India and Pakistan: Let's not be casual about nuclear war

SHAKIR HUSAIN
Published 30.08.2019 00:15

If nuclear weapons are a matter of national prestige and power, what can go wrong when flaunting them?

China, India, North Korea and Pakistan possess these arms in Asia, but no nuclear war involving any of these countries would remain confined to their limited region: The holocaust is going to be truly global.

This fear must act as a real deterrence against the use of nuclear weapons to annihilate your adversary.

There is zero scope for trying your luck in this area.

Still, nuclear weapons are sometimes mentioned in arguments between India and Pakistan.

Most possessors of nuclear bombs as well as experts on the subject make the point that these instruments, due to their deterrence value, may prevent a major escalation in nonnuclear warfare.

We have them, but we won't use them, assert some nuclear powers in trying to calm public fears.

Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States, by virtue of their signatures on the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) of 1968, claim legitimacy for maintaining and developing their arsenals.But that doesn't mean their assurances of safety and the vows of "no first use" can be taken at face value.

The nine countries mentioned above are in possession of 14,500 nuclear weapons, of which India and Pakistan together have about 280.

India's Defense Minister Rajnath Singh on Aug. 16 visited Pokhran, the site of the 1998 nuclear tests in the desert state of Rajasthan, and made some remarks that created ambiguity about the country's use of nuclear weapons.

"India attaining the status of a responsible nuclear nation became a matter of national pride for every citizen of this country," he said in a tweet.

"Pokhran is the area which witnessed Atal Ji's [the late Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee] firm resolve to make India a nuclear power and yet remains firmly committed to the doctrine of 'No First Use.' India has strictly adhered to this doctrine. What happens in the future depends on the circumstances," he added.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi in his formal reaction said: "The substance and timing of the Indian defense minister's statement is highly unfortunate and reflective of India's irresponsible and belligerent behavior."

Pakistan conducted its own test explosions in May 1998 despite heavy U.S. pressure not to respond to India's tests in the same month.

The Shaheen-III missile puts the whole of India within Pakistan's range, whereas India has a variety of Agni missiles, including the latest intercontinental ballistic missile Agni V, that give it the capability to target its adversaries beyond its neighborhood.

As both the Soviet Union and the United States sat on thousands of nuclear arms, the prospect of a mutually assured destruction (MAD) ensured that the world did not end during the Cold War, says another argument.

The destruction of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by American nuclear bombs named "Little Boy" and "Fat Man" in 1945 is a constant reminder of the devastation their use can produce.

We must hope that similar thinking would prevail in South Asia, and the casual way nuclear weapons are talked about would stop.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, speaking at an election rally on April 21 in Rajasthan, which borders Pakistan, said: "India has abandoned the policy of getting intimidated by Pakistan's [nuclear] threat. Isn't what I have done right?"

He continued: "Otherwise, every now and then, 'we have a nuclear button, we have a nuclear button,' they [Pakistan] used to say this. Our newspaper people would also write that Pakistan also has nuclear [arsenal]. What do we have then? Is it [India's nuclear arsenal] kept for Diwali?"

People in India light firecrackers, some shaped like rockets, during the Hindu festival of Diwali.

Modi's critics were quick to jump on those comments to highlight the risks of a nuclear conflict, whereas his supporters praised him for "calling the bluff" of the country's western neighbor.

Congress Party spokesman Sanjay Jha said the prime minister may talk about the Kyoto protocol on climate change, but he displays "zero knowledge of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and the destruction and death of humanity."

Modi's comments were also seen as trivializing nuclear power.

Journalist M.K. Venu said: "Modi is possibly the first Indian PM to talk so casually about a nuclear war with Pakistan at public meetings. To suggest 'our bombs are not meant for Diwali' is to appeal to the basest instincts."

With India and Pakistan involved in a military escalation in February using their fighter jets, the unease was obvious. "Such rhetoric for short-term political and electoral gains, with complete disregard to its effects on strategic stability in South Asia, is regrettable and against norms of responsible nuclear behavior," the Pakistan government said on April 22.

Constant tension between India and Pakistan encourages the verbal nuclear exchange.

"History tells us that wars are full of miscalculation. My question is that given the weapons we have, can we afford miscalculation?" Prime Minister Imran Khan asked on Feb. 27 amid fears of a full-scale war with India.

Since Aug. 5, when India revoked the special status that granted a degree of autonomy to the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir, there has been a new eruption of tensions over the Kashmir dispute.

Pakistani leaders are using much harsher language in relation to India than they have ever done in recent years.

The rise in the region's political temperature indicates that new seeds of conflicts are being planted.

This increases the potential for a nuclear miscalculation.

* India-based journalist

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