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India: Shameless squabble about the deadliness of a nuclear bomb

by Economic and Political Weekly, 30 September 2009

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The Economic and Political Weekly, September 26, 2009


Cry for India

What does it say about us when our policymakers squabble about the deadliness of a nuclear bomb?

Pity our bomb makers. They have the difficult job of deciding if one of the devices they tested under the sands of Pokhran in 1998 could be good enough for a thermonuclear bomb that has the power to murder a few million people or if it can murder only a few hundred thousands. (To "murder" is surely the appropriate word to describe the use of a nuclear weapon.) The squabble, in which our bomb makers have descended to calling each other names, could have been dismissed as a ridiculous turf war if only it had not been about something as horrific as the potency of a nuclear bomb. Everyone from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh onwards has deemed it important enough to have a say on the "yield" of the thermonuclear device tested on 11 May 1998. Pity then the issues of bread and butter, social tensions and environmental degradation that have been pushed out of the public eye because our legendary club of strategic affairs experts is once more ruling the air waves and pouring ink all over the newspapers on the potency of India’s "hydrogen (H)-bomb". The quarrel among serving and retired scientists, defence personnel, political officials and commentators would not be worthy of comment if it were not for the larger and very serious issues involved. Whether or not the thermonuclear device of Pokhran lived up to its expectations is irrelevant. Indeed, the international scientific community tracking these matters had expressed an opinion soon after May 1998 that India’s H-bomb test was a "dud". Those views were dismissed in those heady days of jingoistic fervour. What has come out into the open now is that there were divisions within officialdom at that time as well about the result of the test. (We should not forget though that there is no difference of opinion whatsoever about the "success" of the fission tests for the conventional nuclear bombs, which can murder a few hundred thousands in densely populated centres.)

There is a simple answer to why the spat has resurfaced. Even as they are united in their fervour that India must be a nuclear weapons state, there has always been a certain schism between the nuclear weapon scientists as a group and the strategic affairs/ international relations community. For the former, bigger and more is better; for the latter what matters is the quality of a so- called "minimum deterrent". Some in the scientific community also feel that a few tests as in Pokhran in May 1998 do not make India nuclear weapons capable. The argument is that the established five nuclear powers (the United States, the former Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, France and China) carried out dozens of tests before they were confident about their nuclear capability. If in 1998, political considerations - the need not to displease the US too much by going on a spree of nuclear tests - led to a moratorium, the matter has now acquired a new urgency. The urgency is that unlike the George Bush administration, the Barack Obama presidency gives some importance to controlling what the Americans call "nuclear proliferation". India may be a bit player in these matters and also call itself "a responsible nuclear power". However, since the government of India seeks a seat at the high table, it will have to observe the etiquette of that table, and for the US it appears that signing and adherence to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) is now once again a priority. If Obama insists and India decides to sign, the option of further testing of the H-bomb device will disappear.

Those inside and outside government who make strategy cite India’s "no first use" policy and the philosophy of a so-called "credible minimum nuclear deterrent" to argue that we need not worry about whether or not we have a H-bomb. And that India’s policy is not to win a nuclear war but to deter a potential attack. What is relevant then is the creation of "a reliable, robust and survivable" nuclear arsenal that can withstand an attack and inflict "unacceptable damage" on the aggressor. Hence, according to this school, whose views form the basis of the Indian Nuclear Doctrine, even if the thermonuclear test was a fizzle, India has a sufficient number of proven 25 kiloton (kt) warheads to constitute a "credible minimum nuclear deterrent".

In the end, the only question that matters is if nuclear weapons provide or endanger security. Whatever the phalanx of strategic affairs experts may say, the answer is unambiguous. The availability of nuclear weapons does not prevent wars. The history of south Asia since 1998 itself offers sufficient proof - remember Kargil 1999? Nuclear weapons increase risks and provoke war-like behaviour - remember the many threatening statements both India and Pakistan made in 1999, 2001 and 2002 on using the bomb? Nuclear weapons are unique for they inflict immense human suffering - can we ever forget Hiroshima and Nagasaki? And, finally, there is no bigger case against nuclear weapons than the moral argument about the use of this "Destroyer of Worlds".

After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi said, "The atom bomb has deadened the finest feelings which have sustained mankind for ages...It has resulted for the time being in the soul of Japan being destroyed. What has happened to the soul of the destroying nation is yet too early to see."

If Gandhi were to hear the Principal Scientific Advisor to the Prime Minister of India say in 2009 that India need not worry, because it is capable of unleashing a 200 kt atomic weapon, then surely the soul of this nation that calls him its "Father" has also died.