Global paradigms and the dimensions of Indian security

M.L. Sondhi

Associate Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University
Weekly Round Table, June 21, 1974

At the time when cleverly-worded formulae were being used by many Western writers on strategy some notably British in origin, to persuade India to accept the defeatist thinking embodied in “nuclear guarantees”, the well-known French expert General Pierre M. Gallois, showed insight and courage in writing to me a clear statement of Indian security concerns.  He agreed with me that: “the so-called guarantees are of theoretical value and, in practice, would place Indian defence in serious jeopardy”.  General Gallois went on to say:

“…The new weapons are so important as a strategic factor that they stabilise a whole area.  In that respect, India becoming a real nuclear power may help in increasing stability, not only as far as India is concerned, but also around her…”

It is hard to say whether it is British political influence or Anglo-Saxon academic pre-occupations of some of our own strategists, which, from time to time, spur them to great efforts to show that Indian strategic influence, the inevitable concomitant of Indian nuclearisation, would be a tragedy for both India and the world.  One of the most influential British political commentators preferred to underline his views about India’s likely efforts to climb into the ranks of nuclear powers by crudely expressing the hope that India’s nuclear programme lies buried with the wreckage of the plane carrying the late Dr.  Bhabha amid the snows of Swiss Alps.  Those who subscribe automatically to the concepts, attitudes and prejudices of the Anglo-Saxons, and pose as formulators of Indian strategy, have created a strong disposition to deprive India of any status as an emerging Great Power.  Although the British White Paper of 1957 defended Britain’s own volition to develop fully the military applications of her nuclear programme, it has been a principal foreign policy goal of the Government in London to propagate as a dictum to others, that apart from the two super powers a military atomic programme is pregnant with world-wide dangers.

In France the basic military problems have not been ignored by the CEA (Commissariat a l’Energie – corresponding to our Atomic Energy Commission) or put under the carpet.  After the pro-Communist Frederic Joliot-Curie was replaced by Pierre Guillaumat in 1950-51, a regular way was opened for the induction of the military factor in the French Atomic Energy Commission.  The peace-loving Prime Minister Mendes-France had little hesitation in structuring a military atomic programme as an integral part of atomic development in France.  In a nutshell, France has enjoyed an unprecedented degree of confidence among her European neighbours, including the Soviet Union, although openly indicating that her atomic development was for making nuclear weapons.   

The British have only hampered their own efforts at confidence building by using different smoke screens for their nuclear motivations.  The White Paper of 1965, issued by the Labour Government, used the stratagem of a British nuclear guarantee to India in order to justify the possession of nuclear weapons to domestic anti-bomb lobbies.

As far as India is concerned today one may question whether the implicit motives for retaining the non-military status of the Atomic Energy Commission have now become obsolete.  The French example could prove an incentive for dovetailing the civil-technological and military nuclear planning.  The changed structure of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission on the pattern of the French CEA may be a fitting response to the Canadian External Affairs Minister Mr. Mitchell Sharp, who has accused India of “betrayal”, and also to the redoubtable Lord Chalfont, who has placed the burden of all the elements of global instability on India, which has “blown the nuclear safe wide open.”

Has India invited an unfair portrayal of its nuclear programme by Messers Mitchell Sharp and Chalfont by unnecessarily espousing Anglo-Saxon nuclear logic (or illogic)?  Does India urgently need a Pierre Guillaumat, who can remove the debilitating effects of self-appointed strategic advisers?

The pressures from the super-powers were evident to the First All-India Seminar on Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy held in New Delhi 1966.  All the participants regarded “the assumption that the existing nuclear powers alone were responsible” in their international conduct “was the most insulting aspect of the premises of non-proliferation.”  In 1968, however, an unprecedented effort was made by certain administrative and parliamentary lobbies to force the NPT draft down the throat of India. That India’s self-confidence was saved was due not only to the leadership of the Government but also in great measure to the important nationalist opposition spokesmen and pragmatic administrative elements, in both the civil and military bureaucracy.  Under the circumstances a major characteristic of those who are today adopting the perspective of completely ignoring the military implications of the Indian test are actually promoting once again the NPT ideology.  At the root of India’s preservation of the nuclear option has been all along the Indian security problem which is well known to the super-powers.  I had written in January 1973:

“The groundwork for a final decision to undertake an underground nuclear explosion appears to have been prepared in Rajasthan.  The ostensible purpose of such an explosion would be extraction of minerals like copper and uranium but given the present mood in India there would be little effort to disguise the possibility of conversion of “peaceful uses” to military purposes of the project….  The strengthening of self-reliance in civilian nuclear technology will undoubtedly emphasize the seriousness of the growing Indian interest in a national nuclear weapons programme” (Pacific Community – Tokyo).  

After the test explosion which took place in Pokhran (Rajasthan) Indian policy statements have unfortunately been fraught with some sort of erosion of the national concept of security and responsibility which was markedly evident in 1962-63.  A lobby has sprung into action which may be christened as the “back-door NPT lobby,” whose spokesmen make the following points:

1.                   The Indian investment in a Nuclear Weapons Programme will be so heavy as to cripple the Indian economy.

