India Short Introductions: Indian Nuclear Policy -Book Review

Pant and Joshi’s book Indian Nuclear Policy makes a decent effort to delineate the path of Indian nuclear policy since independence.

Pant and Joshi’s book Indian Nuclear Policy makes a decent effort to delineate the path of Indian nuclear policy since independence and highlights the main discussions in terms of policies and concepts that have influenced this path. The central theme of the book is the story of India’s evolution from a “nuclear pariah” that was subjected to sanctions following its nuclear breakout in 1998 to a de facto member of the global nuclear community, with limited formal institutional representation but mostly unconsidered as a “problem.” Pant and Joshi highlight India’s integration as a triumph for New Delhi’s pursuit of security and status. The authors have significant experience; one is a professor of international relations and columnist, and the other specializes in Indian foreign and security policy. Their book delves into history, politics, the role of individuals, policy, and, at times, capabilities in order to explain the evolution of the Indian nuclear policy.

The book is a five-chapter, 165-page summary of Indian nuclear policy and part of the “India Short Introductions” series. The first chapter highlights the initial stage of India’s involvement with nuclear energy. It explains how Prime Minister Nehru with the help of Homi Bhabha established atomic energy research, scientific institutions, and the reaction of India to global nuclear debates. Chapter 2 delineates India’s nuclear policy after the Chinese nuclear test in October 1964 till India’s “Peaceful Nuclear Explosion” in May of 1974. The third chapter focuses on the nuclear behaviour of India after its first nuclear explosion. It highlights the complexities India experienced during 1974 – 1984, mainly the emanating non-proliferation regime and the perceived peril of nuclear Pakistan.

Chapter 4 details the final steps of India’s path to becoming a nuclear weapon state. It describes that during 1984-1998, as the perceived threat posed by Pakistan’s nuclear weapons became increasingly evident and the non-proliferation regime strengthened, Indian nuclear uncertainty became unsustainable. It highlights how the five-decade-old policy then came to an end in May 1998 when India conducted nuclear weapon tests. The fifth and last chapters depict India’s evolution into a significant nuclear power in the last twenty years. Following the 1998 tests, it explores the critical changes and continuities in India’s nuclear policy.

The foundations of India’s atomic energy programme were laid by Prime Minister Nehru and Homi Bhabha, who singlehandedly decided the country’s nuclear pathway, created institutions, and pronounced the thrust of its nuclear policy in the first two decades. The book highlights that despite the emphasis on self-reliance, foreign aid and collaboration were necessary for India to achieve its first significant success in atomic energy. While glorifying India’s nuclear programme, the authors point out that from that point on, a key component of India’s nuclear strategy continued to be technical cooperation in the peaceful applications of nuclear energy. It also translated into India’s opposition to the advanced nuclear technology states’ stringent control over nuclear technology and materials.

Pant and Joshi have divided Indian nuclear policy pre-1998 into three main parts: “nuclear ambiguity, selective defiance of the global nuclear order, and a crusade against nuclear weapons”. Initially, India had kept a peaceful front while acquiring threshold nuclear capability. The idea of a test ban was first proposed by Nehru, who also served as its most vocal proponent in public. India also persisted in its diplomatic campaign for the need to halt nuclear tests in the UN and other forums despite the superpowers’ rejection of it. Therefore, India’s first significant involvement in nuclear disarmament occurred when it had no significant stakes in the issue. It remained a non-nuclear weapons power even as its atomic energy capabilities advanced quickly. The authors state that although one of the pillars of India’s nuclear policy continued to be disarmament because India continued to be a nuclear state with ambiguity, the significant powers mostly disregarded its moral crusade against nuclear weapons.

Following the Chinese nuclear tests, India initiated the development of its nuclear explosive capability, disguised as “PNEs”. This decision was driven by a sense of insecurity arising from the Chinese tests and the domestic pressure faced by the Indian leadership to respond to the perceived threat. Eventually, India disobeyed the international nuclear regime, which it had previously considered unfair and unsustainable. It carried out a “PNE” in May 1974 after initially refusing to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968. Following that, it was made the main focus of the nuclear non-proliferation regime, which led to technological denials that severely hampered its nuclear energy development.

The authors have also narrated how India defeated Pakistan during the 1971 war and how Islamabad became even more determined to get the weapon. It points out the effect of the Bangladesh liberation war on India’s strategic environment. After the war, India became the military hegemon of the South Asian region, and Indra Gandhi gave her approval for the first Indian nuclear test. They have also underlined the impact of the security dilemma multiple times by highlighting that in the late 1980s, Pakistan successfully developed nuclear weapon capability, which prompted India to pursue the operationalization of its nuclear deterrent rapidly. In 1998, India officially declared itself a nuclear weapon state, with security being the primary factor in its nuclear strategy. The authors have repeatedly described India’s nuclear programme initially as “ambivalent” and stated that the 1998 nuclear tests not only put an end to India’s nuclear uncertainty but also made it clear that the country intended to use power as a tool to deal with international politics. After years of nuclear ambivalence, it adopted a policy of “nuclear certainty,” according to which having nuclear weapons was essential to its security and national identity.

