Next Steps For Nuclear Talks

by Zia Mian, A.H. Nayyar, R. Rajaraman, M.V. Ramana

(The authors are all theoretical physicists - Zia Mian is at Princeton University, USA; A.H. Nayyar at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad; R. Rajaraman at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi; and M. V. Ramana at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies in Environment and Development, Bangalore)

June 24, 2004

It is talking time again. Pakistani and Indian government officials met in New Delhi on June 19 and 20 to talk. The Foreign Ministers met briefly in China on 21 June, the Foreign Secretaries will apparently talk sometime in late July, and there are suggestions of a possible summit meeting between President Pervez Musharraf and India's new Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. But while talking is better than fighting, it is important to remember the fact that India and Pakistan have met and talked many times since the 1999 Lahore summit, where the Prime Ministers claimed that they shared "a vision of peace and stability between their countries, and of progress and prosperity for their peoples". What followed Lahore however was not peace or stability but instead the Kargil war, the armed stand-off in 2002 after jihadis attacked India's parliament, spiraling military spending, missile test after missile test, and the consolidation of  nuclear strategies.

Leaders on both sides seem to recognise that their nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles cast a dark, potentially fatal shadow over the future of both countries. India's new Foreign Minister Natwar Singh recently declared "To me personally, the most important thing on our agenda should be the nuclear dimension". General Musharraf claims that "we have been saying let's make South Asia a nuclear-free zone". He also suggested that "If mutually there is an agreement of reduction of nuclear assets, Pakistan would be willing". These are hopeful indications. But we have heard such words before.

After the recent meeting on reducing the risks of nuclear weapons in the region, the joint statement claimed the two states shared a "positive framework, aimed at taking the process forward, and making them result oriented". Sad to say, the aim seemed more to portray themselves as ėresponsible' nuclear weapons states and the agreements that were actually announced amounted to little more than a step sideways.

The only new measure is another hotline, this time linking the two foreign secretaries, through their respective foreign offices, "to prevent misunderstandings and reduce risks relevant to nuclear issues". There are several hotlines already. J.N. Dixit, a former Foreign Secretary of India and newly appointed as National Security Adviser reports in his book "India-Pakistan in War and Peace" that in November 1990 Prime Ministers Chandra Sekhar and Nawaz Sharif met during a SAARC Summit in Male, and "decided to establish a direct hotline. They also took a decision to activate the hotline between the offices of the foreign secretaries and the directors of military operations". In Mr. Dixit's judgement "hotline conversations between the director-generals of military operations remain routine and the prime ministerial hotline has seldom been used, as has the hotline between the two foreign secretaries". The war, near war and turmoil in the past five years certainly suggest that these lines of communication are not very satisfactory in preventing or defusing crises.

India and Pakistan need to go beyond just finding ways and means to talk to each other about the risks of nuclear weapons. They need to agree on measures that will concretely reduce the nuclear danger. A little common sense shows there are some obvious things that they could do, if they want to do more than just build ėconfidence' while their nuclear arsenals keep growing.

Both India and Pakistan have emphasised repeatedly that they seek only a "minimum" nuclear arsenal. General Musharraf's remarks about Pakistan's willingness to consider a "reduction of nuclear assets" makes clear that this threshold has already been crossed. This should be no surprise. Pakistan and India have been making the fissile material (the nuclear explosive) for their weapons as fast as they can for decades. They already have enough for several dozen nuclear weapons. The table below shows the casualties that would be inflicted if they each used only five of these weapons against the others cities (assuming each weapon is about the same size as those tested in May 1998) A total of 2.9 million deaths is predicted for these cities in India and Pakistan with an additional 1.5 million severely injured.[r1] The experience of death and destruction on this scale would be beyond imagination for either country.


Total population within 5 km of explosion


Severely Injured


















New Delhi

























India and Pakistan can inflict much more than this devastation, using only a fraction of the nuclear weapons they already have. It is beyond any understanding why they continue to produce more fissile material for more nuclear weapons. The two countries should stop making more fissile material. And, no more of the existing fissile material stockpile should be turned into nuclear weapons. Each weapon could destroy a city.

