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7] India and the Nuclear Question

1. History of India’s Nuclear Program

After independence in 1947, Indian Atomic Energy Commission was established in 1948 under Atomic Energy Act. The program was led by Indian physicists Homi Bhabha and others. Nehru considered atomic bomb as ‘symbol of evil’ and thus India’s nuclear program was focused only development for civil use of nuclear energy

However, India kept the option of nuclear weapons open and also opposed the United States’ Baruch Plan, which proposed the international control of nuclear energy, on the grounds that it ‘sought to prohibit national research and development in atomic energy production’.

In 1960, the government issued tender for India’s first nuclear power station near Tarapur, Maharashtra. India’s nuclear power stations began operations with US assistance in Tarapur and with Canadian assistance in Rajasthan.

While the conflict with Pakistan was not new for India, 1962 war with China was a wakeup call for India. India appealed to both the superpowers, US and USSR for assistance who were distracted by ongoing Cuban Missile Crisis. This prompted India to serious consider nuclear weapons, and the conviction was further strengthened when China tested its first atomic bomb in October 1964.

Homi Bhabha, for example, urged the Indian government to approve an atomic bomb program, arguing that ‘atomic weapons give a State possessing them in adequate numbers a deterrent power against attack from a much stronger State.’ However, erstwhile prime minister Shastri was opposed to the idea of bomb. Homi Bhabha also sought US assistance in development of nuclear bomb, which decided not to cooperate.

1966 saw the unfortunate death of Shastri as well as Homi Bhabha. New prime minister Indira Gandhi was a strong proponent of nuclear weapons. Physicist Raja Ramanna, was named the new head of BARC and the process of developing nuclear weapon officially began.

1.1 Smiling Buddha

The decision to finally test a bomb was largely motivated by India’s desire to be independent from Western interference. Thus, in 1968, India refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). In August 1971, India took another step away from the West when it signed the Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Co-operation with the Soviet Union. In December 1971, war broke out between India and Pakistan over the separatist movement in East Pakistan (modern Bangladesh) with China and the United States siding with Pakistan.

In September 1972, Prime Minister Gandhi officially approved a nuclear test. “There was never a discussion among us over whether we shouldn’t make the bomb,” affirmed Raja Ramanna. “How to do it was more important. For us it was a matter of prestige that would justify our ancient past.”

At the Pokhran test site, On May 18, 1974, the 3,000-pound device exploded with a force equivalent to 8 kilotons of TNT. Ramanna reportedly informed Gandhi of the successful test through a coded message: “The Buddha is smiling.” Although officially known as Pokhran I, the 1974 test was informally named “Smiling Buddha” and is frequently referred to as such.

India and the Nuclear Question

Canada pulled its support for the Indian nuclear program shortly afterwards. The United States likewise considered the test, a violation of the Atoms for Peace program and responded with sanctions against India. As Secretary of State Henry Kissinger affirmed, “The Indian nuclear explosion…raises anew the spectre of an era of plentiful nuclear weapons in which any local conflict risks exploding into a nuclear holocaust”.

Shortly afterwards, to control the export of nuclear material and nuclear technology, Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) was formed, the same year (1974). Led by USA, the NSG governs the transfers of civilian nuclear material and nuclear-related equipment and technology.

1.2 Weaponization of Nuclear Bomb and Pokhran II

After testing its first bomb in 1974, it took over two decades to build a nuclear arsenal and delivery system capable of military deployment. In the years after Smiling Buddha, India had significant difficulty procuring nuclear materials from a suddenly hostile international market. Despite challenges, the BARC leadership managed to construct—the Dhruva reactor—in 1977. The reactor would produce most of the plutonium for India’s nuclear weapons program, but did not reach full power until 1988.

The Indian government also approved a ballistic missile program in 1983. Over the next decade, the defence Research and Development Laboratory (DRDL) built the short-range Prithvi missile and the long-range Agni missile. Both were eventually equipped with nuclear warheads.

During the 1990s, with advent of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which sought to put an end to all nuclear explosions, including underground tests, India faced renewed international pressure, particularly from the US. India did not ratify the treaty; somewhat ironically, neither did the United States.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee explained India’s motivation to develop nuclear weapons at a UN meeting in 1997: “I told President Clinton that when my third eye looks at the door of the Security Council chamber, it sees a little sign that says ‘only those with economic power or nuclear weapons allowed.’ I said to him, ‘it is very difficult to achieve economic wealth.’”

