NON-FICTION: LIVING WITH THE BOMB

29 Mar 2020

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A surface-to-surface nuclear capable Agni V missile is 
displayed during the 2013 Republic Day parade in New Delhi, India | Reuters
A surface-to-surface nuclear capable Agni V missile is displayed during the 2013 Republic Day parade in New Delhi, India | Reuters

The 22 years since India’s nuclear explosions in May 1998 have been marked by several stand-offs between Pakistan and India, where nuclear sabre-rattling was not uncommon in either Islamabad or Delhi. Kargil happened within a year of the tests, followed by an attack on the Indian parliament in 2001 and mayhem in Mumbai in 2008, to name a few instances. It is a timely decision by Brig (Retd) Naeem Salik to assess what India has learned as a declared nuclear weapons state. With the inclusion of Indian authors in the book he has edited — India’s Habituation with the Bomb: Nuclear Learning in South Asia — Salik can rightly claim that it is more than just what Pakistani analysts associated with the Armed Forces think of what India has learned.

Of the six chapters in the slim volume, four are contributed by Indians. That Indians chose to contribute to a book that is the brainchild of a former member of Pakistan’s armed forces is a sign that the defence elite of the two countries are allowed to interact with each other in a manner that their academic counterparts in other disciplines cannot imagine. The likelihood of a Pakistani anthropologist studying the tribals of India, wanting to work with Indian anthropologists and coming up with an edited volume appears a distant possibility, if not a preposterous thought.

Salik’s overview of India’s nuclear programme provides context for the subsequent chapters, and helps those not familiar with India’s nuclear history by recapping milestones in its nuclear trajectory. The uninitiated reader would become familiar with names such as Homi Bhabha and Jawaharlal Nehru as architects of India’s nuclear programme. Salik suggests that “India shocked the world and especially its immediate neighbours by conducting a nuclear explosion on 18 May, 1974.” The claim is not backed by any evidence. And there can hardly be evidence because, barring Pakistan, there was little sleep lost among India’s other neighbours after the Indian test. Canada was upset because technology and expertise provided by it were manifestly put to unintended use. Fixation with American sources is such that even for Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s public statements issued after the 1974 Indian explosions, the source cited in the book is the bulletin of the American Central Investigation Agency (CIA).

The chapter by Ali Ahmed, an independent strategic analyst from the neighbouring country, titled ‘India’s Nuclear Doctrine: Stasis or Dynamism?’, asserts that “India’s nuclear doctrine has remained frozen since the last pronouncement in January 2003. The core of India’s nuclear doctrine, as enunciated in 2003, is to inflict unacceptable damage on the adversary who uses nuclear force against India or its forces.” Ahmed argues that “India’s official doctrine of 2003 stands superseded by doctrinal innovation.” No first use (NFU) is the cardinal principle of India’s declared nuclear doctrine along with maintaining credible minimum deterrence that is capable of inflicting unacceptable damage on a country that uses nuclear force against India.

Over the past three decades, India’s political pendulum has moved to the right and “India’s strategic culture has shifted from being defensive and reactive to self-regarding assertion.” Backed by a stronger economy and higher defence expenditure, “India’s strategic doctrine ... has shifted towards the offensive segment.” Ahmed’s conclusion is that “India’s declaratory nuclear doctrine is implausible.” Owning up to an operational doctrine that is at variance with declaratory doctrine is needed, as not doing so does not serve India’s security needs.

An anthology of essays provides insight into the labyrinth of India’s military and civilian nuclear programmes

In ‘Nuclear Weapons Governance in India: How Robust and Stringent?’, Sitakanta Mishra, assistant professor at the School of Liberal Studies at Pandit Deendayal Petroleum University, lays out his cards in the opening paragraph by declaring that “reasonable nuclear stability” exists in South Asia, making war “between India and Pakistan seem remote.” In the parlance of nuclear studies, such scholars are called nuclear optimists because they consider the net stabilising effects of nuclear weapons more than the danger their presence brings.

