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Islamabad—-In the coded signal sent to Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to announce India’s recent nuclear detonations, Indian scientists invoked the name of Shakti, a Hindu goddess. “Shakti is successful!,” they trumpted. In Indian mythology, Shakti and her myriad incarnations are the destroyers of evil. However, those in India who were repelled by what they perceived as the evil of atomic tests thought of another Hindu god which a troubled American scientist had invoked just over a half century ago.
|Lifschultz01.jpg||Supporters of Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Bajpayee chanted slogans in front of the prime minister’s residence in New Delhi, the day after India finished conducting five underground tests of nuclear devices.|
At the first test of an atomic bomb on July 16, 1945 at Almogordo in the desert sands of the American Southwest, Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific director of the Manhattan Project stood silently beside his colleagues, and recalled a line from the ancient Indian epic, the Bhagavad-Gita. “Now I am become death,” Vishnu declares, “The destroyer of worlds.” In less than a month Hiroshima and Nagasaki would become dust, and nearly a quarter of a million people, at least half of whom were children, would die. Three months later a tormented Oppenheimer would tell Harry Truman, “I have blood on my hands.”
Whether or not the gods were watching, the blast from India’s nuclear explosions in Rajasthan’s western desert on May 11 unquestionably shattered the structure of the United States non-proliferation policy designed to hold the line in both India and Pakistan by maintaining a regime of “non-weaponized nuclear deterrence”—a recognized capability to produce but a decision not to assemble or deploy nuclear weapons. While American policy stood in tatters, the mood at India’s Pokhran test site—and in New Delhi—was euphoric.
If history is any guide, euphoria has a habit of turning to ashes as consequences take effect. A decade after the first nuclear test few scientists from the Manhattan project could be found who expressed pride in their technical accomplishment. Hiroshima and Nagasaki had tarnished the “pure science” of the Trinity test. The fear, among many, is that one day the names of key cities in South Asia will have the same tragic connotation that Hiroshima holds.
The day after India’s explosions, a prominent Pakistani physicist, Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy declared in a public meeting, “The peoples of India and Pakistan stand closer to the brink of disaster than ever before. Once the euphoria passes, there will be much to regret …. Nuclear weapons are evil, mass destroyers of human life, and morally indefensible. No country should possess them, and it is the moral responsibility of the citizens of every country to try and prevent their country from ever possessing these horrible weapons.”
Since the Partition of 1947, India and Pakistan have been trapped in an unyielding cycle of enmity and conflict which—barring the Bangladesh War of 1971— has found its most bitter manifestation in Kashmir, the predominantly Muslim Himalayan state claimed by both sides. Pakistan has consistently demanded and India has adamantly refused to hold a plebicite in Kashmir in accordance with UN Security Council resolutions. It is this conflict spawned by the division of the subcontinent that has provided the backdrop to the development of nuclear weapons by both states. With India crossing the nuclear threshold, an immediate danger emerged that extreme Indian nationalists might consider an attempt to resolve the dispute over Kashmir by force. “We will soon bring Pakistan to its knees,” declared the President of the ruling Bharat Janta Party (BJP), Khushabau Tahkre.
|Lifschultz02.jpg||An effigy of the Indian prime minister was burned before the Parliament in Islamabad by supporters of Pakistanti Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Pakistan matched its rival, India, with five nuclear detonations in May. Sharif declared his nation a nuclear weapons state and vowed to retaliate to any attack from its neighbor with vengeance.|
On May 28th, seventeen days after the Indian detonations, Pakistan conducted its own nuclear tests. India’s action provided the ideal opening for Pakistan’s bomb lobby to sweep aside the last restraints on its own nuclear ambitions. In both Pakistan and India the fear among those not blinded by euphoria is that full scale war in Kashmir may quickly involve a nuclear dimension. Pakistani officials do not let a day pass without noting that they possess a nuclear weapons capability which they are prepared to activate if Pakistan is confronted by an attack from India.
The latest developments are the culmination of a nuclear arms race in South Asia which has spanned decades and where some of the most significant events occurred out of public view. It has also been a period where imaginative arms control efforts have foundered in the face of determined nuclear lobbies. Throughout this period the enviroment of the Cold War deeply affected perceptions and sensibilities. If South Asia has finally become a nuclear weapons zone with all the attendant dangers this signifies for its populations, there were international pioneers that had led the way.
