Years ago I developed a friendship of sorts with a former Indian foreign secretary. Over a meal in a country pub I asked him the ultimate question: “How many nuclear bombs does India really have?” He smiled an enigmatic smile and gave an equally enigmatic answer. “I don’t know. Nobody knows. Maybe none.” This was before the Pokhran II nuclear explosions in 1998.
According to recent figures published by Stockholm Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), India is estimated to have an arsenal of 90–110 nuclear weapons – enough to destroy virtually all life on Earth.
India is an anomaly in the elite league of nuclear power nations. New Delhi is not a signatory to the international nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT), and it is not one of the five nuclear weapons powers that the treaty recognises. Despite not being a NPT member, India can legally procure nuclear technology as well as fissile materials in the international market without fear of sanctions or embargoes.
While there have been deep reservations about other non-NPT nuclear nations such as North Korea, Iran, Israel and Pakistan, the international community has never expressed any deep or real apprehension about India. More importantly there have never been any calls to cull its military nuclear program.
From the perspective of disarmament, India’s stockpile is a cause for concern, but we seem to accord New Delhi the status of a responsible nuclear power (as can be seen from the US-India civil nuclear deal). If anything, rather than demanding the nuclear disarmament of India, the international community seem to have affirmed its complete faith in its civil as well as military nuclear programmes.
At the core of this quiet acceptance sits the Indian policy of nuclear “no-first use”, first announced in 2003.
Put simply, New Delhi will not use nuclear weapons as a means of warfare unless unless an adversary using nuclear weapons first attacks India. This key provision coupled with an unmatchable record of democratic decision making in the country minimises the chances of India behaving irresponsibly when it comes to nuclear weapons. India claims to possess and develop nuclear technology as an effective deterrent and nothing more, and the international community sleeps easy with the knowledge that we do not have to confront a runaway rogue regime.
From a regional perspective the nuclearisation of India is a blessing in disguise. India’s public display of this technology in 1974 led to an arms race in South Asia, leading Pakistan to follow suit. One could propose two hypothetical scenarios had there been no nuclearisation in South Asia or if only India was in possession of the bomb.
First, given India and Pakistan’s legendary rivalry, the absence of nuclear weaponry would have pushed these arch enemies to sporadic conventional wars of Iran-Iraq proportions in the 1980s, unquestionably leading to a massive loss of life and near total economic destitution of the two countries. Second, if India was the only country in possession of the bomb, it would have become the sole regional military superpower – making Pakistan kowtow to it on a permanent basis.
Odd as it may seem, it is the fear surrounding mutually assured destruction, which nuclear weapons guarantee, that has underwritten an uneasy calm in the highly volatile South Asian region for the past three decades.
While India and Pakistan both engage in brief but occasional war games, the prospect of full-scale military engagement is mitigated by the reckoning surrounding each other’s ultimate destructive capability.