2.                   The safeguard system prevents utilisation of fissile materials for weapons production.

3.                   The Indian nuclear programme is not relevant to Indian national defence vis-à-vis China.

The disadvantages of the distorted vision of this lobby are chiefly that they will deprive India of a relevant operational pattern for the mid-seventies in terms of prestige and influence.  Instead of focussing on the spill-over effects of the military nuclear effort and the range of choices available in terms of the costs of nuclear technology, the economic context is examined only to buttress the plea for an indefinite postponement of a sophisticated nuclear weapons system.  The effectiveness of an Indian deterrent is clearly jeopardised unless it is made unmistakeably clear that there is complete responsibility for “increasing stability”.  Once a meaningful role is spelt out the contractual and legal assumptions regarding the Indian nuclear force become part of constructive nuclear diplomacy.  Has the Indian foreign policy establishment failed to place the main focus in bilateral and international relations on India’s contribution to regional stability?  Is there a failure to coordinate foreign policy and the evolving strategic policy in the post-Bangladesh?

Regarding Chinese military nuclear support to their political commitments it is difficult to see any fundamental shift since 1973, when I wrote the following:

“…the Chinese have a viable offensive option against India and Japan (two countries with potential for a regional Asian challenge to China) with MRBMs, and provide an impressive demonstration of their effective military superiority as an Asian power….  Although China’s ICBM capabilities will always seem slight in comparison with Russia’s, after China has test-fired the expected ICBM over the Indian Ocean the “Chinese threat” may possibly have important ramifications for those elements in the Soviet leadership which view a “new beginning with China after Mao”  as realistic….  Indian policy makers are concerned about the effect of China’s nuclear possibilities as instruments for strengthening intervention and threats of escalation by Peking against Southeast Asian countries….  Indian decision-makers find it increasingly relevant to estimate and forecast the implications of China’s status as the only “non-white” nuclear power which lends credence to its rhetoric in support of national liberation movements. (Pacific Community, Tokyo)

In discussing likely developments relevant to India’s new China policy, it is not enough to take into account verbal expressions of political leaders in New Delhi or Peking.  If nuclear India has to take the reins of fate in its own hands, then clearly the issue is that of military balance. A detailed review of Chinese strategy must emphasize the overriding importance of the deployment of nuclear forces in Tibet, the traditional buffer state between India and China.  The value of clichés in some Indian statements to the effect that India does not contemplate warfare against China must be doubted.

Before a genuine détente can be achieved between India and China, the melange of considerations relating to military and political interaction between China, India and the Soviet Union as three states with Asian interests and commitments must be taken into account. Among the imponderables is the likely nuclear response of Peking as it faces the prospects of escalation from the Soviet Union and the ambiguity of the Chinese security interests in Tibet in the light of the Indo-Soviet Treaty.  Is it not a fatal weakening of the Indian security system to suggest that under no circumstances will India initiate military action against China?

Since China is known to have deployed ballistic missiles in Tibet, it would be futile to expect that the Chinese possess no “escalation ladder”.  To postulate that China’s nuclear arsenal has no military use vis-à-vis India is to be quite unrealistic.  This would be the surest way to keep the Indian defence system weak and fragmented and would provide material foundations for enhancing the Chinese nuclear threat.  It would almost amount to a commitment that India would accept defeat rather than employ the most effective weapons necessary for the success of the Indian armed forces.

An independent Indian nuclear force would not only provide for the safeguarding of vital national interests but also help India to work for the multilateral solution of problems imposed by nuclear weapons.  At present I would only list some of the ways in which a nuclear diplomacy could be pursued efficiently and with responsibility by India:

1.                   India could engage China in a serious dialogue on whether Tibet would qualify as a nuclear free zone.

2.                   India could join China for promoting joint declarations on the No-First-Use of nuclear weapons.

3.                   India could take concrete steps to maintain the stability of Asian political relations which are time and again upset as the two superpowers modulate their global confrontation-cum-collusion.

4.                   By ensuring a substantial military-political presence with a nuclear element in the Indian Ocean, India would help to check the tendency towards a word-wide naval encirclement by the two super-powers.

In conclusion, a greater degree of honesty and efficiency in explaining the minimal Indian deterrent posture should henceforth be an objective of high priority in New Delhi.  It would be inaccurate and counter-productive to continue to make Indian policy decisions on the narrow operational grounds of the NPT Ideology.  Vague and imprecise arguments are once again being heard about the NPT Review Conference (due March next year) and how it can pull India in the direction of a new compromise.  There would be a particular irony in the situation where the success of India’s “peaceful” nuclear explosion should be used to correct a formidable barrier to India designing a nuclear weapons system to make war less likely in Asia.

Those who want India to close its eyes to the alarming possibilities that still flow from the rulers in Peking are making much hullabaloo of the virtue of being a Nuclear-Capable power.  It is self-deception to assume that Backdoor Entry to the NPT is a guarantee against the military threat facing India.  Indian decision-makers should be wary of entertaining such mock-learned analysis which is perverse to the point of eccentricity as far as India’s political and strategic interests are concerned.

<< Back