On May 28 each year, Pakistan proudly celebrates its decision to conduct nuclear tests, codenamed as Chagai-I and Chagai-II. On this day, Pakistan achieved credible nuclear deterrence in response to Indian nuclear detonation to balance the South Asian strategic dynamics. Pakistan’s new generation, especially under the age of 30s, must research the question, why their country went nuclear despite severe economic and political constraints? What were those genuine security concerns which convinced policy experts in Islamabad that nuclear capability and its overt demonstration has become inevitable? In my opinion, there was only one apprehension, India’s nuclear weapons, which induced Pakistan to pursue operational nuclear weapon programme.
It all started in 1974, four years after the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty(NPT) had entered into force when most of the countries were in oblivion that the world will never see Sixth nuclear weapons state. On May 18, 1974, India conducted its first successful test of a nuclear device, codenamed Smiling Buddha and became the sixth nation to have exploded a fission device. This test was kind of a discourteous awakening for post-NPT nuclear order because people thought that the issue of nuclear proliferation has been settled, once for all. The New York Times evaluated the India nuclear explosion in Rajasthan as a crucial development which strengthened India’s powerful military position on the subcontinent and provided firmer leverage over the nation’s major rival, Pakistan. Therefore, the civil and military establishment in Pakistan took this Indian act seriously.
A well-devised strategy to achieve nuclear capability was not only necessary to maintain strategic balance but also important to neutralize the nuclear threat posed by New Delhi. Indian claims of conducting a ‘peaceful nuclear explosion, experiment,’ met with staunch refusal by Pakistan to accept that the Indian intention of acquiring nuclear know-how is for peaceful purposes. Pakistan’s resolve for nuclear deterrent was solely based on strategic threats generated by its arch-rival. Not withstanding, the world was reluctant to coerce India to avoid nuclear weapon ambitions. World powers had just taken preliminary and ineffective steps, like the initiation of Nuclear Suppliers Groups (NSG), which had proven futile. Pakistan knew that the formation of NSG is just an eyewash and contemporarily, world eagerness to offer NSG membership to India has validated Pakistan’s stance of the 1970s.
Pakistan mooted the idea of declaring South Asia a nuclear weapon-free zone much before the Smiling Buddha took place. In September 1972, the Pakistani representative, Munir Ahmad Khan, in the 16th annual session of the UN Atomic Energy Conference, presented a framework to denuclearize South Asia similar to the Tlatelolco Treaty for the denuclearization of Latin America. In 1978 and 1979, Pakistan again suggested two strategically imperative proposals to India. First, Islamabad offered New Delhi to sign bilateral agreement to abandon procurement of nuclear weapons and secondly, it presented an opportunity of simultaneous adherence to NPT. India refused these proposals because the international community neither facilitated Islamabad nor coerced New Delhi to materialize these nuclear non-proliferation initiatives.
Pakistan showed restraint for almost three decades that world powers will expedite a secure path for nuclear-free South Asia but great powers were busy in proxy wars. And finally, from 11 to 13 May 1998, India conducted a series of nuclear explosions and abandoned the decades of ambiguity prevailing on its nuclear weapon programme. Pakistan demanded a swift and severe punishment for India, where sanctions are not simply enough. The former Prime Minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto, in an opinion piece for Los Angeles Times asked for a preemptive military strike to neutralize India’s nuclear capability. She predicted that “West will impose sanctions for some time but ultimately acquiesce to India as a nuclear power. After a decade, the West will reward India, as a nuclear power, with a seat on the U.N. Security Council along with other members of the nuclear club.”
Nevertheless, instead of litigating second round of Indian nuclear test, the West started to pressurize Pakistan to not reciprocate. But this time, Pakistan didn’t resort to complacent approach and conducted five underground nuclear tests to set the score with India. The sole purpose of Pakistan’s nuclear tests was to ensure self-reliance in ultimate strategic defence against any Indian offence. India is responsible for promoting the nuclear arms competition in South Asia and Pakistan showed ample restraint to avoid this arms race. Unfortunately, global community didn’t appreciate the Pakistani efforts in the past to make South Asia nuclear weapons free zone. South Asia’s strategic and political scenario would have been extraordinarily different today, if international community had listened to Pakistan’s apprehensions regarding Indian nuclear offence in 1974. Today, things are not different from the 1970s, where New Delhi has nuclearized Indian ocean and militarized space affairs under the rubric of peaceful purposes, while Islamabad has proposed for nuclear-free Indian Ocean and weapon free space.