Within twenty years of Hiroshima, atomic fires had been set by the Soviet Union, England, France and China. They each acquired a nuclear capability, becoming full participants in the ruling doctrine of “mutually assured destruction”, and its essential corollary, “deterrence.” The first nuclear weapon state had spawned fierce imitatiors who embraced the doctrine of annhil- ation as a method of defense. The United States was unable to dissuade others not to do what it had done: its own rationales became the intrinsic logic of others.
Yet, amidst this cabal of early proliferators, India stood distinctly apart. “As far as I can see, the atomic bomb has deadened the finest feelings which have sustained mankind for ages,” said Mahatma Gandhi after Hiroshima. “There use to be so-called laws of war which made it tolerable. Now we understand the naked truth. War knows no law except that of might.…The only moral which can be legitimately drawn from the supreme tragedy of the bomb is that it shall not be destroyed by counter-bombs. Violence cannot be destroyed by counter-violence.”
|Lifschultz03.jpg||Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, center, visits the Shakti 1 test site at Oakaran last May, a week after India tested five nuclear devices there. At left is Abdul Kalam, founder of India’s nuclear program, and at right, Atomic Energy Chief R. Chidambaram.|
Despite its ambition to be known as a “great power”, India resisted what many members of Gandhi’s generation regarded as a depraved definition of power based on instruments of mass destruction. India, they frequently declared, would become “great” precisely because it eschewed such blandishments and placed a priority on the economic development of its citizens. In the field of international diplomacy, India mobilized the non-aligned movement and world opinion in response to American atmospheric tests in the Pacific in 1954 which led to the death of Japanese fishermen and severe birth defects among Marshall Islanders. In April 1954, India’s Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru became the first leader of international stature to call for a “Standstill Agreement” on nuclear testing
Then, in 1974, India split the atom in the deserts of Rajasthan, and described the result as a “peaceful” explosion. New Delhi unconvincingly insisted its test was not for the development of nuclear weapons but for allegedly civilian purposes. In 1962 India had lost a border war with China, and the humiliation of that defeat, compounded by the emergence of China as a nuclear weapons power, gave a new impetus to what had been a marginal lobby inside the Indian military establishment.
By testing, India was not only informing Beijing that the Asian nuclear monoply had been broken. Of greater significance, perhaps, was that a key taboo was being challenged within the country’s political culture. The legacy of non-violence, as taught by Buddha, Ashoka, and Gandhi, still weighed uncomfortably on the shoulders of that segment of India’s politicial and scientific establishments who yearned for a global status which they perceived could only exist through a nuclear weapons capability. Thus a long period of ambiguity ensued where a weapons capability was gradually constructed yet consistently denied. The ambiguity was finally resolved on May 11, 1998 when in a period of three days India conducted a sequence of five nuclear tests ranging from a thermonuclear device to tactical nuclear weapons. L.K. Advani, a leading figure in the BJP, unambiguously described India as “a nuclear weapons state.”
Perhaps it is appropriate that the ruling party in India today, the BJP, which traces its antecedents to an extreme Hindu nationalist organization the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), would be the agency that turned India into an overt nuclear weapon state. It was, after all, a member of the RSS who assasinated Gandhi as he appealed for communal peace between Hindus and Muslims, and despite partition, expressed a desire for warm relations with Pakistan.
On May 18, a week after the test, L.K. Advani, the Home Minister and perhaps the most powerful BJP voice in the Indian government, issued a veiled threat to Pakistan. “Islamabad should realise the change in the geo-strategic situation in the region and the world. [It] should roll back its anti-India policy, especially with regard to Kashmir,” said Advani. “India’s bold and decisive step to become a nuclear weapons state has brought about a qualitatively new stage in Indo-Pakistan relations, particularly in finding a solution to the Kashmir problem. It signifies…India’s resolve to deal firmly and strongly with Pakistan’s hostile designs and activities in Kashmir.”
The course of Pakistan’s and India’s nuclear weapons program has been essentially reactive—determined by developments in the other state and the perception of the threat these represented. In 1964, in the aftermath of India’s defeat at China’s hands and the arrival of Beijing as a nuclear power, India’s Prime Minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, publicly indicated that India might develop a nuclear explosive.
In 1965, an ill planned covert Pakistani military operation known as Operation Gibraltar, designed to liberate Kashmir, ended in a full scale conventional war with India. Pakistan did not fare well in the conflict. In 1967, the young politically ambitious Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who had been the principal architect of the Gibraltar fiasco, vowed that if necessary Pakistanis would “eat grass” to acquire a nuclear capability. By 1972 Bhutto had taken over as President. The Pakistan Army had just suffered a second, and more devastating, military defeat at the hands of India during the Bangladesh war. Two years before the first Indian nuclear test Bhutto called together a meeting of Pakistan’s leading scientists in the city of Multan. He proposed that Pakistan immediately embark on a nuclear weapons program. In Pakistan, as in India, the psychology of military defeat was driving the first stages of a nuclear arms race.
