India must be cautious, nuclear wars leave no victor or vanquished

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s hint at the possibility of India changing her NFU policy in future came in the context of Pakistan’s rising bellicosity over the recent developments in Kashmir

Photo courtesy: social media
Photo courtesy: social media

Barun Das Gupta/IPA

Minister of Defence Rajnath Singh has said that though India is still committed to its “No First Use” (NFU) nuclear policy, “what happens in future depends on the circumstances.” The occasion, the venue and the timing of his statement are significant.

The occasion was the first death anniversary of former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee who had formally declared to the world that India had become a nuclear power. The venue was Pokhran where Indira Gandhi carried out the first “peaceful” nuclear explosion on May 18, 1974 and where Vajpayee conducted the second nuclear tests 24 years later on May 11, 1998. And the timing of Rajnath’s comment was hours before the UN Security Council was to meet on China’s insistence in an in camera session to discuss the Kashmir situation which India has always maintained was a purely domestic issue.

Rajnath’s hint at the possibility of India changing her NFU policy in future came in the context of Pakistan’s rising bellicosity over the recent developments in Kashmir. What he implied was that if India had credible intelligence that a nuclear attack was imminent, she will not wait for the actual strike to be launched, but will make a pre-emptive strike to forestall such an attack. What the Defence Minister said was not an off-the-cuff remark or an orbiter dictum. He was making public a policy decision taken by the Government at the highest level of decision-making. Therein lies its significance.

Pakistan had, many times in the past, threatened that it would not hesitate to use her nuclear weapons against India if it (Pakistan) felt she was facing an imminent defeat at the hands of India in a conventional war. But until now, India had refused to be provoked by such irresponsible statements. Rajnath’s statement indicated a departure from India’s hitherto held stand. It was also a veiled warning to China that if she failed to rein in her protégé Pakistan, the consequences would be disastrous. Many may think it would have been more prudent for India to send this message across to Pakistan by other means and through other channels, instead of making a public pronouncement.

In the event, Pakistan and China stood to get nothing from the Security Council meeting. The members of the Security Council did not swallow the Pakistani bait. They rejected Pakistan’s demand for a formal meeting. They did not even issue a formal statement. India won the day. However, how the world reacts to this change in India’s nuclear doctrine has to be seen and carefully assessed. The world has a stake in preventing a nuclear Armageddon between India and Pakistan, because the fallout of a nuclear war is not limited to the two combatant countries only. It affects other countries as well.

The highly radioactive mushroom cloud that is formed after a nuclear explosion is blown by the winds to the skies of other, especially neighbouring, countries. That `may bring disaster by exposing the populations of these countries to high doses of ionizing radiation and polluting their air and water as well. A nuclear war is not something that others can afford to watch with equanimity and without any concern for themselves.

According to the estimate made by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), India and Pakistan have almost an equal number of nuclear warheads – 140 to 150. Pakistan may have a few more than India has but that does not materially alter the situation. Additionally, India has hydrogen bombs which Pakistan does not have. Nuclear experts say that a hydrogen bomb is about a thousand times more powerful than an atomic bomb. Nuclear bombs are fission bombs while hydrogen bombs are fusion bombs. In simple language, fission bombs explode, fusion bombs implode, just as an inflated paper bag would collapse on itself if pricked.

India’s nuclear warhead delivery system is far advanced than Pakistan’s. With the deployment of Agni V, which has a range of 5000+ kms., India can hit targets in China also. .According to one expert: “If India and Pakistan fought a war detonating 100 nuclear warheads (around half of their combined arsenal), each equivalent to a 15-kiloton Hiroshima bomb, more than 21 million people will be directly killed, about half the world’s protective ozone layer would be destroyed, and a ‘nuclear winter’ would cripple the monsoons and agriculture worldwide.”

Nuclear weapons are meant to be deterrent weapons, rather than strategic or tactical weapons. The message to the enemy is: “You have the nuke, so have I, so don’t ever think of using them against us.” The object is to strike, what an American general once said, “a balance of terror”. In today’s world it would be sheer madness for any country to think in terms of destroying its enemy by using nuclear weapons.

Nuclear wars leave no victor or vanquished. It leaves only death and destruction all around on an unimaginable scale. Pakistan knows this full well. For all its nuclear rodomontade, it will never do something which it knows will wipe it out from the face of the Earth. As a country which is far stronger than Pakistan militarily, economically and industrially, India should refuse to be provoked by Pakistan’s nuclear shadow-boxing but ignore it with the contempt it deserves.

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