On May 11, 1998, Operation Shakti—also known as Pokhran II—took place. India tested five nuclear devices, although not all of them detonated. “India is now a nuclear weapons state,” declared Prime Minister Vajpayee days after the tests. “We have the capacity for a big bomb now. Ours will never be weapons of aggression.”

India and Nuclear Policy Vajpayee

India faced almost universal condemnation in the aftermath of the Pokhran II tests. The United States said it was “deeply disappointed” in India’s decision, the United Kingdom expressed its “displeasure,” and Germany called the tests “a slap in the face” of the countries who had signed the CTBT. As Pakistani Foreign Minister Gohar Ayub Khan asserted, “India has thumbed its nose to the Western world and the entire international community.”

Less than three weeks later, Pakistan conducted its first nuclear test.

1.3 Present Status

Soon after announcing its nuclear capabilities, India established the National Security Advisory Board, which devised a no-first-use policy for Indian nuclear weapons. This policy was later amended to consider a biological or chemical attack against India to be sufficient grounds for a nuclear response.

Although the United States implemented economic sanctions against India after the 1998 tests, Indo-American relations have since warmed. In 2005, the two countries agreed to the India–United States Civil Nuclear Agreement.

Recently with capability of launching nuclear missiles from sea (submarines), India achieved the 2nd strike capability thus, making India’s nuclear deterrent more robust.

Today, the civilian Nuclear Command Authority chaired by the prime minister has sole authority to authorize a nuclear strike. Some estimates put India’s nuclear arsenal at 135 nuclear warheads.

2. India’s Nuclear Doctrine

2.1 The Doctrine

Just after the 1998 tests, former Prime Minister Vajpayee tabled a paper titled ‘Evolution of India’s Nuclear Policy’ which was the first comprehensive document on India’s nuclear stand. This document stated that ‘nuclear weapons were not weapons of war’ and declared that India’s nuclear capacity was for self-defence, an insurance that India would not be threatened or coerced by flexing nuclear might.

Five years later, India released its nuclear doctrine in 2003. Keeping its ideals intact, India said that it would not be the one to initiate a nuclear warfare but if attacked its retaliation would cause ‘unacceptable damage’ to the perpetrator. This came to be known as India’s ‘No First Use’ or NFU doctrine.

A nuclear doctrine has three objectives. 1) Internally, it guides the military of the country and also provides reassurance to its people and allies. 2) Internationally, it is a way to send message to the potential adversaries. 3) Lastly, because nuclear weapons are not conventional weapons, a nuclear doctrine is essential to prevent a nuclear war.

Rakesh Sood has briefly summarized the Indian Nuclear doctrine of 2003 as following:

  1. Building and maintaining a credible minimum deterrent;
  2. A posture of no-first-use;
  3. Nuclear retaliatory use in response to a nuclear attack on Indian territory, or on Indian forces anywhere;
  4. Nuclear retaliation to be massive and inflict unacceptable damage;
  5. Non-use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states;
  6. Option of nuclear retaliation in response to chemical or biological attack on India, or on Indian forces anywhere;
  7. Continuation of strict export controls on nuclear and missile related materials and technologies;
  8. Participation in the FMCT negotiations;
  9. Continued observance of the moratorium on nuclear tests;
  10. Continued commitment to the goal of a nuclear-weapon-free-world, through global, verifiable and non-discriminatory nuclear disarmament

The doctrine reflects the idea that nuclear weapons are political in nature and are not weapons of war. The document explains India’s need for security in a nuclearized environment. The doctrine also establishes India as a ‘responsible nuclear-armed state’ which is ready to develop confidence building measures in the region.

The doctrine explains India’s posture and rationale behind acquiring nuclear weapons. The doctrine is based on ‘defensive realism’ and reflects India’s pacific culture. According to Raja Menan, “India’s nuclear doctrine reflect not so much of India’s strategic choice, it rather reflects India’s culture.”