Bhutto’s nuclear ambitions aroused concern in Washington. In August 1976, Henry Kissinger arrived in Lahore for a series of meetings with the Pakistani Prime Minister. The Americans wanted Pakistan to cancel its order for a nuclear reprocessing plant which Islamabad had contracted with the French to build. The plant was capable of producing weapons grade plutonium. Kissinger urged Pakistan to drop the deal and move toward a commitment on nuclear non-proliferation. According to a Pakistani official who attended the meeting between Bhutto and Kissinger, the American Secretary of State told Bhutto that if the Democrats came to power in Washington they would “run over him like an express train” and he would be made a “terrible example.” Perhaps coincidentally, Bhutto was overthrown a year later in a military coup led by General Zia ul Huq. Until he was hanged in April 1979, Bhutto claimed he had been deposed because of his commitment to making Pakistan a nuclear power.
Although initially cooperative on the nuclear question, General Zia ul Huq soon adopted a position backed by most of his key supporters in the armed forces. Work continued on Pakistan’s uranium enrichment facility at Kahuta. American officials debated about what to do, but before the matter could be resolved the Soviet leader, Leonid Breshnev, settled the question. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan turned Pakistan into a “frontline state” for American efforts to defeat Soviet forces and Zia became America’s key ally in an effort that spanned a decade.
In October of 1985, Pakistan crossed the “red line” and enriched uranium beyond the five percent mark. Enrichment beyond this level is not necessary for civilian nuclear reactors. It has only one known purpose—to produce nuclear material for atomic weapons. In the fall of 1986, a CIA report known as a “Special National Intelligence Estimate,” distributed among key U.S. officials stated that Pakistan had produced weapons-grade material. U.S. legislation required that American aid be cut off to any state which was developing nuclear weapons. However, President Ronald Reagan, certified to Congress in October 1986 that Pakistan was not in possession of a nuclear device.
According to Leonard Spector, formerly a fellow of the Carnegie Endowment and currently a U.S. Department of Energy official, this decision was made “undoubtedly in order to avoid a rift with a key ally assisting U.S. efforts to oust the Soviet Union from Afghanistan.”
By the late 1980s the preeminent concern in India was Zia ul Huq’s vigorous pursuit of a nuclear capability. The view, whether accurate or not, was that a border conflict could be the General’s undoing, and a new civilian government might be more interested in forestalling a full scale nuclear arms race in the subcontinent. There were still elements within India’s establishment which saw no profit in a fully weaponized and nuclear South Asia.
In 1987 India mounted Operation Brasstacks, the largest military exercise in its history. Organized over several months, it engaged up to four hundred thousand troops. According to Brasstacks and Beyond, a detailed scholarly study by a group of South Asian and American scholars, the exercise was “comparable to the the largest NATO and Warsaw Pact exercises.” Pakistan’s leading newspaper, Dawn, called it a “spine-chilling” event which threatened to place both countries “on a collision course.” The fear in Pakistan was that the Indian Army’s exercise was merely a ruse to mount an actual operation designed to cut Pakistan in half.
At the height of the crisis in late January 1987, a prominent Indian journalist, Kuldip Nayar, was taken to meet the chief of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, Dr. A.Q. Khan. The interview clearly had high level authorization. Dr. Khan told Nayar that Pakistan had accomplished the key step in the enrichment process of uranium and possessed weapon grade material. “Nobody can undo Pakistan or take us for granted,” said Khan. “We are here to stay and let it be clear that we shall use the bomb if our existence is threatened.” Although Nayar did not immediately publish his comments, Khan’s threat to “use the bomb” was widely known in diplomatic circles in Islamabad. The message had been sent even if it had not been formally posted.
A. Q. Khan’s statement to Kuldip Nayar, the Indian journalist, was a partial bluff. Although Pakistan had by 1987 enriched uranium beyond 95% and possessed the components to assemble an atomic device, it still did not have the capability to deliver a nuclear weapon. The anxiety that the Brasstacks exercise sent through the Pakistan military accelerated efforts to develop a system capable of delivery. In an interview with this correspondent, General Mirza Aslam Beg, the man who took over command as Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff after Zia’s sudden 1988 death in a mid-air explosion, claimed Pakistan’s capability to deliver an atomic weapon was not achieved until the end of 1990. At the heart of Aslam Beg’s assertion rests a major controversy concerning events in Kashmir and the emergence of Pakistan’s nuclear capability.
