The Nuclear Danger in South Asia
By Shafik H. Hashmi
Professor Emeritus of Political Science
Georgia Southern University

Currently, the western leaders and media are greatly concerned about the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea. There is growing apprehension that the new Iranian government is determined on the production of nuclear weapons, despite its constant denials, and that the eccentric dictator of North Korea may already be in possession of at least some nuclear weapons. However, the potential danger of a nuclear war is neither in the Middle East nor in the Korean peninsula: it is in South Asia. As recently as 2002, there was a distinct possibility of a nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan. Even today, the nuclear weapons of both countries are poised at each other, ready to be launched at short notice.
The nuclearization of India and Pakistan is qualitatively different from the possession of nuclear weapons by the US, Russia, Britain, France, China or even Israel. These other nuclear powers do not have any major conflicts with each other. They are also not next door neighbors with the exception of Britain and France, which are allies and not enemies so that there is no possibility that the two countries would fight each other. On the other hand, India and Pakistan have fought three wars and were on the brink of a war two or three other times in recent years.
As is well known, the main cause of enmity between the two South Asian nuclear powers is the disputed territory of Kashmir. The first Kashmir war was fought in 1947-48, ended in a ceasefire, and resulted in a de facto partition of the state. The larger, more fertile and more populous part of Kashmir remained in Indian hands, while a small, barren portion of the state came under Pakistani control. Although India had promised at the United Nations that the ultimate decision about the future of Kashmir would be made through a plebiscite in the state, within a few years, it reneged on its promise. Frustrated by the belief that India would not relinquish its hold on Kashmir, the Pakistani rulers in 1965 decided to smuggle thousands of guerilla fighters into the Indian-occupied part of the state, hoping that the Kashmiri Muslims would rise up against the Indian occupation. However, no such uprising took place. A regular war started between India and Pakistan within and outside Kashmir, which ended after 17 days mainly because of intense American and British efforts.
A third war between India and Pakistan broke out in 1971 when India took full advantage of a mass movement in East Pakistan against the central government, providing training, weapons, and financial support to the Bengali insurgents and then invading the eastern wing of Pakistan. The war ended in Pakistan’s defeat and in the emergence of East Pakistan as the independent state of Bangladesh. India’s plan to continue the war and invade West Pakistan (the present-day Pakistan) as well was thwarted by intense diplomatic pressure put by President Nixon on the Soviet Union to restrain its ally, India, from doing so.
In 1987, there was the fear that India might attack Pakistan. Apparently, Pakistan’s disclosure to the Indians that it was in possession of nuclear bombs and President Zia-ul-Haq’s threat to Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, described later, ended this crisis.
Due to continued discontent among a majority of the Muslims in Kashmir, an insurgency started in Kashmir in the 1990s, which has continued till today. India charged Pakistan with being responsible for the insurgency, and the situation reached a point where, as stated earlier, there was the danger in 2002 of another full-scale war between the two countries. In fact, in an interview given to Newsweek, President Musharraf admitted that the two countries were “very close” to a war; the then Indian Prime Minister Atal Vehari Bajpai used the words “touch and go” to describe the situation. The fear was that if a war broke out it could turn out to be the first nuclear war in history, with both sides using nuclear weapons. The results, obviously, would be devastating. It was essentially recognition by the leaders of the two countries of the horrors of a nuclear holocaust, coupled with American diplomacy, in particular the forceful efforts of Secretary of State Colin Powell, that prevented this great human tragedy from occurring.
It is against this background that we need to analyze the nuclear danger in South Asia, and the danger South Asia poses to the rest of the world.
According to an article in The Atlantic magazine, India’s “ ‘intention to acquire (nuclear weapons) apparently dated back to even before the Partition, when Jawaharlal Nehru, looking forward to independence, said “I hope Indian scientists will use the atomic force for constructive purposes, but if India is threatened, she will invariably try to defend herself by all means at her disposal.’” (November 2005, p.68) Apparently, India started working on the production of nuclear weapons as early as the 1950s, while Nehru was the prime minister. India’s defeat by China in 1962 further accelerated India’s nuclear program. Just before China’s first nuclear test explosion in 1964, “India had the necessary ingredients for an atomic bomb: nuclear fuel (from a Canadian-supplied Cirus research reactor) and a facility to reprocess this fuel into weapons-grade plutonium.” (Toby Dalton, “Towards Nuclear Rollback in South Asia,” Current History, December 1998, p. 412) Gradually, “India acquired several nuclear power and research reactors (from the United States) through the Atoms for Peace program.” (Ibid)
It was during the prime ministership of Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, that India conducted a nuclear test in May 1974. “(B)eneath the desert of Rajasthan, near the Pakistani border, India detonated a fission device of roughly the same yield as the bomb that had destroyed Hiroshima.... The desert floor heaved, and a message of success was sent to the capital, New Delhi. It read, “ ‘The Buddha is smiling.’” (The Atlantic, p.70) It was ironical indeed to use the name of Buddha, a prince of peace, to break the news about the explosion of a nuclear bomb, which could kill and maim hundreds of thousands of human beings. India made another ironical claim; when it called its nuclear bomb a “peaceful device”! Although India’s nuclear test was initially based on the desire to achieve parity status with China, it ignored the real probability that its arch rival Pakistan would view it as a threat to its own security and, unwilling to be left behind in this race, would strive to match India’s nuclear capability. In fact, soon after the Indian nuclear test, Patrick Moynihan, US ambassador to India, is reported to have remarked to Indira Gandhi, “Madam Prime Minister, within a few years, Pakistan will also conduct a nuclear test.”
Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto started exploring various avenues to make Pakistan also a nuclear power. He was able to enter into an agreement with the French under which the latter were to provide Pakistan a nuclear reprocessing plant, which would be used for Pakistan’s energy needs and would not be used for military purposes. Bhutto’s objective was to have a reprocessing plant built with French assistance with which the Pakistani scientists, engineers, and technologists would naturally be associated. After acquiring the technical know-how, according to the plan, these Pakistani personnel would later on be able to secretly build a nuclear reprocessing plant which could be used for the production of nuclear weapons. During this period, Abdul Qadeer Khan, a Pakistani metallurgist, educated in Germany and the Netherlands, was working “for a Dutch subcontractor (in) a multinational European (consortium called URENCO) to develop centrifuge technology for enrichment of uranium.” (Newsweek, June 8, 1998, p. 27) “...A. Q. Khan believed that the Buddha had smiled in anticipation of Pakistan’s death.... (W)ith the access he found to the URENCO centrifuge technology, he realized that by chance he was in a position to help Pakistan face the threat.” (The Atlantic, p. 70) In 1974, he wrote a letter to Bhutto and both met in Karachi in December. He argued that Pakistan should try to enrich uranium to produce a nuclear bomb. With Bhutto’s approval, Khan returned to the Netherlands and started smuggling copies of secret, valuable documents dealing with “centrifuge designs” to the Pakistan embassy and later, at the invitation of the Bhutto government, migrated to Pakistan in 1975 and secretly started working on building a uranium-enrichment industry and a nuclear bomb.
Bhutto’s government was overthrown by a military coup in 1977. The Supreme Court of Pakistan convicted Bhutto and gave him the death sentence. Despite pleas from all over the world, Ziaul Haq’s government hanged Bhutto in 1979. Zia’s martial law regime and Bhutto’s execution by this regime isolated Pakistan in the international community and the French, who were under great pressure from the Carter administration to withdraw their offer of building a nuclear reprocessing plant in Pakistan, found a good excuse to withdraw their offer. However, luck was on Pakistan’s side. On the Christmas eve of 1979, large numbers of Soviet troops crossed the international border and entered Pakistan’s northern neighbor, Afghanistan, to salvage its tottering communist regime. Reagan’s election in 1980 provided Pakistan an excellent opportunity to receive massive economic and military assistance from the US as Pakistan became the front-line state in combating the Soviet threat which loomed large over the Persian Gulf and South Asia. While Pakistan and the US jointly, though indirectly, fought the Soviets in Afghanistan for the next eight years, the former also made use of its close alliance with the US by continuing to work on its nuclear program, with Washington looking the other way.
“By 1986 Pakistan had crossed the threshold, and was able to fabricate several nuclear devices.” (The Atlantic, p. 80) Newsweek has given another interpretation to this development: “By 1986 Pakistan’s centrifuge technology was producing weapons-grade uranium. And by then, US officials believe, Pakistan had given China its uranium-enrichment secrets in exchange for the design of a small nuclear weapon.”(June 8, 1998, p. 27)
Towards the end of 1986, India amassed a huge number of its troops on Pakistan’s borders and the fear of another war was very much in the air. In order to warn the Indians to refrain from any thought of invading Pakistan, in January of 1987, with the apparent blessing of the Pakistan government, A.Q. Khan gave an interview to Kuldip Nayar, a prominent Indian journalist, in which he made it clear that Pakistan would use its nuclear weapons if its existence was threatened; although he later denied having made such a statement. The Indians also claimed that their diplomats in Islamabad were warned that Pakistan would not hesitate to use nuclear weapons if attacked. Pakistan denied the veracity of these statements. In this regard, another episode makes interesting reading. According to The Atlantic, “At the time (1987) when the opposing armies stood face- to- face along the border, and India was contemplating a pre-emptive strike, General Zia flew to an Indian-Pakistani cricket match in India, where he sat beside (Prime Minister) Rajiv Gandhi and, it is alleged, at one point leaned over and said, ‘If your forces cross our border by an inch, we are going to annihilate your cities.’ Whether or not he spoke those words, India soon withdrew its army.” (The Atlantic, p. 82)
By the early 1990s, it was generally believed that, despite their official denials, both India and Pakistan were either in possession of nuclear weapons or could produce such weapons at short notice. Both India and Pakistan had refused to sign the nuclear non proliferation treaty. Pakistan, however, was willing to sign the treaty if India did the same. India’s argument was that the treaty was discriminatory in nature and perpetuated the monopoly of five powers over nuclear weapons. The Indian argument ignored the obvious fact that the world would be more unsafe if, for instance, 20 countries, instead of only five, possessed nuclear weapons.