Rakesh Sood tags India as a ‘reluctant nuclear-armed state’ that makes it unique. This reluctance grew out of India’s belief in a nuclear weapon free world. This philosophy is rooted in India’s non-violent struggle for freedom and its immediate aspiration to be an autonomous state, able to provide development and equity to its people. Keeping this in mind, India acquired a tradition of restraint with regards to using violence but it was also aware to develop the capacity to ‘coerce’ which was to be used when everything else failed.

Credible Minimum Deterrence

Credible Minimum Deterrence is a posturing adopted by India to convey a non-aggressive and defensive nuclear posture. It suggests maintaining nuclear arsenal that fulfils the bare needs of defence and security. It implies that the nuclear arsenals will be minimal enough to provide credible deterrence against adversaries. The definition of ‘minimum’ (the number of warheads and delivery systems at a given point of time) can be dynamically driven by the strategic environment (perceived strength or build-up of rival arsenals).

Massive Retaliation

It denotes that In the event of an attack from an aggressor, a state would massively retaliate by using a force disproportionate to the size of the attack.

2.2 Arguments in Favour of No First Use

India’s doctrine has been reviewed with time and it has been realised that it is not prudent for India to change its No First Use doctrine. First of all, India’s deterrence will not be strengthened instead will suffer if no first clause is removed. The NFU brings clarity to India’s nuclear policy by defining the limits which if breached would cause massive nuclear retaliation.

Abandoning the NFU would mean compromising the ‘credible minimum deterrence’ by removing the clarity. As ‘credible minimum deterrence’ is built upon an assured second-strike capability, and removes the need and urgency of indefinite expansion of nuclear arsenal; removing NFU would cause a nuclear arms race in the region ending up in high insecurity and instability.

The NFU provides resistance to the temptation to make a disarming first strike in a crisis. In case First Use is adopted, the country will have to keep its warhead assembled along with the delivery vehicles. This increases the chances of miscalculation and consequently the chances of nuclear exchange. Moreover, NFU also shuts the possibility of any irrational pre-emptive strike.

Moreover, if there would not be a policy like no first use then the aggressor would feel that striking pre-emptively would benefit them in a possible nuclear exchange. It would also increase mutual suspicion between the two ever hostile and nuclear armed nation having first strike capacity.

Scholarly Perspective

According to K Subramaniam, deterrence is all about perception rather than posture. The first use posture may be highly provocative. It may force country to attack to save itself from attack, no first use is better for deterrence.

According to Shivashankar Menon, first use policy would destabilize the security environment in South Asia. What is important is survivability. He gives the example of China. Despite asymmetry with USA, China maintains no first use. Thus, has credible deterrence.

According to Prof. Rajesh Rajagopalan, “nuclear warheads are for tackling the insecurity of national survival. This applies to countries like Israel and Pakistan who have perceived existential threats from their neighbours. India does not have such existential threat, it only has fear of a nuclear attack, to which it has built up capacity to retaliate.”

For Manpreet Sethi. No first use policy has following advantages:

No need to have expensive nuclear weapon infrastructure. Onus of escalation is on adversary.  There is no need to keep nuclear forces on trigger. India can keep the weapons in disassembled form, no need to build security system required to prevent unauthorized use. First use capabilities require huge investment in research and development, at present India does not have that much capacity.

2.3 Arguments in Favour of First Use

Strategists like Bharat Karnard favour first use policy. For him, “No first use is relevant only for the country that has extreme confidence in the survivability of its nuclear forces. No first use requires efficient ‘crisis management’. Efficient crisis management is not the forte of India. Indian bureaucracy is manifestly incapable of crisis management.”

According to Former Lt. General B. S. Nagal. Former commander in chief of strategic forces command, “No first use is morally wrong, it puts our population under huge threat. There is no logic to accept large scale destruction in the first strike.”

2.4 Disarmament

While India has refused to sign NPT and CTBT because of their discriminatory nature, it has always made the posture for comprehensive, verifiable, universal disarmament. India has utilized multilateral platforms like NAM and UNGA. In 1988, Rajiv Gandhi presented ‘Rajiv Gandhi action plan’ for nuclear disarmament. The plan proposes:

  1. Time bound elimination of nuclear weapons.
  2. Countries should adopt phased approach. (3 stages) and in stage there will be verification.
  3. Countries should take binding commitments.