It is clear that weapons like those tested in May 1998 are destructive enough to kill hundreds of thousands of people in any major subcontinental city on which they were used. This has not been enough to stop India and Pakistan continuing with research and development on nuclear weapons. Like other countries with nuclear weapons, India and Pakistan seek to make their nuclear weapons both more destructive and more compact.<outbind://14/#_msocom_2>[r2] A simple, small, step towards nuclear restraint, and building confidence, would be for both countries to call a halt to the further development of these weapons. This would be a clear sign that the future can offer something other than the paranoid logic of racing to build more and more lethal weapons.

In the recent meeting, India and Pakistan repeated their unilateral declarations to conduct no further nuclear weapons tests. At the same time, neither seems willing to sign the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), the 1996 international agreement banning explosive nuclear weapons tests ń which has been signed by all the other nuclear weapons states (US, Russia, Britain, France and China, as well as Israel), and by 166 other countries. India and Pakistan's reluctance is hard to understand. Their joint statement says each state will refrain from nuclear testing "unless, in exercise of national sovereignty, it decides that extraordinary events have jeopardized its supreme interests". This conditionality is already there in Article 9 of the CTBT, which allows a state to withdraw from the Treaty, and by implication carry out a nuclear test. Therefore, India and Pakistan would lose nothing by signing this Treaty.

By formally joining the Treaty, India and Pakistan would help ensure that the international community is better placed to restrain any nuclear weapons state or would-be nuclear state from carrying out a nuclear test. This was why the idea of a treaty banning all nuclear tests was floated in 1954 by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. In the fifty years since then, there have been over 2000 nuclear tests conducted around the world. These made possible unimaginably destructive nuclear arsenals, killed and injured uncounted numbers of people through radioactive fallout and contaminated the environment for centuries to come. It was to stop this that the CTBT was created. Now, even though it is a signatory to the CTBT, US nuclear weapons laboratories and nuclear hawks are seeking new nuclear weapons for use against third world countries. They want to resume testing, perhaps in the next few years. If this is allowed to happen, nuclear weaponeers and militaries in other nuclear weapons states, including in Pakistan and India, will surely push to follow the US lead. It is important to prevent a second age of nuclear weapons testing.

The Lahore agreements and the announcement of the new hotline recognise that, despite the best laid plans and supposedly fool-proof technology, accidents do happen. In particular, the two governments committed themselves in Lahore to "reducing the risks of accidental or unauthorized use of nuclear weapons". These risks are directly linked to the deployment of nuclear weapons; deployment might involve for example putting the weapons on ballistic missiles or keeping the weapons at military airbases close to planes that may carry them. If the nuclear weapons are not given over to military forces and not kept ready to use, there is much less danger of them being used by whoever happens to have charge of them at that moment, or of them being involved in an accident. These are elementary safety measures. All India and Pakistan need do, at least as a start, is to announce that they will carry out these non-deployment measures.

The two sides also agreed in Lahore "to notify each other immediately in the event of any accidental, unauthorized or unexplained incident that could create the risk of a fallout with adverse consequences for both sides, or of an outbreak of a nuclear war between the two countries, as well as to adopt measures aimed at diminishing the possibility of such actions or incidents being misinterpreted by the other." The new hotline is meant to address the first part of this agreement. The two states should go on and agree to draw up together a list of all the possible "accidental, unauthorized or unexplained" incidents that they would like the other side to tell them about. This would lay the basis for sharing descriptions of what measures each has taken to reduce the risks of possible accidents and unauthorized incidents.

All the steps suggested here are no more than commonsense. But this is often in short supply in all countries with nuclear weapons. Advice on nuclear issues in both India and Pakistan is dominated by the nuclear weapons complex, the military and the foreign ministries. Because they deal with nuclear weapons, this advice is shrouded in secrecy. Expert they may well be, infallible no one is. And, like all institutions, they inevitably have a vested interest in keeping their power, influence and funding, and seeking more. It is these very agencies that have brought us to the point of having to worry about the risk of a nuclear war that might kill millions and of nuclear accidents. To find a way forward, governments in both countries would do well to seek out other perspectives, ask for second opinions, find people from outside the government establishments who can help develop new ideas, and encourage an informed and open public debate.

It will be no easy path from our present nuclear-armed confrontation to the "peace and stability, progress and prosperity" promised at Lahore and so far denied. We must walk it together with courage and conviction.

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