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Handling Nuclear Weapons with Responsibility

Irresponsible election rhetoric over nuclear weapons would only lead to a mutually assured delusion. 

As reported in the media, Prime Minister Narendra Modi seems to have made what could be described as casual and callous remarks at an election meeting in Rajasthan about India’s nuclear weapons. He is reported to asked, “Have we kept our nuclear bomb for Diwali?” Such expression is a major departure from the circumspection and public restraint shown by his predecessors on the question of nuclear weapons. While Modi’s boastful nuclear rhetoric is in keeping with his political persona and policy adventurism, it, however, dents India’s ­image as a mature and responsible nuclear state.
India had acquired minimum nuclear deterrence capability in 1974 itself, but was reluctant to acknowledge its status due to certain legal, technical, and geopolitical reasons. Even after proclaiming itself as a nuclear weapons state in 1998 and initiating steps to develop a nuclear triad consistent with the doctrine of “minimum credible deterrence,” India assured the international community that its nuclear weapons are for deterrence only and that it will not be the first to use them against any of its adversaries. Modi’s invocation of nuclear weapons to seek votes is unabashed warmongering that can have grave consequences for a region that already carries the image of a nuclear tinderbox.
Pakistani political and military leaders have also indulged in such bombast in the past, threatening that they would not hesitate to press the nuclear button. After holding each other to constant existential nuclear threat during the Cold War, the United States (US) and Russia have retreated to the bounds of sanity in their public discourse despite having thousands of nuclear weapons on hair trigger alert aimed at each other. The French and British leadership rarely talk about their nukes in public. The Chinese are always cryptic and measured on this issue. Israel, which has the largest and most sophisticated ­nuclear weapons programme outside of the P-5 countries (US, Russia, China, Britain and France), has not even acknowledged its capability acquired in the late 1960s, and its continuing opaqueness seems to be serving its strategic and regional security interests well. Modi’s glib talk, on the other hand, contradicts India’s restrained nuclear posture and puts the country in the company of irresponsible states.
This is neither a case against India’s nuclear weapons programme, nor an exhortation to sign the discriminatory Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. In the absence of any progress towards global nuclear disarmament in a verifiable and time-bound manner, and being surrounded by hostile nuclear weapon states, one could possibly argue a case for ­India’s strategic and national security need for nuclear deterrence. However, countries possessing nuclear weapons should exercise extreme prudence in their deployment posture and public conduct of its leadership because the costs of miscalculation or misinterpreted intentions can be catastrophic. 
A large-scale nuclear war can produce mind-numbing ­regional and global environmental impacts. Medical professionals had warned that the healthcare system of any city or region will be totally paralysed after a nuclear attack and will be incapable to respond to the needs of the injured, who will be left in a pathetic situation of envying the dead. These imageries have fortunately produced a strong global aversion against nuclear weapons, thus earning the epithet of the “most useless weapon ever invented” and cementing a strong tradition of its non-use after 1945.
The Cold War nuclear scenarios may be less relevant for India and Pakistan, but even a limited nuclear exchange can have terrifying consequences for the region. We have seen how poor the government support is to people for rebuilding their lives following a major natural disaster in both the countries. Unlike the Western and Soviet societies, which were generally better informed and educated by their governments, Indian and Pakistani societies are mostly unaware of the impact of nuclear weapons. The perennial border conflict between India and Pakistan has already invalidated the theory that nuclear weapon states do not directly fight each other. External intervention prevented a few crises spiralling into nuclear conflict, and it cannot be taken for granted that this will save the day every time. 
If it helps bring some sanity in our public discourse about using nuclear weapons, the detonation of the largest tested Pakistani nuclear weapon (a 45 kiloton device) over one of our major cities can result in over 5 lakh immediate deaths from the blast and fire, and 12 lakh injuries. A one megaton weapon (China has several of them in its arsenal) can result in over 25 lakh immediate deaths and 60 lakh injuries. Predicting the number of deaths and injuries is a difficult and unpleasant exercise, but even these ballpark figures exclude the deaths and injuries that would result from the long-term radioactive fallout. 
Nuclear war will bring unimaginable miseries to both India and Pakistan and should thus not be even casually talked about, let alone fought. The two Cold War adversaries deluded themselves that each would prevail after a full-scale nuclear war, only to realise that it produced a stalemate of mutually assured destruction. The Indian and Pakistani leadership should, therefore, avoid having a mutually assured delusion of prevailing in a nuclear war.

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Updated On : 22nd May, 2019
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