HOME to one- fifth of humanity, South Asia still cannot offer its people the dignity of basic amenities. It’s a sad sign of misplaced pride that two of the region’s chief actors— India and Pakistan— are now nuclearised nations. The strategic aberrations on their part demand a well- conceived, collective effort to extricate the region from the abyss of degradation.
Propelled by its need to reign supreme in the region, India exploded a nuclear device in 1974. Pakistan nurtured no nuclear ambition, but had little choice except to initiate its own nuclear programme to maintain the balance. Having achieved its objective, Pakistan resolved not to make an overt test— that would have been a precursor to a regional nuclear race. But India decided to carry out a series of tests in May 1998, and all progress with respect to non- proliferation halted. Pakistan’s nuclear credibility, however, was fully established by counter- explosions.
Now, Pakistan has to objectively assess the extent to which it can limit its nuclear capability without jeopardising its security imperatives. As early as 1989, Pakistan had, of its own volition, adopted the Policy of Strategic Restraint ( PSR ). Having achieved the objectives of the nuclear programme which the late Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto had initiated in 1975, Pakistan saw no reason to pursue it further. These decisions were taken by Pakistan’s Nuclear Command Authority in 1989: maintain a low- level, non- weaponised minimum credible deterrence, a ban on nuclear tests, a cut- off in fissile material production, retain the first- use option as an essential element of deterrence. Pakistan’s nuclear programme was India- specific; what other nuclear powers decided was of no consequence to it. Non- weaponised deterrence, which Pakistan deemed a functional imperative under the PSR , became weaponised deterrence after India’s series of tests in Pokhran. It is not hard to see whose objective is peace, and who is propelling nuclear dread in the region.
India’s nuclear ambition was explicitly spelt out by Nehru, who said: "If we are to remain abreast in the world, we must develop this atomic energy quite apart from war... Of course, if we are compelled as a nation to use it for other purposes, no pious sentiments can stop the nation from using it that way." More recently, Jaswant Singh reiterated the idea: "India’s nuclear policy remains firmly committed to a basic tenet: that the country’s national security in a world of nuclear proliferation lies either in global disarmament or in exercise of the principle of equal and legitimate security for all... If the permanent five’s possession of nuclear weapons increases security, why would India’s possession of nuclear weapons be dangerous? ... If deterrence works in the West— as it appears to, since Western nations insist on retaining nuclear weapons— by what reasoning will it not work in India?"
India’s nuclear facilities are perhaps the most advanced of developing countries bar China. India is also considered among the world leaders in nuclear technology because of the breadth of its nuclear programme and the sophistication of its research, power reactors and reprocessing plants. Today, it can produce large quantities of unsafeguarded weapon- grade plutonium and enriched uranium. It has the largest unsafeguarded group of nuclear facilities outside the five nuclear- weapon states.
The divergence in policy and precepts between India and Pakistan on nuclearisation makes a convergence of interests difficult. Yet that is precisely the challenge we have to accept. Pakistan does not have regional or global aspirations, nor is it wedded to nuclearism. Maintaining a minimum nuclear deterrence is the life- saving drug for it, despite the attendant side effects.
Now that India and Pakistan are nuclearised nations, what is the best option? The issue is how the two can maintain nuclear restraint, rather than chasing the elusive goal of a nuclear weapon- free zone, or the unattainable goal of inducing both to give up nuclear options. The focus must shift to a policy to defuse a nuclear holocaust— freeze the stockpile of fissile material, the development of military- related nuclear capabilities, the production and deployment of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
Both India and Pakistan must learn the lessons of the nuclear age. It is a myth that nuclear secrecy enhances security. In contrast, perhaps survival depends upon transparency in the nuclear field. An excess of secrecy leads to suspicion which can lead to unpredictable behaviour. Both countries have moved in the right direction by signing an agreement not to attack each other’s nuclear installations. But much more needs to be done— nuclear hotlines to exchange information may be one solution.
It took the US and the former USSR several years and much investment to guard against real dangers and build an effective ‘3- C’ (command, control and communication) system. It would make sense for the other nuclear powers to share with Pakistan and India the know- how for storage of fissile nuclear materials, and for 3- C systems to avoid nuclear accidents. The recent leakage of heavy water from a coolant channel in the nuclear power station at Kalpakkam, Madras was characterised as "zero category"; but the incident is still a matter of grave concern.
There is a general consensus that a nuclear policy— if applied symmetrically to both countries— would be accepted by a domestic public increasingly anxious over the prospect of a nuclear arms race in South Asia. Secu ring a regional standstill rather than a rollback would be the first, and eminently durable part, of a non- proliferation package. Of late, intellectuals have been recommending a shift from a focus on non- proliferation in South Asia to a policy designed to maintain nuclear restraint. By first levelling the nuclear playing field, the stage would be set to effectively pursue the goal of non- proliferation. This will provide a way out of the current nuclear impasse.
(General Beg is a former Pakistan Army chief)