Pant and Joshi also underline the shift that was seen in the behaviour of the international community towards the Indian nuclear programme. Initially, India received foreign assistance to support its nuclear energy programme; however, after it conducted “PNE” in 1974 and refused to sign NPT in 1964, it faced global criticism. During the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistan received military and economic aid from the US, and it tilted more towards developing ties with Pakistan, which again was not a favourable situation for India. However, the Kargil War changed the dynamic as international relations never stayed the same. The US sided with India throughout the Kargil conflict. Its’ policy in South Asia leaned toward New Delhi for the first time since 1971. In retrospect, the Kargil War—which at first looked like a nuclear flashpoint—turned out to be a “paradigm shift” in US-India ties.

Similarly, when India carried out a series of nuclear tests in 1998, the world community was against New Delhi because it was seen as one of the main threats to the non-proliferation regime. However, with the successful conclusion of the India–US civilian nuclear deal in 2008, India gained de facto status as a nuclear weapon state within ten years after the nuclear tests. Along with the removal of technological restrictions resulting from India’s tense relationship with the non-proliferation regime, it was acknowledged as a “state with advanced nuclear technology.”        The authors claim India reversed its long-standing opposition to the NPT and declared its complete support for the non-proliferation principle. India committed to following a rigorous export prohibition. Therefore, it emphasizes how the support of a global hegemon could change the dynamic.

The book concludes by discussing that India’s pursuit of prestige and security has shaped its nuclear policy, and India’s current goal is to fully integrate into the international nuclear order. The authors highlight that India’s nuclear policy will continue to be determined by security and status in the future. Given that they provide two different categories of nuclear dangers, China and Pakistan are perceived to continue to pose the biggest obstacles to India’s nuclear policy. Moreover, as a result of the Indo-US nuclear agreement, India is now the only non-NPT state with an acknowledged nuclear weapons program, a break from the global nuclear order. India has likewise advanced its nuclear arsenal quickly during the past 20 years.

The book has provided a clear and in-depth historical summary of events shaping Indian nuclear policy, so it can be concluded that nuclear weapons will remain of utmost importance to India. Pant and Joshi’s account provides a positive overview of the Indian nuclear program, and they have highlighted that India is still a limited nuclear power that views nuclear weapons more as political ploys than as a means of waging war. The book has demonstrated how criticism initially faced by India had decreased and instead gained the support of the international community, mainly the US.

The favouritism of the international community towards India can be perceived as the international community having double standards. Pakistan’s nuclear programme has faced intense criticism from the international community since the beginning and has been criticized as the “Islamic Bomb”. Moreover, India is rapidly advancing its nuclear arsenal, and its nuclear power sector is rapidly growing, even though the country still needs to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and address the Fissile Missile Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT). With the Nuclear Supplier Group (NSG) waiver granted by the US-Indo Agreement 2008, India has gained acceptance in the international nuclear order and access to the world energy market and trade. However, Pakistan, hoping to join the NSG, has yet to receive fair treatment.

The authors have repeatedly mentioned India’s first nuclear test to be a peaceful nuclear explosion. However, it was a nuclear weapon test under the disguise of “PNE”. Just like the authors’ quote, “India practice realism under the cloak of idealism”, it can be interpreted that India stresses its nuclear weapon test being a peaceful explosion and portrays itself as a strong proponent of the non-proliferation regime. However, it is not a part of any of the major treaties and is actively modernizing its nuclear weaponry with its nuclear strategy focusing on Pakistan and China. Similarly, speaking of the foreign assistance provided to India before its first test, Pant and Joshi highlight that Canada had supplied a reactor to India. It is important to note that minimal safeguards were included in the agreement with Canada, allowing India considerable leeway in producing plutonium for explosive devices using the reactor’s spent fuel. Thus, the authors have portrayed India positively by describing it as an advocate of peace. They have proudly delineated the unfair international support India has been receiving, while it keeps advancing its nuclear program and doesn’t ratify essential treaties.

Malaika Afridi
Malaika Afridi
The writer has majored in Politics and International Relations from the University of London International Programmes. Her interest areas are disarmament and arms control, nuclear non-proliferation, great powers, humanitarian action, sustainable development goals, and climate change.