The government of Pakistan made several proposals to end the nuclear race in South Asia, including the following:
1. Both India and Pakistan should declare that they would not produce any nuclear weapons.
2. Both India and Pakistan should agree that their nuclear research facilities would be inspected by the International Atomic Energy Agency or by the inspection teams of the two countries.
Both these proposals were rejected by India. They went into the dustbin of history when “in May of 1998 India broke a twenty-four-year hiatus and tested five atomic bombs, the largest of which was claimed to be a thermonuclear (fusion) device with a yield of forty-three kilotons, roughly three times that of Little Boy, which took out Hiroshima.” (Ibid, p.84) The decision to explode the nuclear bombs “was made for domestic political reasons by the insecure leaders of the governing Hindu Nationalist Party, the BJP, who wanted to impress the masses with their strength. Sure enough, after the tests there was widespread jubilation on the streets. The celebrants ignored the possibility that the next time a nuclear weapon was ignited in India, it might be dropping in from Pakistan and vaporizing them.”(Ibid)
Pakistan took these tests very seriously and regarded them as a direct threat, particularly because of the statements made by some important Indian leaders, including the Deputy Prime Minister L. K. Advani. He “declared that Islamabad would have to submit to this reality, particularly as it affected the dispute over Kashmir, and that Indian troops would henceforth chase Kashmiri insurgents in ‘hot pursuit’ right back across the border in Pakistan.... As part of the package, the Indian press was full of taunts, challenging the Pakistanis to show, if they could, that their nuclear arsenal was anything more than a bluff. Either way the Indians figured to gain: if the Pakistanis did not now test a nuclear device, they would demonstrate their weakness, with delicious consequences for local balance of power; if they did test, and successfully, they would join India as a target of international sanctions, and would suffer disproportionately...” (Ibid)
The US government put a lot of pressure on Pakistan not to follow India’s example and President Clinton made several offers to Pakistan, including increased financial aid and supply of more and new weapons. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was initially interested in accepting the US advice. However, four major factors tilted Pakistan’s decision in favor of conducting nuclear tests. Firstly, almost all political parties, including Benazir Bhutto’s People’s Party, and particularly the religious parties, started a mass agitation against the government for procrastination in this matter and demanded vociferously that Pakistan should immediately conduct nuclear tests in response to India’s. Secondly, as stated above, some of the statements by the Indian leaders were extremely bellicose, threatening Pakistan with all sorts of consequences, if Pakistan did not change its policy with regard to Kashmir. Such statements were taken very seriously by the Pakistani rulers who, realizing Pakistan’s weakness in conventional weapons vis-a-vis India, felt that by not going nuclear, Pakistan would be too vulnerable to Indian pressures and demands. Thirdly, despite President Clinton’s assurances to Pakistan that the US would considerably increase economic and military assistance to that country, the Pakistan government knew that in the American political system, based on separation of powers, the president’s powers with regard to foreign aid were limited. Because of the controversial nature of the issue, some members of Congress could block the president’s request for increased aid to Pakistan. Fourthly, Nawaz Sharif openly admitted to President Clinton in a telephonic conversation with the latter that he would be ousted from power if he did not accede to popular demand with regard to the tests.
