Chain Reaction: How the Subcontinent Went Nuclear. (World in Review)

By Hsin, Honor | Harvard International Review, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Chain Reaction: How the Subcontinent Went Nuclear. (World in Review)


Hsin, Honor, Harvard International Review


Although events such as the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis sparked global fear of nuclear war, careful diplomacy between the United States and the Soviet Union led to the emergence of a stable nuclear balance. The 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty banned the possession of nuclear weapons for all but five recognized countries and was later amended to include the ultimate goal of nuclear disarmament. The 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty ensured that neither the United States nor the Soviet Union would construct missile defenses, relying instead on the logic of mutually assured destruction to maintain peace. Other initiatives followed to reduce nuclear stockpiles on both sides, and other countries agreed to relinquish nuclear status in anticipation of progress toward the global elimination of nuclear weapons.

But the threat of nuclear war remains. A new nuclear culture has emerged in South Asia, one that reveres the bomb with almost religious intensity in the midst of bitter territorial conflict. New approaches to crisis intervention and nuclear control are needed, as well as a deeper understanding of the role of nuclear weapons in a region characterized by historic clashes, rapid technological gains, and impoverished populations.

Recent conflicts between India and Pakistan are only the latest chapter in a history of tension that dates back to the 1947 division of British India into separate countries with Hindu and Muslim majorities. The current dispute has arisen primarily over the fertile and strategically important region of Kashmir, claimed as an Islamic territory by Pakistan and as a secular ethnic province by India. While the United States and the Soviet Union never directly fired on each other and were separated by approximately 30 minutes of missile flight time during the Cold War, India and Pakistan have already fought three wars, and a missile fired by one country can reach the other in three to five minutes. Furthermore, their hastily wrought nuclear doctrines, developed as rapidly as the weapons were constructed, heighten the risk of nuclear deployment in the face of escalating tension.

Nuclear Origins

Both India and Pakistan began their quest for nuclear technology shortly after gaining independence from Britain. They initially borrowed much from Western nuclear theory, using bomb materials constructed with Western techniques and justifying their claims to nuclear power by invoking Cold War motives. In 1948 Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, created the Indian Atomic Energy Commission and declared that nuclear energy would be used for "peaceful purposes," but that "if compelled ... to use it for other purposes, possibly no pious sentiments will stop the nation from using it that way." With aid from the United States, Canada, and other countries, India began constructing nuclear reactors and uranium mines.

India's defeat in its 1962 conflict with China, during which China gained a portion of Indian Kashmir, as well as China's subsequent nuclear test in 1964, spurred Indian leaders to develop a nuclear program. Research in nuclear technology began, and in May 1974 India tested a plutonium bomb with an explosive yield of five to 12 kilotons. An immediate surge of public approval and patriotism ensued, and the bomb became an instant symbol of Indian nationalism.

Western countries immediately denounced the 1974 test and formed the Nuclear Suppliers Group, a coalition aimed at restricting the flow of nuclear technology and materials to nations that had not yet signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, however, continued to support nuclear research. In 1983 the Indian Air Force considered a pre-emptive strike against Pakistan's nuclear facility at Kahuta, though Gandhi later decided against the measure for fear of retaliation. In the same year, however, India launched the Integrated Guided Missile Development Program to engineer ballistic missiles. …

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