Two decades after the May 1998 tests, India has been accepted as a responsible nuclear power
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For Peace’s Sake

Two decades after the May 1998 tests, India has been accepted as a responsible nuclear power

Gurmeet Kanwal Gurmeet Kanwal

After conducting five nuclear tests over two days in May 1998 (Operation Shakti), India declared itself a state armed with nuclear weapons. For two decades since then, nuclear deterrence has ensured that the country does not get embroiled in a major conflict.

With a pacifist strategic culture steeped in the lofty concept of ahimsa (non-violence, literally ‘not to injure’), India is a reluctant nuclear power. India has faced many external threats and challenges and has for long had to endure the vicissitudes of a dangerous nuclear neighbourhood. China became a nuclear power in 1964, soon after the India-China border war of 1962. Pakistan is reported to have acquired nuclear weapons capability in 1986-87 with covert help from China. India had sought but been denied nuclear security guarantees by the Western powers and had no option but to eventually acquire nuclear weapons.

Though India conducted a ‘peaceful’ nuclear explosion in May 1974 to showcase its technological capability, the government continued to resist nuclearisation and strongly advocated total nuclear disarmament. However, India’s deteriorating security environment and the likely entry into force of the discriminatory Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) forced the government to re-consider its policy for nuclear deterrence.

India believes that nuclear weapons are political weapons, not weapons of warfighting. Their sole purpose is to deter the use and threat of use of nuclear weapons by India’s nuclear-armed adversaries. This was reflected in a statement made by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee in Parliament soon after the five nuclear tests in May 1998: “India is now a nuclear weapon state... We do not intend to use these weapons for aggression or for mounting threats against any country; these are weapons of self-defence, to ensure that India is not subjected to nuclear threats or coercion.”

India’s nuclear doctrine professes ‘credible minimum deterrence’ and is based on a ‘no first use’ posture. This implies that India will not initiate the use of nuclear weapons and, as a corollary, absorb the damage that the first use of nuclear weapons or a ‘first strike’ by an adversary may cause in India. In turn, India has declared its intention to counter a nuclear attack by launching ‘retaliation that will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage’. Consequently, India follows a policy of ‘deterrence by punishment’ with a ‘counter value’ targeting strategy aimed at inflicting unacceptable damage to the adversary’s cities and industrial centres, as against a ‘counter force’ strategy aimed at destroying the adversary’s nuclear forces.

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