2.5 Way Forward

The first nuclear age was largely during the cold war, dominated by US-USSR dyad and depending on their dynamics. Today we are in the second nuclear age when the centre of gravity has shifted from Euro-Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific which brings in multiple players into the equation. A nuclear war between two players might draw in other players.

The Indian government has repeatedly reviewed it’s no first use policy and upheld it for achieving the goal of credible minimum deterrence. NFU aligns very well with India’s world view and aspirations. With NFU India has maintained the continuity in its image as a responsible state.

It has been emphasized that India should focus more on crisis management, survivability, building a robust nuclear triad, addressing the loopholes, developing infrastructure rather than changing to first use.

According to P K Chari, nuclear doctrines need not to be static, it should be a work in progress. If needed, required changes should be made. According to him, there was no need for India to go for ‘no first use’ when according to Indian leadership, the purpose of nuclear weapons was to achieve deterrence against China.

When India has no first use, It does not give enough deterrence, there is a huge probability of conventional war. Like Pakistan, India needed 1st use approach against China. Similarly, he suggests that we have used our nuclear weapons to gain deterrence only in case of nuclear attack whereas Pakistan’s nuclear weapons give it deterrence in all conditions. i.e. from conventional to proxy war and from proxy war to nuclear war. Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are explicitly for military purposes. India’s nuclear weapons are primarily for political purposes.

Lt. Gen (Retd.) Syed Ata Hasnain emphasizes that NFU is no cast in stone, we can always be flexible and make a decision of first use if the crisis demands so. He adds that India while maintaining its NFU doctrine can prepare for the instance of first use also (Indians, 2022).

3. Indo-US Civil Nuclear Agreement

3.1 Background

The NPT gave a recognized right of access to peaceful uses of nuclear energy to member countries. Citing is as unfair and discriminatory; India did not join the treaty. Separately, countries led by the U.S., set up an informal group, the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), to control exports of nuclear materials, equipment and technology.

Consequently, India was left outside the international nuclear order, which forced India to develop its own resources for each stage of the nuclear fuel cycle and power generation. Given that India is estimated to possess reserves of about 80,000–112,000 tons of uranium, India has more than enough fissile material to supply its nuclear weapons program.

However, the amount of nuclear fuel required for the electricity generation sector is far greater than that required to maintain a nuclear weapons program, and India’s estimated reserve of uranium represents only 1% of the world’s known uranium reserves. Thus, NSG’s uranium export restrictions mainly affected Indian nuclear power generation capacity. Although India achieved its strategic objectives from the Pokhran nuclear tests in 1998, it continued to find its civil nuclear program isolated internationally.

3.2 The Agreement

To end this nuclear apartheid, there was an effort from India and US. Consequently, on 18 July 2005, in a joint statement by then Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and then U.S. President George W. Bush, a framework for Indo US nuclear agreement was created.

Indo US Nuclear Dea

Under the agreement, India agreed to separate its civil and military nuclear facilities and to place all its civil nuclear facilities under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. In exchange, the United States agreed to work toward full civil nuclear cooperation with India.

This U.S.-India nuclear deal took more than three years to come to fruition as it had to go through several complex stages, including 1) amendment of U.S. domestic law, especially the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, 2) a civil-military nuclear Separation Plan in India, 3) an India-IAEA safeguards (inspections) agreement and 4) the grant of an exemption for India by the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG).

On August 1, 2008, the IAEA approved the safeguards agreement with India. Following this, the 48-nation NSG granted the waiver to India the same year, allowing it to access civilian nuclear technology and fuel from other countries. The implementation of this waiver made India the only known country with nuclear weapons which is not a party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) but is still allowed to carry out nuclear commerce with the rest of the world.

The U.S.–India Civil Nuclear Agreement or Indo-US nuclear deal is also popularly known as 123 Agreement, since section 123 of the United States Atomic Energy Act of 1954, titled “Cooperation With Other Nations”, establishes an agreement for cooperation as a prerequisite for nuclear deals between the US and any other nation.

