Sunday, Apr 02, 2023

'A Million Pound Note'

'A Million Pound Note'

K. Subrahmanyam, strategic affairs expert, argues that a nuclear weapon, like a million pound note, is of apparently no use -- you can't stop small wars -- but it gets you credit and that gives you power to intimidate.

Prashant Panjiar

Original Interview: August 1998
Please click here for exclusive excerpts  from Countdown. For more writings by and on Amitav Ghosh, please visit his website,, where this first appeared

AG: What was the military logic for testing at this time?

There was no military logic because nuclear weapons are not military weapons. The logic is that of international politics. And it is a logic of a global nuclear order Nuclear weapons are not military weapons. So there was no military compulsion. The whole issue is about the global nuclear order.

Unfortunately the international system of security has been progressively brought under a global nuclear order with the hegemony of the five nuclear weapon powers. In a sense this is the ultimate cementing of the Yalta-Potsdam order. In the Yalta-Potsdam Agreement, the Five Powers, the victors is Second World War nominated themselves as the board of directors for the globe. The NPT was a reconfirmation of that ...

And then when the NPT was extended indefinitely and unconditionally, what they were asking the international community to do, was to confirm for all time to come the Yalta-Potsdam order. And then in order to reinforce it and cement it, they brought in the CTBT to prevent anybody else from coming in-and therefore the issue was nothing to do with the military the issue is about a globalised, nuclearised order, which is sought to be perpetuated. Next year the CTBT was to be finalised, and if India did not sign it there would have been pressure—to sign it because it is one of the 44 countries which must sign. 

It is this political compulsion and it is this closing in of the globalised, nuclearised order on India which made India test-it is got nothing to do with military aspects.

AG:  Do you think a country like India (which is very very weak) hope to, realistically speaking readjust that order of power? Is that something we should be doing or let someone else should do?

Now, we have to do that first, of all. We must not forget that when the Second World War victory was won, India’s contribution to that victory was more than that of France. There was an army of 2.7m Indians who fought in that war, and the Indian army fought from Tunisia to South-East Asia. And therefore India was a major contributor to the war effort. 

Secondly, what one must understand is it was because of that, even then when India was not yet a sovereign country, it was the only non-sovereign country which was a founder-member of the UN-So one must understand that India’s position in this respect, vis-à-vis the Second World War was accepted.

Thirdly, what India has done, is not that India is thinking of redistributing the order of world power by itself-India has used the fact that the nuclear weapon powers took an inflexible line on the NPT and did not provide flexibility to accommodate even countries like Japan and Germany in the international power structure-the test gave India an opening to do something to compel them to look at it again.

Let me explain: the NPT says no more nuclear weapon powers. India never joined it, even when every other country in the world excepting the 4 had joined the nuclear power order. The 4 countries were India, Pakistan, Cuba, China.

Now, India by doing this is challenging these people, who now redefine that they can’t include India as a nuclear weapon power because that means that will have to do something about the whole NPT -- otherwise they can’t ignore India, because when the NPT comes up for review the other people are going to ask the nuclear hegemons: What about this? And, therefore, [India] by doing this, has actually raised issues --  it is not because our power can do all that. It is because the nuclear hegemonic powers try to use nuclear weapons as a currency of power -- India, by using the same thing, has now posed problems for them and therefore has reopened the issue-By reopening the issue it has allowed Germany, Japan and everyone else to ask questions.

AG: About the soldiers who fought in the Second World War, half of them were Pakistanis by modern count, because the constitution of the Indian army pre-1947 was almost half-half. Also we must not forget that many of the Indians joined the Japanese. Now the question that is interesting is this: is India going to open up the question for Germany and Japan? Surely, they have enough muscle to do so on their own-

  That was not what we wanted to do but that will be the impact of our action-and the reaction of the other powers. All that we had done was only to ensure that India will not be co-opted into the global nuclear order as an object of it. India wants to be player and not an object of the global nuclear order. And therefore India has done it in order that it will not be threatened or intimidated and that there will be no imbalance of power in this part of the world. It is been done only to protect Indian security and Indian interest-but that it will have much wider ramifications arises out of the fact that they have nuclear weapons, the currency of powers-

We didn’t do that. 

AG: What is India to gain from being a player?

  If the so called human rights of which we hear so much has any meaning at all, one presumes that one-fifth of humanity should have some say in human affairs. If somebody says no, you’re not going to have that say in global affairs because your GNP does not warrant it, your per capita does not warrant it, then let’s not talk about this humbug of human rights. Make up your mind. If human rights have any meaning, then in global matters one fifth of humanity must have some say.