“On the night of May 27, 1998 just hours before the scheduled test, word was received from Saudi intelligence that Israeli fighters, flying on behalf of India ... were inbound to take out Pakistan’s nuclear facilities.... Pakistan scrambled its own fighters and rolled its missiles out of their shelters in preparation to launch.... (T)he Indians responded immediately by preparing their own aircraft and missiles, and for a few hours the countries came close, perhaps, to a nuclear exchange. Had this occurred, it would have been just the sort of reflexive slaughter that people fear .... But on the night of May 27, at least the leaders of Pakistan had the sense to hesitate and pick up their phones. The United States and other nations assured them that they were safe, the Israeli attack never materialized.” (Ibid)
On May 28 Pakistan responded to the Indian challenge. “That afternoon a small group of Pakistanis associated with the weapons program gathered in a concrete bunker in Chagai (Baluchistan) facing the chosen mountain seven miles away. Pakistan later reported that five nuclear bombs had been placed inside the test tunnel ..., 800 feet beneath the mountain’s peak. The bombs were fission devices... containing highly enriched uranium .... One bomb was said to be large, and four to be small. They were wired to detonate simultaneously.... The official number of five was intended to match India’s test exactly - with the special surprise of a sixth bomb tested elsewhere two days later, to one-up the score. The tunnel was sealed with heavy concrete plugs. At 3:15 p. m.... a technician pushed the button saying “Allah- o-Akbar.’ ” After a delay of thirty-five seconds... the mountain heaved, shrouding itself in dust.... When the dust settled , the mountain’s color had turned white.” (Ibid, p. 85) It is ironical that because of the institutional rivalry between the Kahuta Laboratory and the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) and pettifoggery in Pakistani politics, the Kahuta Lab personnel, the real builders of the Pakistani bomb, were given a marginal role on this eventful occasion and Samar Mubarakmand of the PAEC was chosen the leader of the test site and after the test, it was he who was received as a hero by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and hundreds of cheering admirers at Islamabad airport.
There are different reports about the number of nuclear weapons India and Pakistan currently possess. But it is certain that they have enough to destroy major cities in the two countries and kill and maim hundreds of millions of their citizens. In addition, a nuclear war would create major environmental hazards way beyond South Asia. As stated above, the two countries were on the verge of a nuclear war in 1998 and 2002. There is no guarantee that such an eventuality would not arise again. It is, therefore, a matter of utmost seriousness not only for India and Pakistan but for the whole world, especially for the United States, to foreclose any possibility of a nuclear holocaust in South Asia.
Some Pakistani intellectuals have suggested a unilateral nuclear disarmament by Pakistan. This is an unrealistic and unhelpful proposal. Nuclear weapons have proved to be a deterrent in South Asia as with the world’s great powers; they have had a sobering effect on policy makers and have proved to be an argument for not going to war. In all probability, a war would have broken out in 1998 or in 2002, but for Pakistani nuclear capability.
However, in order to preclude any possibility of a nuclear war in South Asia, some steps are necessary, including the following:
Without any delay, India and Pakistan should sign a No-War Pact. More than 50 years ago, such an agreement was proposed by Prime Minister Nehru but was rejected by the Pakistani government. The latter’s argument was that as long as the Kashmir dispute remained unsolved, the no-war pact would simply legitimize the status quo in that state. After the 1971 war, Pakistan took the initiative and made the no-war pact offer to India. However, this time Nehru’s daughter, who was Prime Minister, refused to sign such an agreement. She demanded a more comprehensive treaty, which would not only exclude the use of military force by either state, but would also include close economic, cultural, and commercial ties between the two countries. At that time, Pakistan was not willing to go that far. Now that the so-called “confidence-building measures” are in full swing and regular and frequent exchanges of delegations in all walks of life are taking place between the two neighbors, it is imperative that both countries should at least solemnly declare that war will not be an option to settle their disputes.
The “command and control” system with regard to nuclear weapons is a crucial element in nuclearization. There should be safety checks with regard to the power of an individual to push the button. Also, a foolproof arrangement should be in place to preclude any possibility of an accidental war. One hopes that the hot line already established between Islamabad and New Delhi works in all situations and is never severed by mechanical problems or human inefficiency, both not uncommon occurrences in South Asia. It is generally believed that India and Pakistan have dispersed their nuclear weapons throughout their territories in order to protect them from the possibility of being destroyed by a single strike. It is imperative to assure their total security from theft, vandalism or any other mishap.
As has been pointed out earlier, the main cause of enmity between India and Pakistan is the Kashmir dispute. If this dispute is settled, there is no reason that these South Asian neighbors cannot live in peace and harmony. In fact, it was the ardent hope of Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, that his country and India would have the same kind of friendly and peaceful relations as the US and Canada. For the solution of the Kashmir problem the United States could play a vital role. As the only Super Power it has the ability, in fact the responsibility, to help solve this dispute, which has taken, more than once, the two Asian neighbors to the brink of a catastrophic nuclear disaster and has already resulted in the loss of thousands of lives. Solving the Kashmir dispute would also bring about some other major benefits, notably important economic and social gains. The colossal amounts these two countries are currently spending on their military buildup could be diverted to provide better health and educational facilities for their teeming populations, and improve the overall quality of life for hundreds of millions. Also, it is important to bear in mind that an educated populace, with ample employment opportunities where people are optimistic about their own and their children’s future, produces fewer terrorists.
Fear, ignorance, and poverty are the breeding grounds of terrorism.


Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
2004 . All Rights Reserved.