The 1990 crisis began as a consequence of a major uprising toward the end of 1989 centered in the portion of Kashmir held by India. The revolt had all the hallmarks of an indigenous rebellion led by insurgents who sought independence for Kashmir. Initially, Pakistan’s role was quite marginal. However, from the outset India blindly accused Pakistan’s intelligence agencies of having been the principal cause of the region’s civil strife. Indian leaders were not prepared to accept that Kashmiris might have legitimate grievances distinct and quite independent of Pakistan’s own political agenda. New Delhi treated the Kashmir uprising as an internal security matter created by foreign provocateurs.
The brutality of the repression far exceeded similar operations elsewhere in India. By 1996, the Gandhi Peace Foundation in New Delhi estimated, “Out of 45,000 killed in security operations so far, about 40,000 were innocent. About 80,000 persons are in custody. 18,000 women have been raped. In one village we found 72 boys made impotent.” As tension mounted in Kashmir India correctedly claimed that Pakistan was increasing its support to Kashmiri insurgents—in particular to those factions who favored union with Pakistan.
In March 1993, The New Yorker magazine published an article by Seymour Hersh depicting events in South Asia during the spring of 1990 as having brought India and Pakistan to “the edge of a nuclear exchange.” Hersh, a journalist with a reputation for independence who has often been critical of American foreign policy, interviewed Richard Kerr, the deputy director of the CIA during the 1990 crisis. According to Kerr, “It was the most dangerous situation we ever faced since I’ve been in the U.S. Government. It may be as close as we’ve come to a nuclear exchange…There is no question in my mind that we were right on the edge…The intelligence community believed that without some intervention the two parties could miscalculate—and miscalculation could lead to a nucelar exchange.”
|Lifschultz04.jpg||Pakistan’s prime minister Nawaz Sharif (left) and India’s Prime Minister Atal Bihari Bajpayee, pose for photos in September at the beginning of a meeting in New York. They are facing international pressure to settle their differences over Kashmir, a dispute that turned ominous since both countries carried out nuclear tests in May.|
Hersh quotes a U.S. intelligence source who claims that during the crisis Pakistan “locked-and-loaded” a nuclear weapon onto a F-16 and that the aircraft was primed to take off if Indian forces crossed into Pakistan. General Beg describes Hersh’s story as a wholly inaccurate “cock and bull story” regarding the deployment of nuclear weapons. Beg maintains that a nuclear weapon was not loaded onto an aircraft, and that Pakistan’s military did not have a delivery system perfected until several months after the spring 1990 crisis ended. He insists that Hersh’s article is an attempt to caricature Pakistani military officers as “irresponsible” men intentionally putting their own population in needless danger.
Beg argues that if the crisis in 1990 had been as severe as Hersh describes, then key elements of the Pakistan Army would have been shifted from their cantonments, deployed in their trenches, and prepared for battle. He insists there were no such deployments. However, a high-ranking officer currently serving in the Pakistan Army told this writer that Beg is only “half-accurate” regarding force deployments during the 1990 crisis. According to this officer, advance sections of his unit were in fact deployed in the Sialkot sector along India’s border and were fully anticipating the imminent outbreak of war. They were expecting their main force units to be ordered out of the cantoments and into trenches at any moment. General Yaqub Khan, the Pakistan’s Foreign Minister in 1990, said in a recent interview, “We were moving towards war. It could have been catastrophic.”
Whatever the truth regarding the events surrounding the 1990 crisis, the emerging crisis of 1998 contains within it a potentially much greater danger. The BJP government in India has threatened to ‘solve’ the Kashmir dispute once and for all, and Pakistan has said it will not yield. It is a situation primed for violent conflict. The difference between the present and all previous confrontations is that both countries not only possess nuclear devices, but for the first time they have in their hands the capability of delivering atomic weapons.
©1998 Lawrence Lifschultz
Lawrence Lifschultz is examining the nuclear dispute between Indian and Pakistan under his Alicia Patterson fellowship. He is the former South Asia Correspondent of the Far Eastern Economic Review(Hong Kong), and co-editor with Kai Bird of the newly released book, Hiroshima’s Shadow: Writings on the Denial of History and the Smithsonian Controversy.