AG:  So you feel that India has historically been excluded from having any say ...

  I don’t see India as excluded -- India excluded itself. Now, for the first time India joins the mainstream -- because the global game is played on power. In the very initial stages when India emerged as an independent country, we couldn’t play that game of power so, at that we did try to have a mix of a language which was strategically rational at the same it was very heavily normative. 

But it is a kind of language which was used for quite sometime. Now you find that hasn’t got you anywhere. Today [India] is not as weak or not as something which has got to be ignored as it was in ’47, ’48 or in the ’50s. So there is something in it today -- as one fifth of humanity it is the 6th largest market in the world and it is the largest democracy in the World. And therefore if India plays its normal role it is to count. Unless we take that one human being is not equal to another human being.

AG: So it is essentially a function of India’s population which gives it a voice...?

  It's not a question of India’s population, it is also a question of India’s skills. India has so many skilled people who have made it good in so many parts of the world. And then one must understand that in all human history, building up a modern industrial democracy in which at least 300-400m live above the poverty line. In fifty years, to achieve this in a democratic manner is something unique-

AG:  About the command and control systems that is going to be attached to our nuclear weapons...

  The answer is this -- the nuclear weapon countries for 50 years played with nuclear weapons dangerously -- and at the end of 50 years, they came to the conclusion that a nuclear war is not fightable. Meanwhile, they brought the world to a very dangerous precipice. Now India has become a nuclear weapon power and it will take a little time to organize all these things. I mean, one won’t ask the question that what was the command and control system of the United States in the ’40s and ’50s-of the British and Russians. All these questions smack of the attitude that anything you do has to be done in the way we do, the answer to this is-no. We will do things in our own way.

AG:  So you don’t see any particular danger?

  No what is the danger? Pakistan has been a nuclear weapon power for over eleven years. India has been a nuclear weapon power for the last eight years. We have managed it and nobody has ever talked about it.

AG:  So your think the tests do not even signify an escalation in some sort of way?

  Absolutely no, It has only brought into open something that has existed for the last so many years. Which is again something unique in the world. Everyone entered it with a bang. We didn’t, we took our own time, to make it known to people. 

Other people guessed -- for example, the Americans -- but no one knew positively that it existed. And therefore the whole experience should be new to the rest of the world. We have existed with a nuclear Pakistan for 11 years -- and Pakistan has existed with a nuclear India for 8 years. Compared with the nuclear era of other countries, this has been much more smooth-non-threatening, non-escalatory. 

AG: One of the reason people think that (i.e. there is one way of going about it) is because nuclear weapons have their own strategic logic. Do you not agree with that?

  No, the strategic logic of the West was madness -- they were not rational. If you come to think about it, the countries would build 270,000 nuclear weapons (costing $3.5 trillion dollars for the United States ). We don’t know what it cost the Russians -- in the end the Russians went broke. Now they are bringing it down somewhere to 35 or 40,000. You think these people have any claim to rationality? They are in a position to preach to anybody? They have to learn from us. We have nothing to learn from them, save their mistakes! So don’t say, we have done these things, so follows us.

AG:  I think some sort of minimum requirement would be that we have a continuing dialogue with Pakistan.....?

With China and everybody else -- other nuclear weapon powers.

AG:  But you're suggesting that there has been a relatively stable balance between India and Pakistan....

  And China -- I mean Pakistan is only an extension of China.

AG:  So you think our deterrence as it is today is actually a deterrent to China? Can Indian weapons be delivered to China?  

Indian weapons can be delivered to some parts of China, perhaps.

AG:  From Assam or the North East....


AG:  So do you feel that the costs of the nuclear weapons programme in India or Pakistan will have a dangerously destabilizing effect ?

I told you we can cut the defence expenditure during the period we are doing these things. You see the Indian nuclear programme is something unique in the world. We took some decisions 40 years ago in which we decided to build some reactors in which the weapon grade plutonium will be a by-product and even tritium will be a by-product. And therefore we have a nuclear weapons programme with least cost. Excepting for one reactor, Dhruva, we do not have any dedicated facilities and therefore we built it cheap. That’s not what anybody else did, not even Pakistan. And that is why people did not notice any cost here. That’s why we were able to cut the expenditure while we were building the bomb.

AG:  Do you feel a consensus exists is our country on the nuclear programme or weaponization?

