border debacle and China’s subsequent nuclear tests. India’s vulnerability and repeated appeals for nuclear disarmament (1986 Rajiv Gandhi Action Plan) were unheard. Consequently, the Congress Party that was strongly advocating for “no nuclear weapons” got divided. In the 69th Annual Session of the Congress in Durgapur in January 1965, K.C. Pant, then a young Congress leader, vociferously argued for India’s acquiring nuclear weapons. Ultimately, Lal Bahadur Shastri a strong Gandhian and anti-nuclear, succumbed to the pressure of the pro-bomb faction of the party members and gave go ahead for the Subterranean Nuclear Explosion Programme (SNEP). Subsequent developments are well known.

Suffice it to say that that the nuclear weapons state status was not the end that any Indian ever looked for. It was a strategic imperative or compulsion; meanwhile, India’s pursuit to explore all frontiers of technology including nuclear is incessant.


Pakistan: Weapon for Security, Parity, and Political Survival

Though Pakistan started its nuclear journey along with the Atoms for Peace initiative, its nuclear curiosity was diverted towards the motive to acquire the bomb, especially after the East Pakistan crisis of 1971.

The idea that India would not have dared intervene had Pakistan the nuclear bomb kick-started Pakistan’s quest for the bomb. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto took the historical decision to fabricate the atom bomb in a meeting with the top Pakistani nuclear scientists in Multan, January 1972. In this historical secret meeting, Bhutto told the scientists … “this is a very serious political decision, which Pakistan must make, and perhaps all Third World countries must make one day.” He vowed to build nuclear bomb no matter if Pakistan would have to “eat grass or leaves, even go hungry.” One reason for Pakistan’s blind eye or tacit support for AQ Khan’s clandestine program was its desperation for acquiring the bomb by any means.

Further, Bhutto was known for saying in 1978 that “…Israel and South Africa have full nuclear capability – a Christian, Jewish and Hindu civilization have this capability … the Islamic civilization is without it, but the situation [is] about to change.”

However, the security determinant of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program subsequently transformed into an urge to maintain parity with India’s nuclear weapons strategy. In fact, 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. This can be evident from the statement of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif who told on 28 May 1998 that “Today, we have settled a score and have carried out five successful nuclear tests.” The Pakistan Observer described that the “five nuclear blasts have instantly transformed an extremely demoralized nation into a self-respecting, proud nation of 140 million people, having faith in their destiny.”

More recent developments like the tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs), nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, naval nuclearisation, and its demand for a civil nuclear deal are part of this parity syndrome.

During the run up to the Chagai tests, Gohar Ayub, the then-Pakistani foreign minister, along with foreign secretary Shamshad Ahmad said to Strobe Talbott, who visited Islamabad to persuade Pakistan not to conduct a nuclear test, said: “Mark my words, now that India has barged its way into becoming the world’s sixth nuclear power, it will not stop there. It will force itself into permanent membership of the UN Security Council. … The people of Pakistan will not forgive those in this room if we do not do the right thing”.

In response to the then-US Secretary Albright handwritten note, through Talbott, not to resort to tit-for-tat tests, Sharif put his head in his hands for a moment and said “how can I take your advice if I’m out of office?” This suggests that the threat of political survival would never allow Pakistani leadership to stand idly by India’s steps.


Image: Michel Baret, Getty

Share this:  

Related articles