The statement by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh that India sticks to its No-first-Use (NFU) policy on nuclear arms, but it may change in future according to the circumstances, has led to responses which were not unexpected. The minister made this pronouncement during his speech on the occasion of the first death anniversary of former prime minister Vajpayee at Pokhran where two atom bombs were tested. His statement “Till today, our nuclear policy is ‘no first use’. What happens in future depends on the circumstances" is widely seen as aiming at Pakistan. But it has also raised concern among advocates of of peace and the anti-nuclear camp too.
NFU policy was formulated by India in 2003. Today, nuclear arms are being developed not with the intention of using them, but more to deter an enemy fom developing it. The world witnessed the destructive power of this weapon when in 1945 it made Hiroshima and Nagasaki of Japan land of ghosts. That was how Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) came into being. But as long as nations in possession of nuclear weapons do not destroy them, such treaties are bound to remain unilateral. Countries including India, which made nucelar weapons in the meanwhile, have been justifying the decision with the declaration that they do not intend to be its first users but want to have it only for the purpose of deterrence (of other countries from using it). In 2003, a cabinet sub-committee not only decided but also announced it as a policy principle. There was also an addendum to the decision of NFU: if at all there is an attack on us, the retaliation will be very severe. Experts are of the opinion that this policy of sitting in full gear, but not using it first, has been effective so far.
But what makes nuclear weapon distinct from other weapons is not only its striking force, but other repercussions too. It has the capabililty to burn a whole geographical zone to ashes. And among those that perish, regardless of military or non-military, with no distinction between battle-field and civilian area. It will also wreak havoc on environment, crossing not only borders of space, but even of time. Nuclear warfare is one in which no one wins and every one loses. Even if it is detonated by ignorance, misunderstanding or error, it will send several innocent generations to hellish suffering. It was in realization of these facts, combined with the anxiety natural of any country about its national security that the pragmatic slogan of ‘No First Use’ evolved. Today nuclear arms are more lethal than before, making it now inevitable to have an NFU policy. Clarity on this position will also deter the race for nuclear weapons. Although the defence minister has reiterated that this policy has not been changed, the very hint about the possibillity of that changing in future is seen by observers as creating a dangerous ambiguity.
Even as it pursues its NFU policy, India can initiate efforts to abolish this terrible weapon at a global level. Any country would need nuclear weapons only as long as the enemy possesses it; therefore it will be a major progress if it can be eliminated from everywhere. Even if nuclear weapons are not used, over two thousand nuclear tests have been conducted in atmosphere, sea and underground. Of this, those in atmosphere alone have caused radiation of a scale that can cause the death of 15 lakh people. Add to it the pollution caused by other tests and the nuclear waste left behind. The cost involved in all this is beyond anyone’s imagination. Suffice is to say that global elimination of nuclear weapons will only be profitable and beneficial for all.