On April 9, 2014 in an editorial titled “A risk to India’s nuclear doctrine” appeared in the New York Times. The article refers to the BJP’s recently announced decision of revising the country’s nuclear doctrine if it comes to power. According to the article the proposed changes remain largely ambivalent but there are suggestions that the BJP may entirely revoke India’s no first use policy enunciated in 1999 when the party was previously in power.

Expressing its concern about the policy, the article warns of greater “uncertainty” in an already hostile region thus exacerbating tensions with both China and Pakistan. Whereas the former subscribes to a no first use policy the latter does not. Add to this bubbling South Asian cauldron the burning issue of Kashmir and red- hot extremism, the brew is sure to boil over. Pakistan’s rapidly increasing arsenal does little to alleviate fears of the possibility of a nuclear conflict in South Asia. Notwithstanding this development however, the article acknowledges that India does not need to abandon its no first use policy given its conventional superiority vis-à-vis Pakistan. The BJP’s provocative stance according to the article does not bode well for India’s relations with both China and Pakistan. In conclusion the article recommends improving ties with Pakistan and initiating an arms control process that would be beneficial for South Asia.

India’s No first use policy has undergone numerous changes that have seemingly gone unnoticed. On May 27, 1998, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee while addressing the Indian Parliament noted, “In 1994, we had proposed that India and Pakistan jointly undertake not to be the first to use their nuclear capability against each other. The Government on this occasion reiterates its readiness to discuss a “no-first-use” agreement with that country, as also with other countries bilaterally, or in a collective forum.” The statement indicates India’s willingness to discuss a no first use policy but remains shy of terming it an actual policy. Consequently in an August 1998 address he categorically announced India’s intent not to be the first to use nuclear weapons.

Almost five years later, on January 3, 2003 during a meeting  to  “review the progress in operationalizing of India’s nuclear doctrine” it was decided that information about India’s nuclear doctrine and operational arrangements governing the country’s nuclear assets, would be shared with the public. The document thus summarizes India’s nuclear doctrine:-

  • Building and maintaining a credible minimum deterrent;
  • A posture of “No First Use” nuclear weapons will only be used in retaliation against a nuclear attack on Indian territory or on Indian forces anywhere;
  • Nuclear retaliation to a first strike will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage.
  • Nuclear retaliatory attacks can only be authorised by the civilian political leadership through the Nuclear Command Authority.
  • Non-use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states;
  • However, in the event of a major attack against India, or Indian forces anywhere, by biological or chemical weapons, India will retain the option of retaliating with nuclear weapons

In its latest version this “no first use” policy has been modified a step further.  In an October 2010 speech to the National Defence College, India’s National Security Adviser, Shivshankar Menon  said that India’s “no-first use” pledge was only valid against non-nuclear weapon states.   According to Menon,

“The Indian nuclear doctrine also reflects this strategic culture, with its emphasis on minimal deterrence, no first use against non-nuclear weapon states and its direct linkage to nuclear disarmament.”

This statement removed both Pakistan and China, and other nuclear weapon states from what was originally a global Indian pledge. India’s existing nuclear doctrine is not very different from the BJP’s alleged proposal. It just leaves me wondering why all this hullabaloo now?

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