South Asia | Book review: Indo-Pak nuke conflict -- can it happen?

Book review: Indo-Pak nuke conflict — can it happen?

July 29, 2015 11:13 AM (UTC+8)


Achin Vanaik, 2015 —  ‘After the Bomb: Reflections on India’s Nuclear Journey’, Orient BlackSwan, New Delhi

Achin Vanaik has been preoccupied with the issue of nuclear disarmament since the 1970s. As assistant editor in the Times of India during 1978-1990, he wrote opinion pieces and editorials on the nuclear issue. Pokhran II in India, 1998 provided an opportunity to the author to warn the people about the dangers of horizontal and vertical proliferation. He was then part of a group in Mumbai which worked to disseminate a wider understanding of the horror of nuclear weapons. In New Delhi in 1991, the author continued to write on the subject. He collaborated with Praful Bidwai to produce a book on the debate over Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) during 1994-1996 and another after the 1998 nuclear tests in India and Pakistan. The Movement in India for Nuclear Disarmament (MIND) and the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (CNDP) were born. The Pakistan   Peace Coalition too came into existence.

After the bomb

The present book, an outcome of the arduous labors of the author, is a masterly summation of his research and findings over the years. A hundred abbreviations and acronyms are strewn across the pages of a tight and erudite presentation on a difficult subject with complex dimension involving India, Pakistan and the world. The author expounds these with effortless ease and stunning ability! The book is basically a critique of the nuclearisation process that has gone on in India, which has regional and global implications. The author’s powerful critique may be lost on the policy makers but not on the readers of the younger generation willing to question the conventional wisdom that nuclear weapons are a ‘necessary evil’. A moral sensitivity, unperturbed by appeals to national loyalties, is required to appreciate that nuclear weapons (NWs) are indeed an unmitigated evil. The author convincingly argues that NWs are more a source of insecurity than otherwise. He closely investigates the claims of pro-nuclear advocates who stress the ‘stabilizing’ role and virtues of nuclear deterrence.

A chapter explores the mind-set of India’s nuclear elite and how it sees itself. Another critiques the writings of two senior advisors respectively of the US and India (Ashley Tellis and Shyam Saran) who were important players in promoting the Indo-US nuclear deal. Nuclear Weapons States (NSWs) have repeatedly cited the danger of non-state nuclear terrorism in order to demarcate themselves as ‘responsible’ nuclear actors and to justify their own arsenals as necessary deterrents. The author puts this issue in perspective in order to prevent NSWs from getting away by minimizing their own culpabilities. The government of India has claimed to be distinctive within the family of NSWs by saying that it is deadly serious about wanting to promote universal nuclear disarmament. How seriously can one take India’s credentials and absurd claims in this regard? In another chapter the author mercilessly and convincingly tears apart the updated Rajiv Gandhi Action Plan (RGAP) 2011 promulgated in this connection. He devotes the concluding two chapters of the book to address such issues as i) the ways in which RGAP objectives can be realized; ii) the prospects for moving towards disarmament regionally and globally; iii) whither the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)?; iv) given the need to pursue measures that will be both regional step-wise as well as universal and comprehensive, what are the paths ahead?

At the outset, the author explains his concern that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the present ruling party in New Delhi is guided by the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu extremist religious outfit which stands for ‘making India strong’ and espouses an aggressive, militaristic nationalism directed especially against Pakistan. A possible Indo-Pak nuclear face-off is the background in which the security scenario in South Asia must be assessed now and in the future. Collective hatred and suspicion against the Indian Muslim community is promoted by the party in power to portray the community as the fifth column for Pakistan.

The balance sheet on South Asian security after the nuclearisation of India and Pakistan in 1998 reveals disturbing trends: i) the Kargil war of 1999; ii) ‘Operation Parakhram’ (2001-2002) in the wake of the terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament on December 13, 2001; and iii) the external terrorist attack on Mumbai in 2008. Indo-Pak nuclear clash during i) and ii) above, could only be prevented by the intervention of the US. The famous Lahore visit of the Indian Prime Minister in February 1999, which preceded the 1999 Kargil war by a few months, was not a major peace initiative from the Indian side as often claimed. On the contrary, following the nuclearisation of South Asia (Pokhran II in India and Chagai in Pakistan in May 1998), it was incumbent on the part of India to make a diplomatic trip to Pakistan to legitimzse the newly established nuclear stand-off between the two countries as a positive, peace-enhancing development. Pakistan had its own reasons to welcome the formal recognition and legitimization of its nuclear arsenal. The Kargil war between the two countries ended any chances of Prime Minister Vajpayee’s Lahore visit being successful. President Musharraf tried to tackle the Kashmir tangle during his Agra visit in 2001, which came to naught because of India’s lack of trust in Muslim Pakistan. The author demonstrates that after the end of India’s ‘Operation Parakhram’ in late 2002, there was complete lack of coherence in the top Indian nuclear elite as regards what the Operation achieved or failed to achieve.

On the Indo-US nuclear deal by the Congress-led regime (2004 and 2009) in New Delhi, the author notes the key strategic-political dimension; the nuclear weapons dimension; and the civilian nuclear dimension. The US considered the first the most important. The dominant Indian response was positive; a second response was that India had conceded too much to the US; a third came from the Left, which was critical though confused. A fourth response was that of a small minority opposed to the perceived informal Global Empire Project of the US. Reading the immensely scholarly output by Achin Vanaik here, one is tempted to think about the real possibility of an Indo-Pak nuclear conflict taking place in the not too distant future. Let us hope that this danger does not become reality!

Kadayam Subramanian is a former Director General of Police in Northeast India. He is a scholar and writer.