World·Analysis

India's hint at abandoning no-first-use nuclear policy seen as provocation in tense times

India's defence minister hinted last month it's not a given that India will always stick to its no-first-use (NFU) nuclear policy, talk seen by experts as a provocation during tense times that could help corner it into a conflict with neighbouring Pakistan.

India has promised since 2003 to not use nuclear weapons on any country unless struck first

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, centre, shown arriving at Parliament House in New Delhi on Aug. 5, 2019, tweeted last week about India possibly shedding its nuclear no-first-use policy. (Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty Images)

Talk from India about possibly scrapping its no-first-use (NFU) nuclear policy is a provocation during tense times that could help corner it into a conflict with neighbouring Pakistan, also a nuclear state, experts say.

Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh tweeted last Friday that India's future commitment to no first use — a promise to not use nukes on an adversary unless struck first—"depends on the circumstances."

Singh spoke after his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Narendra Modi, removed the semi-autonomous status of India-administered Kashmir (previously protected by Article 370 of the Indian constitution) on Aug. 5. The whole of Kashmir is split by India and Pakistan, but claimed by both sides in its entirety. 

"It's not the first time that an Indian official has thrown around the idea of rethinking the first-use policy, but Singh is the most senior one to do so, and at a time when both sides have ratcheted up their rhetoric," Michael Kugelman, a scholar at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., and its deputy director for South Asia, told CBC News.

Kugelman emphasized that the Pakistanis see India's Kashmir move as a provocation. 

Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi pointed to Singh's tweet as a "reminder of India's unbridled thirst for violence."

"It's not overly sensationalist to say that either country might find itself on a war footing," Kugelman said. "India's scrapping of Article 370 is itself an escalatory act that shows how this administration is willing to do what previous ones have only talked about."

Ashok Sharma, a visiting fellow at the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA), said India's growing economic, military and diplomatic clout has enabled it to assert its core interests in the international arena, often in the face of protest by regional rivals like Pakistan.

Sharma noted how India's move to take over Kashmir isolates Pakistan. Not even Pakistan's close allies have rallied to it in the aftermath of the move, he said.

Both nuclear powers, India and Pakistan have traded barbs over Kashmir and seem to be edging closer to conflict. (CBC News)

Stripping India-administered Kashmir of its special status was a promise Modi made in 2014 as part of his party's election platform, but the move earlier this month still caught the region by surprise. 

Indian security forces have also clamped down on Kashmir and arrested thousands of people while cutting off telecommunications. 

India's strongman image

"India has long portrayed itself as a peaceful nuclear power buttressed by the NFU," said Rishi Paul, an analyst at the British American Security Information Council (BASIC). "A break from that would indicate a cultural shift, which puts both India and Pakistan on a collision course."

He noted the rise of the BJP, which was re-elected this year (with full control of parliament), is part of the global surge in nationalism. He said the administration's Hindu nationalist background is driving a rhetoric that's helping to corner both India and Pakistan into a conflict. 

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, shown at a ceremony for the country's 73rd Independence Day in New Delhi on Aug. 15, 2019, promised in 2014 in his party's election platform that he'd strip India-administered Kashmir of its special status. (Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty Images)

"I see this more as part of the Modi government's hyper-nationalistic take on all things related to national security," said Moeed Yusuf, associate vice-president of the Asia centre at the Washington-based U.S. Institute of Peace. "Singh's statements add to the Indian government's strongman image."

Yusuf emphasized that Pakistan likely doesn't see India's adherence to its NFU policy as all that sincere. Multiple Indian officials have qualified it over the years and the policy has, in Yusuf's estimation, been "watered down." 

'Only need 1 trigger'

"You only need one trigger and immediately the two countries will be put onto a war footing," Kugelman said, "It won't necessarily be a nuclear fight, but they're likely due for another conflict."

A lot of what happens next depends on how Pakistan decides to retaliate or respond to India's Kashmir move. Already, skirmishes along that border have seen several people killed, though the two countries dispute the exact number of dead. 

"Things are heating up and will continue to," Yusuf said. "The situation in Kashmir is certain to get worse as the curfew is lifted and Kashmiris find space to resist.

"The Indian government's posturing suggests that they too are in no mood to relent. This could get bloody, and if you have major militant attacks in this period, India will surely blame Pakistan, and we could see swift escalation."

About the Author

Steven Zhou is an investigative journalist and a Senior Writer for CBC News.