  No, I can’t say that. You see, so long you haven’t been doing anything and only talked about keeping the nuclear option open. We have always a consensus about doing nothing in this country. When you start doing something it is always controversial. So in our case, the controversy has started. But most of the controversy arises because people have not thought through this and partly the government is to blame. All these things arise out of ignorance. People have not thought through or understood what has happened in this country for the last 8-10 years and therefore there is division. But the division by and large is within a vocal minority. 

AG: Do you feel that the sanctions will have no effect on this?  

I don’t think sanctions will affect. Because everybody is interested in trade.

AG:  On our borders, since the tests, we’ve had more tension than ever before...

  No, if somebody compared it with last August, you’ll find the same thing happened in last August too. It happens every now and then.

AG:  So you think it has no connection then?

  No, it has some correction -- because the Pakistanis want to raise tension so that they can go on arguing if you people don’t come and intervene in Kashmir and try to sort it out as we want to, there would be escalation, we don’t know when a nuclear weapon will fly, therefore please come in. 

They have been at it for a very long time, they tried it once in ’90, which is about what Seymour Hirsch wrote -- ‘On the Nuclear Edge’ -- in New Yorker, of course which is but only half the truth [as] it was doctored by the Americans to suit their interests. But there was something to it -- Pakistanis tried something like a nuclear blackmail.

One of the purposes of these tests to call that bluff.

Now that everybody knows this and now that India has declared no first use -- the rest of the world must know that if there are any risks, these risks should arise out of Pakistani behaviour, because India has said that we will not be the first user.

AG: But no matter where the risks arise from, if there is the possibility of a risk, then it is a very frightening risk?

No, Its not a real risk, because I don’t think any Pakistani, is thinking of ridding the Kashmiris or risk[ing] its own citizens. He is only bluffing. [What's] more [at] risk is the risk of the world reacting to that and to start proclaiming concern for this now, while they never did so in the years they possessed 70,000 nuclear war heads. Germany had 20,000 nuclear warheads, and now suddenly.... Today, Pakistianis themselves say they are going to march into India, into Kashmir -- the Pakistani army stopped them, because they know the kind of risk involved. There is a self-deterrent effect for Pakistan.

AG: Nuclear weapons actually reduce a big state’s maneuverability (in the context of low-intensity war-fare). So you feel that this might be a problem for India?

  For certain countries it would be. But, in the case of India, people don’t realise that in the last 8 years we have incurred 18,000 casualties in Kashmir which is more than the casualties in all the India-Pakistan wars But still no escalation-because of the nuclear factor. 

But out of these 18,000 casualties, 8,000 are mercenaries or Pakistanies who have been killed in Kashmir. Of the 10,000, some 2000 or 3000 are India security men -- troops and para military forces -- the rest are innocent Kashmiris. This was the situation. The Pakistanis can’t afford the costs of continuing that. Of course, the Pakistanis are financing it though narcotics [trade]. Now the permissiveness of doing that, which of course comes from the Afghan war -- the Americans doing all these things, giving 3m Kalashnikovs to Pakistan [and] the American population is also paying a price in terms of the narcotic trade in terms of Osama. Bin Laden blowing up American embassies in Daar-es-Salaam and Kenya. 

So it is not only our problem -- it's that for the rest of the world as well. 

AG: Yes, the Americans are paying for this -- but they are physically removed from the centre of these conflicts.  

But the answer to this is that the ability of populations to bear the pain is different.  Britain may sacrifice 3m people, the Americans couldn’t sacrifice 50,000. So Americans had to get out of it -- therefore, yes, it does mean more pain to us but that is part of India having to keep its territorial integrity.

AG:  In Indian defence circles, there has been no doctrine -- clearly low intensity war fare is not going to go away.

Let me say this -- since this is a non-doctrinaire society even religion wise, it doesn’t occur to most people in this world that this is the only society which has fought against insurgents and [emerged victorious] not by liquidating the insurgents, but by winning [them] over to its side. 

In Nagaland, the man who wrote the Naga national anthem eventually became CM of Nagaland. So did Laldenga in Mizoram, Sheikh Abdullah in Kashmir, the Communists in India. Therefore we may not have any great doctrines about how to deal with that, but we’ve been doing it in our own way. And in a sense we are doing better than those who completely eliminated the communists in South-East Asia. 

AG: The form of low-intensity warfare that is happening now, for example in Afghanistan is infinitely more dangerous than before...