The period from 1998 when India declared itself as a nuclear weapon state to 2008 when India signed the nuclear deal with the United States was the “nuclear decade” for India. When India blasted its way into the elitist group of nuclear weapon states, the global concern, as expressed by the United States was two- fold. On the one hand, it undermined the non-proliferation regime, which was considered fundamental to human survival and on the other, India did not have a well-defined command and control system and a nuclear doctrine. So, even as the State Department suspended any dialogue and insisted on India signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) as a precondition for not imposing the Glen Amendment sanctions, the Pentagon invited us to a series of briefings on what should constitute a proper security regimen for nuclear weapons. The idea was to impress upon us the need for careful planning and preparation to safeguard the new nuclear arsenal that India had developed. In fact, that was the first time that some of us entered the Pentagon. Much of the briefing went over our heads, but it was clear that possessing nuclear weapons entailed a heavy responsibility for upkeep, safety and use, if at all.
The ideas were further developed during the two year- long dialogue between the Indian Planning Commission Deputy Chairman Jaswant Singh and the US Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott. Though Jaswant Singh never acknowledged that the purpose of the dialogue was to lift the sanctions, the Americans set up “benchmarks” to be reached before sanctions could be lifted. Speaking in Parliament, PM Vajpayee had set out some confidence building measures India was willing to offer, such as declaring minimum deterrent, No First Use, no arms race, moratorium on tests and participation in the Fissile Material Cut Off Treaty (FMCT) negotiations, which he had also outlined in the UN General Assembly in 1998. It was the announcement of these measures that eventually led to an understanding between India and the US, lifting of sanctions and the visit to India by President Clinton. In other words, our No First Use doctrine was announced in the UN General Assembly and it was part of an understanding with the US.
After considerable deliberations in the National Security Advisory Board, the doctrine was notified as follows:
“1. The basic principle of India's nuclear doctrine is "No First Use". According to this policy, nuclear weapons will only be used in retaliation against a nuclear attack on Indian Territory or on Indian forces anywhere.
2. India needs to build and maintain a Credible Minimum Deterrent. This includes;
(i). Sufficient and survivable nuclear forces to inflict unacceptable damage to the enemy.
(ii). Nuclear Forces must be operationally prepared at all times.
(iii). Effective Intelligence and Early Warning Capabilities.
(iv). Communication of Deterrence Capability to the enemy.
3. If a country invades India by nuclear missile, its retaliation will be this much massive and terrible that the enemy experience an unacceptable damage and would not be able to recover easily.
4. The right to take nuclear action against the enemy will only be taken by the elected representatives of the people, i.e. the political leadership of the country, although the cooperation of the Nuclear Command Authority will be necessary. In other words; the bureaucracy of India is not authorised to take decision of the nuclear attack on the enemy.
5. Nuclear weapons will not be used against non-nuclear states. It means India believes in the theory of "Tit for tat."
6. If there is any chemical or biological attack against India or Indian security forces, then India will keep the option of nuclear attack open in its response.
7. A continuance of strict controls on export of nuclear and missile related materials and technologies, participation in the Fissile Material Cut Off Treaty (FMCT) negotiations and continued observance of the moratorium on nuclear tests.
8. India will continue to support the global initiative to create a nuclear free world and will push forward the idea of discrimination free nuclear disarmament.”
It is very well understood that our nuclear doctrine, including No First Use is not set in stone and can be changed at will to suit the international situation and the threat perception from time to time. But at the same time, the doctrine provides a basis for stability and it is better that we leave the ambiguity remain whether we will abide by it even if the situation changes.
Apart from India and China, no major country has adopted No First Use, but what causes occasional concern in India is the fact that Pakistan does not subscribe to it. Pakistan has made no secret of the fact that its weapons are meant to be used for force multiplication against India. Since they have no defense capability in conventional weapons against India, which has been proved on earlier occasions, they have not only developed tactical weapons, but also threatened to use them when they perceive a threat from India, like at the time of the Kargil war. This often warrants a clarification from India that we are free to use nuclear weapons, if necessary. This is followed by a demand for changing the No First Use from certain circles in India.
Although everyone knows the status of the No First Use doctrine, statements are made in elaboration of its implications at different levels. Once the then National Security Adviser spoke of “No First Use against non- nuclear weapon states” created a flutter because no use against non-nuclear weapon states is another part of the doctrine. But it turned out that it was a misprint in the text of his speech. A Chairman of the National Security Advisory Board rightly clarified that India’s counter attack will be massive even if the first attack is by contained tactical nuclear weapons. There has also been suggestions that the No First Use doctrine should be formally deleted.
General Satish Nambiar recently stated, “I think it is time we dumped the “no-first-use” policy and prepare for the use of our strategic assets” as he felt that both Pakistan and China take it for granted that India will not use nuclear weapons either to retaliate for massive terrorist attacks or for capturing areas near the Line of Actual Control. Once the No First Use is removed from our doctrine, they would think twice before targeting India in a serious way.
A tweet by the Indian Home Minister after a visit to Pokhran (“Pokhran is the area which witnessed Atal Ji’s firm resolve to make India a nuclear power and yet remain firmly committed to the doctrine of ‘No First Use’. India has strictly adhered to this doctrine. What happens in future depends on the circumstances.”) received global attention, first because it was the first time that a Cabinet Minister hinted that the doctrine Is a dynamic one and secondly because it came a few days after revoking Article 370. The psychological impact of that statement was huge, even though it had not changed anything. But given the history of our doctrine and the need for us to maintain the confidence of the world in us, we can let the sleeping dogs lie. Nothing stops us from unleashing them if there is any danger of the use of nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction against us.