Mindful of ensuring safekeeping of its nuclear infrastructure, India’s strategic assets are under the control of its democratically elected leadership — the prime minister exercises ultimate control over nuclear weapons. “The Prime Minister and the Cabinet’s Committee on Security (CCS) is designated as the Nuclear Command Authority (NCA). Maintenance of nuclear weapons is the responsibility of India’s two civilian scientific agencies, ie Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) and Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO); whereas maintenance of delivery methods is undertaken by respective services.” Although for Mishra, “India’s political system acts as the foremost deterrent against misuse or misappropriation of is nuclear assets,” one needs to acknowledge that demagogues and populist leaders in a democracy can, and have, resorted to nuclear sword-waving.

Professors of disarmament studies and defence and strategic studies respectively, Happymon Jacob and Tanvi Kulkarni’s ‘India’s Nuclear Regulatory Regime’ is the volume’s best chapter for its informative, well-written and balanced analysis, and is reasonably accessible to a reader who may not be well-versed in the specialised language surrounding nuclear weapons. The chapter promises to provide “the historical and institutional evolution of civilian nuclear regulation in India in the broader context of the international regulatory framework,” and it ably fulfils the promise.

The spread of nuclear technology in the post-Second World War period led to the creation of international institutional regulatory mechanisms. These have evolved over the years and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) formed in 1957 remains the apex body which “acts as the secretariat for all safety-related conventions; develops and promotes safety standards, guidelines, and codes of conduct.”

India has nuclear commercial agreements with eight countries and is negotiating business with a dozen more.

Nuclear accidents in various countries during the last 50 years have impacted regulatory practices and approaches at national and international levels. As of 2017, 448 nuclear reactors were generating electricity in 30 countries and these plants provided 11 percent of the world’s electricity production. “Nuclear power contributes about three per cent to India’s total energy mix.” Its ambition is to double that contribution, but it may remain a pipedream.

Although a non-signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), India has been de facto accepted by leading nuclear powers as a nuclear weapons state which is open for business in the field of nuclear energy. After signing the Indo-US nuclear deal in 2008, the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) agreed on a special waiver for India allowing its members to have nuclear commerce with New Delhi. India now has nuclear commercial agreements with eight countries around the world and is negotiating business with almost a dozen more.

In 2015, the government of India invited the Convention on Nuclear Safety (CNS) to review India’s regulatory framework for nuclear power plants. The review concluded that “India has a sophisticated and well-developed nuclear regulatory regime with an experienced, knowledgeable, and dedicated regulatory body.”

India’s non-weapon nuclear sector is regulated by the apex body called the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB). “The primary function of the AERB is to assess and grant consent to nuclear and radiation-related activities, in the form of authorisations and licenses.” AERB’s regulatory standards and safety requirements have to be consistent with the IAEA standards, but “India’s military nuclear programme is not subject to the AERB’s regulatory processes.” Jacob and Kulkarni rightly point out that AERB is not an independent authority because it is “administratively responsible and accountable to, and financially dependent on, the AEC (Atomic Energy Commission).”

Instead of scaremongering about India’s lack of nuclear safety or sounding complacent, the authors strike a balance by providing documentary evidence of “accidents from low to high significance [that] have occurred over many years in India’s nuclear facilities.” The AERB reported about 143 significant events at India’s nuclear power plants between 2013 and 2016. It is safe to conclude that with the expansion of nuclear facilities, the likelihood of incidents will rise too, and chances of major accidents cannot be ruled out.

Close and careful reading of this book will help the reader to navigate the labyrinth of nuclear doctrine, control, command and regulatory bodies and processes of India’s military and civilian nuclear programmes. But, like most books written on nuclear issues using the conceptual lens of political realism, this one is also laden with jargon and specialised terms and acronyms that will find little or no traction with ordinary readers.

The reviewer is the author of The Roots of Rhetoric: Politics of Nuclear Weapons in India and Pakistan

India’s Habituation with the Bomb: Nuclear Learning in South Asia
Edited by Naeem Salik
Oxford University Press, Karachi
ISBN: 978-0190701390
216pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 29th, 2020