Nuclear weapons in Indian strategic culture
This is the full unedited version of my essay that appeared in the 35th anniversary special issue of India Today.
Despite living next to each other for most of history, despite having fundamentally different ways of looking at international relations, the number of cases of direct military conflict between India and China have been few. In fact, before the India-China war of 1962, the last recorded instance of a Chinese military expedition against India was in 649 CE, when a diplomatic misunderstanding caused a resourceful Chinese envoy to organise a force comprising of 7000 Nepali horsemen, 1200 Tibetan warriors and a few Chinese soldiers to organise a punitive expedition into the Gangetic plains. So, while India was invaded overland several times from the North West, and later from the southern ocean, the Northern frontier was relatively quiet. Why?
You probably guessed it — the Himalayas acted as insurmountable strategic barriers for most of history, specifically preventing the large scale passage of men and material necessary for invasions. It was only in the late 19th-century that technology began to ‘lower’ this barrier, by making it easier for troops to cross the mountains. It should therefore not surprise us that by the 1960s, technology had advanced to such an extent that the Himalayas no longer were the barriers they used to be in the centuries past. There was nothing to stop two very different civilisation-states, two incompatible political systems, two proud leaders and two geopolitical mindsets from clashing violently.
Even as technology lowered one strategic barrier it helped erect another. The advent of nuclear weapons in the latter half of the previous century restored the old equilibrium. Since 1998, after India unambiguously acquired a nuclear arsenal, the resulting strategic deterrence between India and China works quite like the Himalayas used to.
We can see nuclear weapons as the New Himalayas that keep us secure. As long as they are high —that’s where the minimum credible deterrent comes in—it is inconceivable that China or any other power will see merit in mounting a direct military invasion. Of course, we will continue to see skirmishes, proxy wars, terrorist attacks and geopolitical chess games under the nuclear umbrella, but a large scale war is very unlikely. For a nation with a strategic culture of being oblivious to external threats until they reach the plains of Panipat, if not the very walls of Delhi, acquiring security through the New Himalayas was perhaps the ideal way.
As much as nuclear weapons have profoundly added to our national security, many parts of our political, intellectual and military establishment have yet to come to terms with what it means to be a nuclear power. This is partly because knowledge of nuclear matters is limited to a small number of people within the government. It is partly because India has been a declared nuclear power for just over a decade. There are some who steadfastly refuse to think about nuclear weapons in any way other than seeing them as immoral and unethical, with disarmament their only goal. Whatever might be the reasons, nuclear weapons somehow do not figure in many policy conversations where they ought to.
Take for instance the enduring perception of “China doing another ’62, to put India in its place.” This leads to paranoid outrage on violations of the line of actual control, gratuitous self-flagellation on being “too weak”, followed by demands for us to invest in military capabilities to fight a land war on our North-eastern frontiers. Most of the time, this discourse ignores nuclear deterrence. When the nuclear dimension does figure, it is in the form of calls to throw away the no-first use policy or to develop thermonuclear warheads. Few ask whether the Chinese would jeopardise their historic ascent by getting into a war with India that will not only throw New Delhi into the arms of Washington, but could also go nuclear. Few ask how much the men in Beijing trust New Delhi when it solemnly declares that India won’t be the first to launch a nuclear strike. Will Chinese leaders be any more comforted that the warhead on the incoming Indian missile is a kiloton fission weapon, and not a megaton hydrogen bomb? Fundamentally rethinking our assumptions in the context of nuclear weapons will throw up different set of prescriptions of dealing with China.
While India has a well-considered nuclear doctrine and command-and-control structure with the red button in the hands of the prime minister, you can detect a certain nonchalance in the way this actually works. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee didn’t hand over control to his deputy in October 2000 when he underwent major surgery. That was in the days before the Nuclear Command Authority was set up, but even in 2009, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was hospitalised for a bypass operation, the nation did not know who actually was in command of the nuclear arsenal. Was this person—presumably a senior cabinet minister—familiar enough with nuclear weapons policies and procedures? In other words, did he or she know what to do? We still don’t know. We ought to.
For all the talk about a new push towards global nuclear disarmament, it is more likely that the world will have two or three more nuclear weapons states in the near future. If Iran has the bomb it is quite likely that the Saudis will want to declare their hand too. A Saudi bomb will probably come from a Pakistani factory. So a triangular nuclear relationship among Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel may be in the offing. We need not assume that this will necessarily make things more unstable.
In any case, the international nuclear order needs renewal. In the coming years, therefore, India will have to simultaneously discuss disarmament while ensuring that it has what it needs to ensure that the new Himalayas remain high. All the more reason for us, as a nation, to soberly but quickly reconcile to the value and utility of our nuclear weapons.