Scholars point to change in India’s nuclear policy

Updated August 19, 2019

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On Aug 16, Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh visited the Indian nuclear test-site Pokhran, where he declared that while India has so far adhered to the policy of “no first use, what happens in future depends on the circumstances”. — INP/File
On Aug 16, Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh visited the Indian nuclear test-site Pokhran, where he declared that while India has so far adhered to the policy of “no first use, what happens in future depends on the circumstances”. — INP/File

WASHINGTON: “From ‘No First Use’ to ‘No, First Use?” asked Franz-Stefan Gady of the EastWest Institute, New York, while summing up an article on the latest change in India’s nuclear policy.

The Independent, a British online newspaper, noted that India “issued a veiled threat to Pakistan” when its defence minister said on Friday that his country’s commitment to “no first use” of nuclear weapons would now “depend on the circumstances”.

On Aug 16, Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh visited the Indian nuclear test-site Pokhran, where he declared that while India has so far adhered to the policy of “no first use, what happens in future depends on the circumstances”.

Read: India's statement regarding ‘no first use’ policy on nuclear weapons is irresponsible: foreign minister

The international media and scholars interpreted this statement as an “unmistakable” indication of change in India’s nuclear policy, from “no first use to no, first use,” as journalist Ankit Panda pointed out in an article published on The Diplomat news site on Sunday.

The Independent noted that this change came amid renewed tensions between India and Pakistan, which followed New Delhi’s move to revoke autonomy in the disputed region of Jammu and Kashmir, the cause of two of their three wars.

Vipin Narang, a professor of security studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, disagreed with those who were dismissing it as a political, and not a policy, statement. “Make no mistake: this is by far the highest official statement — from the Raksha Mantri’s (defence minister) mouth directly — that India may not be forever bound by No First Use,” he wrote in a tweet.

In another tweet, Mr Narang added that he had heard “whispers” indicating that India “has already made many of those changes” required for changing its nuclear doctrine. “Which is why Rajnath Singh’s statement is so important,” he wrote.

He was responding to an article in a leading Indian news site, The Wire, saying: “If India has to switch from No First Use, it will have to make substantial changes to existing nuclear structures, alert levels, deployment and command and control arrangements.”

The article pointed out that such a change would also involve a sizable increase in delivery systems and warheads. Most of these comments appeared on Twitter where one user also posted Prime Minister Imran Khan’s warning: “The world must seriously consider the safety & security of India’s nuclear arsenal in the control of the fascist, racist Hindu Supremacist Modi government.”

The prime minister pointed out that “this is an issue that impacts not just the region but the world”.

Christopher Clary, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the State University of New York, Albany, and Mr Narang argued in an article they wrote for The Hindustan Times that while the “no first use” nuclear policy was not dead yet, it was “losing sanctity”.

Referring to this article in his tweet, Mr Clary wrote: “Those who point to continuity in Indian nuclear policy have left a moth-eaten no first use doctrine, one with so many loopholes and caveats as to have no real meaning.” In another tweet, he wrote that in 2010 former Indian national security adviser Shivshankar Menon also watered down the policy of no first use.

Rama Lakshami, a former Indian correspondent for The Washington Post, said in a tweet that BJP leader Manohar Parrikar, who died in March, was the first to indicate that India was changing its nuclear policy.

“First Manohar Parrikar, then Rajnath Singh on No First Use. Not just trial balloons. It shows Indian doctrine is now about having a more flexible nuclear posture and expanding its options in the escalation ladder,” she wrote. “The government even asked think tanks, scholars to explore this in 2017.”

Some Twitter users also posted an India Today article, stating: “Team Modi’s Nuclear ‘Bomb’. Govt signals major shift in India’s foundational ‘No First Use’ nuclear attack policy. Implications and fallout for Pakistan, China, security & diplomacy.”

Published in Dawn, August 19th, 2019