Autonomy of decision making in the developmental process and in strategic matters is an inalienable democratic right of the Indian people. India will strenuously guard this right in a world where nuclear weapons for a select few are sought to be legitimised for an indefinite future, and where there is growing complexity and frequency in the use of force for political purposes.
— Extract from India’s nuclear doctrine, first made public in August 1999
It came as a timely reminder. By testing the Agni-III and Hatf-VIII missiles earlier this week, India and Pakistan re-emphasised to each other and the rest of the world their status as nuclear powers.
Coming days before the 10th anniversary of the Pokhran-II nuclear tests, the flawless flight of Agni-III sent out a message not just to Pakistan, but the rest of the neighbourhood that India was pushing ahead with the induction of this missile, capable of hitting targets 3,000-km away. In turn, by testing the short-range, air-fired cruise missile, Pakistan was demonstrating a new capability: that it, too, like India had the prowess to launch nuclear-capable missiles from the air. The 350-km range of the Hatf, or Death, missile revealed again the India-specific nature of Pakistan’s strategic concerns.
After the sands of Pokhran shook on May 11, 1998, Pakistan retaliated with its own nuclear tests in the Chagai Hills of Balochistan 17 days later, plunging South Asia into crisis and sending major Western powers into a tizzy. Hectic efforts were made by the Clinton administration that Pakistan not retaliate with its tit-for-tat tests, but US Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott couldn’t do much to prevent Pakistan from responding to the Indian tests.
All this while, a huge campaign went on against India and Pakistan — the Australians, for instance, sent the Indian defence advisor home and withdrew protocol during a visit of Pakistan’s Senate Chairman Wasim Sajjad. Both countries faced sanctions and international isolation. At the same time, the Americans realised quickly that they had to engage both countries — separate talks were arranged between Talbott and former External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh and Pakistani Foreign Secretary Shamshad Ahmad.
The American / Western goal was to ensure that there should be no marriage between delivery systems and warheads — that these be stored separately — ensuring there was no hair-trigger situation between the two countries. Of course, the US wanted both countries to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). In February 1999, India and Pakistan agreed in Lahore to “engage in bilateral consultations on security concepts, and nuclear doctrines, with a view to developing measures for confidence building in the nuclear and conventional fields, aimed avoidance of conflict.”
“The two sides undertake to provide each other with advance notification in respect of ballistic missile flight tests, and shall conclude a bilateral agreement in this regard,” the two countries agreed. Significantly, a formal agreement has been signed to this effect. After the January 2004 revelations about Abdul Qadeer Khan and his nuclear Wal-Mart, Pakistan’s credibility — already undermined on account of the country hosting myriad militant groups on its soil — suffered a further blow.
Even as India and Pakistan made some progress on nuclear confidence-building measures, the American agenda as regards to New Delhi shifted considerably after the Bush administration took power. There was a recognition that a roll back of India’s nuclear programme wasn’t in the realm of possibility. The July 2005 civil nuclear deal with the US implicitly recognised India as a nuclear weapons’ power, but conferred no de jure status given the constraints of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. The deal, however, clearly recognised the existence of the civil and military components of India’s nuclear programme.
As India debates in its domestic arena the merits and demerits of the nuclear deal, the deadline looms large for a change in international status — one which would allow the country to engage, like other nations, in civilian nuclear commerce. From Pokhran-II to the Left-UPA panel on the civil nuclear deal, India has travelled a great distance. Ironically, it could be the domestic agenda, not international curbs that look likely to confine India to its pre-Pokhran-II status.