An intervention that leads to more questions

Revoking NFU does not necessarily mean giving up restraint, but it leaves India’s nuclear doctrine more ambiguous

Updated - August 19, 2019 12:39 am IST

Published - August 19, 2019 12:02 am IST

Policymaking by tweet may have arrived in India, for the Defence Minister, Rajnath Singh, appears to have altered a key pillar of India’s nuclear doctrine when he tweeted that India’s ‘future’ commitment to a posture of No First Use of nuclear weapons ‘depends on the circumstances’ . Using the commemoration of the first death anniversary of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee as the setting for this declaration, Mr. Singh’s announcement marks a significant revision of India’s nuclear stance, seemingly without any prior structured deliberation or consultation. Of course nuclear doctrine, like any directive guiding national security, needs to be a dynamic concept that responds to changing circumstances. However, this raises the question of what has changed in India’s strategic outlook that requires a revision of one of the two foundational pillars of its nuclear doctrine.

India is one of two countries — China being the other — that adheres to a doctrine of No First Use (NFU). Our knowledge of India’s nuclear doctrine is based largely on a statement circulated on January 4, 2003 by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), which said that it had ‘reviewed progress in operationalising India’s nuclear doctrine’, and was making public the relevant details as appropriate (summarised in seven points). The first said that India would maintain ‘a credible minimum deterrent’ and the second point avowed ‘[a] posture of “No First Use”: nuclear weapons will only be used in retaliation….’ The remaining five points flow mainly from these two points mentioned. India has maintained that it will not strike first with nuclear weapons but reserves the right to retaliate to any nuclear first strike against it (or any ‘major’ use of weapons of mass destruction against Indian forces anywhere) with a nuclear strike ‘that will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage’. This is not a statement by the faint-hearted — with two nuclear neighbours, the NFU simply raises the nuclear threshold in order to bring stability into a volatile environment.

A rewind

It is almost exactly 20 years to the day since since any of this was first mentioned officially. On August 17, 1999, the then caretaker Bharatiya Janata Party government released a draft Nuclear Doctrine in order to generate discussion and debate on India’s nuclear posture. There was much discussion and criticism of the doctrine, as indeed of the timing of the release of the draft, coming as it did just weeks before a national election. It was known that the first National Security Advisory Board, a group of 27 individuals convened by K. Subrahmanyam, and comprising strategic analysts, academics, and retired military and civil servants, had completed their draft some months earlier; however, their report was only released a couple of weeks before polling began on September 5, 1999.

It has ever been thus. Following criticism of the draft doctrine, the government appeared to move away from it. It was never discussed in Parliament and its status remained unclear for three and a half years until it was abruptly adopted by the CCS with minor modifications in 2003. The draft’s emphasis on NFU, however, remained unchanged. The adoption of the nuclear doctrine came soon after Operation Parakram (2001-02), when the threat of a nuclear exchange on the subcontinent had figured prominently in international capitals, if not in New Delhi and Islamabad. The public adoption of the doctrine was in part an attempt by New Delhi to restate its commitment to restraint and to being a responsible nuclear power.

Restraint as a pivotal point

Restraint has served India well. India used the strategic space offered by its repeated proclamations of restraint to repulse the intruders in Kargil 20 years ago and regain occupied land despite the nuclear shadow created by India and Pakistan’s nuclear tests of 1998. Raising the nuclear threshold gave India the space for conventional operations and gained it sympathy in foreign capitals despite the fears of nuclear miscalculation that were widespread from Washington DC to London to Tokyo. India’s self-proclaimed restraint has formed the basis for its claims to belong to the nuclear mainstream — from the initial application for the waiver in 2008 from the Nuclear Suppliers Group in order to carry out nuclear commerce with the grouping, to its membership of the Missile Technology Control Regime, the Wassenaar Arrangement and the Australia Group and its ongoing attempts to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group.


While revoking the commitment to NFU does not necessarily equate with abandoning restraint, it does leave India’s doctrine more ambiguous. Ambiguity, in turn, can lead to miscalculations, as India found out with Kargil (1999), where it would appear that Rawalpindi misread India’s resolve to carve out space for conventional military operations despite the new nuclear overhang. Neither does adhering to the NFU symbolise weakness, for India is committed to a devastating response to nuclear first use — a stance which underscores India’s understanding of nuclear weapons as meant primarily to deter.

Of course, NFU has had its critics among those who advocate a more muscular nuclear policy for India. Indeed, Bharat Karnad, a member of the first National Security Advisory Board that drafted the basis of this current nuclear doctrine, made it known at the time that he considered NFU ‘a fraud’ which would be ‘the first casualty’ if war were to break out. However, consensus among the remaining members of the board clearly coalesced around an understanding of nuclear weapons not as war-fighting armaments but as weapons of last resort, meant to deter the threat and use of nuclear weapons. It was this understanding that was then used to bring India into the nuclear mainstream. It is also this understanding that has formed the basis of India’s nuclear posture, from force structure to numbers to its overall nuclear diplomacy.

All of these points are up for revision with the announcement at Pokhran, which is where the BJP chose to remember Atal Behari Vajpayee on his first death anniversary. At a time when there are multiple queries regarding the state of India’s economy, the road map to normalcy in Jammu and Kashmir, the strength of India’s federalism, to name a few, we can now add questions about what has changed in India’s security environment to warrant a review of its nuclear doctrine. India’s neighbours will be as interested in the answers as this country’s citizens.

Priyanjali Malik is an independent researcher and the author of ‘India’s Nuclear Debate: Exceptionalism and the Bomb’

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