In the 1980s, once driving on a busy New York street, I was struck by a popular bumper sticker that read: “One nuclear bomb can ruin your whole day.”
If taken literally, that bumper sticker did speak the ultimate truth. Indeed, it takes just one nuclear weapon to destroy our one whole day. But then there will be no other day to follow. This is the truth that was flagged by the bumper sticker.
Surely, no philosophical discourse is needed to understand that nuclear weapons are meant never to be used. They are only a means of ‘deterrence’ and to an extent seem to have served this purpose during the peak cold-war years. But one must also agree that the risk of a nuclear catastrophe will continue to loom over our heads until the universally acclaimed goal of ‘Global Zero’ is accomplished.
The cold war is long over, yet tens of thousands of nuclear weapons developed as a means of ‘deterrence’ remain in arsenals around the world. Together, the US and Russia alone possess more than 95 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons.
The situation elsewhere is no less alarming. In April 1998, the then newly elected BJP government publicly announced its intentions “to exercise the nuclear option and induct nuclear weapons.” In the first week of April, Pakistan addressed a letter from its prime minister to the G-8 heads of state and government drawing their attention to India’s nuclear intentions and the imminence of its nuclear tests under the new BJP government.
India’s five nuclear tests on May 11 and 13, 1998 proved us completely right. For 17 days after India’s nuclear tests, we waited for the world to do something about our legitimate security concerns. But nothing happened.
In fact, we were advised to exercise restraint and to take the high moral ground by not responding in kind. We knew at that time that peace was hanging by a slender thread in South Asia. In the absence of any assurances or security guarantees, we had no choice but to take measures for our own security. Pakistan exploded five nuclear devices on May 28 and followed that up with one more on May 30. No doubt, it was a difficult but inevitable decision. Our tests were an act of self-defence; they established our minimum credible deterrence and also restored the regional strategic balance in South Asia.
Irrespective of who inducted them in our region, nuclear weapons are a reality now in South Asia. They constitute an essential element of security as a credible minimum deterrent for both India and Pakistan. Pakistan, however, claims that its tests restored the nuclear and strategic balance in the region.
We never challenged the non-proliferation regime when the NPT was being finalised in 1968. In fact, we supported it objectives. We did not sign the treaty because India refused to do so and kept pursuing its nuclear-weapon programme. Since the negotiations for the NPT in 1968, every single non-proliferation initiative in our region came from Pakistan.
We made several proposals seeking to establish an equitable and non-discriminatory regime in South Asia, and prevent nuclear proliferation in our region. These included a nuclear weapons-free zone in South Asia, a joint renunciation of acquisition or manufacture of nuclear weapons, and mutual adherence to the NPT. In June 1991, we proposed a five-nation conference, which was later expanded to also include all permanent members of the UN Security Council, to discuss conventional arms control and confidence-building measures as well as the promotion of nuclear restraint.
The formal reaction of the international community, especially the major powers, to the South Asian nuclear tests was set out in the UNSC resolution 1172 of June 6, 1998, which inter alia condemned the tests and called for a rollback by both countries, signatures on the CTBT, progress on the FMCT, and restrictions on missile delivery systems. Yes, in those difficult times, we remained under extraordinary pressures – and economic sanctions. But we were able to engage the world in a constructive dialogue establishing the rationale of our security interests.
The US engaged both India and Pakistan in a ‘strategic’ dialogue on an equal footing. In the last round of their dialogue in February 1999, a clear nuclear parity was established between the two countries in the form of an implicit “strategic linkage” promising them “equality of treatment” in terms of any future concessions including access to technology. That linkage is no longer there. Pakistan has been ‘de-hyphenated’ from India.
With overt nuclearisation of the Subcontinent, South Asia’s problems are no longer an exclusive concern of the region itself. They now have a worrisome global dimension which raises major powers’ stakes in the issues of peace and security in this region.
A nuclear conflict can have no victor. The international community should have been working extra hard to promote a sense of security and justice in this region by eschewing discriminatory policies in their dealings with the India-Pakistan nuclear equation. But this never happened.
In this dreary scenario, nuclear and strategic stability in this volatile region will have to be predicated on the principle of indivisible security. Only criteria-based approaches on the basis of equality and non-discrimination would be sustainable. Any measures that contribute to widening strategic imbalances and fuelling an arms race between the two nuclear-armed neighbours are no service to the peoples of the region. Peace in our region will come not through shady ‘backchannel deals’ but only through meaningful dialogue and constructive engagement.
As the largest country in the region, the onus lies with India to inspire confidence among its neighbours. What we need to understand is that war has not solved our problems in these 70 years. Perhaps we need to give the next 70 years to peace. This requires steady improvement of relations through changes in the way the two countries deal with each other. To make this process sustainable, both countries need a clearer framework of principles to be able to organisee their future relations.
Depending on progress in building mutual trust and confidence, the two countries will have to explore a mutually agreed permanent mechanism based on renunciation of the use of force and peaceful settlement of disputes. But the success of this process will depend entirely on the freshness of the political approach that the leadership on both sides would be ready to bring in.
The writer is a former foreign secretary. Email: email@example.com