3.3 Scholarly Perspectives

According to C Rajamohan, Indo US civil nuclear agreement is not just a commercial agreement but an agreement with huge geopolitical significance. It is above all the recognition of India as a major power, it legitimizes India’s nuclear weapons, it establishes India as a responsible player in international politics.

According to Rajeshwari Rajagopalan, “The Indo-US nuclear agreement was a direct consequence of the US’ recognition of India as a major power and an acknowledgement of India’s strong non-proliferation record.”

Sumit Ganguly highlights the aim of USA through the deal i.e. to balance China. “A stronger partnership with New Delhi would help Washington balance a rising China.”

“The Indo-US nuclear deal of 2005 was a turning point in India’s foreign policy as it raised India’s global stature, and opened up many opportunities.” S Jaishankar

4. India’s Nuclear Liability Law

4.1 The Act

In case of a nuclear accident, India enacted the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act (CLNDA) in 2010, to put in place a speedy compensation mechanism. The act provides for

  1. Strict and no-fault liability on the operator of the nuclear plant, where it will be held liable for damage regardless of any fault on its part.
  2. It also specifies the amount the operator will have to shell out in case of damage caused by an accident at ₹1,500 crore and requires the operator to cover liability through insurance or other financial security.
  3. In case the damage claims exceed ₹1,500 crore, the government step in and has a limited liability amount to the rupee equivalent of 300 million Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) (approximately ₹3300 crore with current SDR prices).

India currently has 22 nuclear reactors with over a dozen more projects planned. All the existing reactors are operated by the state-owned Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL).

4.2 Debate Around the CLNDA

The international legal framework on civil nuclear liability, is based on the central principle of exclusive liability of the operator of a nuclear installation and no other person. The purpose is: 1) To avoid legal complications in establishing separate liability in each case and 2) To make just one entity in the chain, that is the operator to take out insurance, instead of having suppliers, construction contractors and so on take out their own insurance.

However, in CLNDA, India introduced the concept of supplier liability over and above that of the operator’s. The defective parts were partly responsible for historical incidents such as the Bhopal gas tragedy in 1984 and thus, the provision for suppliers’ responsibility was made in the law.

Thus, the Section 17(b) states that the operator of the nuclear plant, after paying their share of compensation for damage in accordance with the Act, shall have the right of recourse where the “nuclear incident has resulted as a consequence of an act of supplier or his employee, which includes supply of equipment or material with patent or latent defects or sub-standard services”.

Further, Section 46 of the act allows criminal liability to be pursued where applicable. The provision also potentially allows civil liability claims to be brought against the operator and suppliers through other civil laws such as the law of tort. While liability for operators is capped by the CLNDA, this exposes suppliers to unlimited amounts of liability. (Law of tort governs the remedies for civil wrongs. A person is liable for the wrongful act, whether done accidentally or intentionally. The injured or the aggrieved party is compensated by the payment for damages.)

4.3 Current Status

As a result of above-mentioned provisions of CLNDA, foreign as well as domestic suppliers of nuclear equipment have been wary of operationalising nuclear deals with India. Suppliers have expressed following objections:

  1. India is the only country with the law where suppliers can be asked to pay damages.
  2. The suppliers potentially getting exposed to unlimited liability under CLNDA as the compensation amount is not fixed under the law as it has been fixed for the operator
  3. Ambiguity over how much insurance is to be set aside in case of damage.
  4. In the absence of a comprehensive definition of ‘nuclear damage’, the act potentially allows claims to be brought against the operator and suppliers through other civil laws as well.
  5. The act allows criminal liability to be pursued against the operator and the supplier wherever applicable.

The central government has maintained that although the 17(b) provision ‘permits’ an operator to exercise the right to recourse, it ‘does not necessarily require it’. However, private sector players are not convinced of this stand of the government.

As a result, The Jaitapur nuclear project, world’s biggest nuclear project under consideration, has been stuck for more than a decade. Although the MoU was signed in 2009, the issue arising from India’s nuclear liability law have halted further development. Other nuclear projects, including the nuclear project proposed in Kovvada, Andhra Pradesh, have also been stalled. Thus, despite signing civil nuclear deals with a number of countries, including the U.S., France and Japan, the only foreign presence in India is that of Russia in Kudankulam — which predates the nuclear liability law.

Posted in PSIR NOTES

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