India’s Nuclear Doctrine

The use of nuclear weapons as a means of deterrence is a paradox that has been defining international relations since the Cold War; it has also impacted domestic policies and the development of countries. India, a case in point, had acquired nuclear capabilities in 1960s but very unusually so, did not go in for nuclear weapons production until 1995-98.  This, almost 30 years period, is emblematic of India’s reluctance to weaponize itself and the changing contours of Indian policy and relationship with its neighbors.

Photo: Antônio Milena (ABr).

India’s deteriorating and adverse relations with the neighboring countries of China and Pakistan stood out in the 90s. These were countries with which India had gone to war and had border disputes. The early 1990’s also saw growing proximities between China and Pakistan; this was in from of Chinese military assistance provided to Pakistan since 1966, after the second Indo-Pak war. By 1990 China became Pakistan’s largest supplier of arms, its third-largest trading partner and was supporting their civil nuclear program. Making the basis of the China-Pak nexus the economic and military support Pakistan received (can be seen in form of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor today) and the defense mechanism China had built to counter Indian growth through Pakistan (part of Chinese military policy ‘to kill with a borrowed knife’).

The growing relationship between China and Pakistan made India extremely anxious. This became the tipping point, and in true neo-realist fashion strengthened the Indian resolve to go forth with the nuclear weapons program as a means of deterrence against the hostile environment.

Therefore, in the post Non-Proliferation Treaty period, in 1995, under the leadership of Narasimha Rao, India began its journey to further develop its nuclear technology to produce weapons. The immediate reaction to this was from Pakistan, who carried out its own tests in the year 1998, with technologically supported from China. This gravely escalated matters by drawing the attention of the entire world to the Indian Subcontinent, which was rapidly militarizing and was on the brink of an arms race.

Consequently, the international community perceived it negatively; the Clinton administration responded by stating that the United States was “deeply disappointed” and was reviewing trade and financial sanctions against India under American non-proliferation laws; the then UN Gen. Secretary Kofi Anna expressed concern and said “they (nuclear tests) were unquestionably disturbing developments with far-reaching consequences for the region and for the international community”. These statements of condemnation and regret were accompanied with trade sanctions and suspension of foreign aid. Adding to this, China, a nuclear power since 1964, has acted as a roadblock for the Indian nuclear program at every step. From its aggressive stance against Indian in the 1998 UN Security Council meeting to its opposition of Indian membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group.

Therefore, in response to the international sanctions and outcry after the nuclear tests in 1998 the Draft Report was released, it was the prequel to the 2003 press release on India’s Nuclear Doctrine. These two documents had in a way laid down the course of nuclear development and perception of the Indian nuclear program. The document talked about principles like ‘no first use’, ‘Nuclear retaliation to a first strike will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage’ and ‘credible minimum deterrent’ which form the fundamental nature of the doctrine.

The release of these documents had helped pacify the negative reaction to the tests. This was evident from the US decision to lift the earlier imposed sanctions (2001) and then permit Indian participation in international nuclear trade (India-US Nuclear Deal, 2005), with certain conditions. Additionally, since then the Nuclear Suppliers Group has removed its ban on India’s participation in nuclear trade with its members, much to China’s dismay. India has also signed nuclear cooperation agreements with several countries including, Canada, Russia, France, Argentina, Kazakhstan and Namibia. While, India still does not accept Non-Proliferation Treaty or the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty on account of them being discriminatory to the developing countries it has been able to integrate itself in the nuclear trade and technology circuit. The Indian journey of acceptance internationally has been protracted and choppy, however ambiguities still loom over the nuclear doctrine put forward by India, and they have been questioned time and again.

A closer look at the doctrine shows inconsistency and contradictions in the principles of ‘no first use’ or ‘massive retaliation’. Will India never use its nuclear weapon, unless it’s attacked first? Or will it destroy a city in response to a tactical missile attack?

In the 2003 press release, the first point India puts forward the principle of ‘no first use’ however in the sixth point itself it states that ‘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’. It was only last year when Manohar Parrikar the then Indian Defence Minister said, “Why should I bind myself to (it)… I should say I am a responsible nuclear power and I will not use it irresponsibly. This is my thinking. Some of them may immediately tomorrow flash that Parrikar says that nuclear doctrine has changed. It has not changed in any government policy but my concept”, this statement made by him is in line with the general discourse surrounding this principle where people like Vipul Narang and Shiv Shankar Menon (in his recent book) have made similar remarks.

This threatens the ‘no first use’ policy at two levels- firstly, there exist plenty of instances where India may attack first (going against its own policy); secondly, there is an increasing inclination in Indian polity today towards doing way with the ‘no first use’. Therefore the Indian use of its nuclear weapons is not essential driven by ‘no first use’ (as the policy says), but is more situational and reflective of the temperament of its ruling government.

For instance, the Joint Armed Forces Doctrine released in 2017, highlights ‘prevention is better than cure’ as an essential objective. This when looked in light of the afore mentioned statement of Manohar Parrikar shows the shift in stance of the Bharatiya Janta Party lead government which is rising in the Indian political arena on the basis of its ‘militant hindu nationalistic’ ideology and therefore supports a more aggressive stance vis-à-vis the Indian National Congress which had drafted the nuclear doctrine.

Other than this, the policy of  ‘credible minimum deterrence’ has been changed to ‘credible deterrence’, this omission of the word ‘minimum’ marks the move of the Indian nuclear weapons program from being a means to raise the cost of war and therefore acting as a deterrent to a program that would not limit itself to being a means of retaliation. This has been seen as move to expand the nuclear arsenal and for it to be used as a conventional soft counterforce, which is to attack military bases and critical infrastructure.

A third aspect of the nuclear doctrine is the policy of ‘Nuclear retaliation to a first strike will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage’. On the first glance it seems acceptable to retaliate with the threat of ‘massive’ and ‘unacceptable’ to stop further attacks. But, is a ‘massive’ attack causing ‘unacceptable’ damage justified as counter to use of nuclear weapons used against the military in the battlefield?  This question has become more important after Pakistan’s acquisition of tactical nuclear weapons (designed to be used on a battlefield in military situations). By responding to the use of tactical weapon with a massive retaliation, India will not only be escalation the situation beyond proportions, it was also result in unacceptable loss and human rights violations.

Therefore the key behind decoding the Indian nuclear doctrine is to look at the numerous grey areas that exist in the nuclear policy, a point that Shivshankar Menon has expressed explicitly in his book, he also adds that it is the existence of these grey areas that makes the doctrine a lot more flexible than it is given credit for. Since, the use of nuclear weapons in India is based on ‘civilian authorization, that is the approval of the government, the nuclear weapons become an integral aspect of the Indian Foreign Policy. A defining part of international relations is the play of power and the role of security, the Cold War is the most apt example of the role of military and ammunition in the security-power dynamics.

Therefore the Indian possession of nuclear, like the other eight nuclear weapons countries, was politically induced move. The weapons were a means of posturing and signaling, and a display of military might to other countries. They are a validation of attaining a status of power and capability.

Varya Srivastava

Varya Srivastava

Intern at InPRA
Varya Srivastava is presently pursing her undergraduate degree in Political Science from University of Delhi. Her work with the United Services Institute, Global Youth India and SheSays has nurtured her interest in security studies, international relations, conflict analysis and feminism. As a part of her undergraduate research she is writing on the application Democratic Peace Theory as foreign policy tool and the conception of positive peace.
Varya Srivastava