Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said Friday that while India has strictly adhered to Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s doctrine of ‘No First Use’ (NFU) of nuclear weapons, “what happens in future depends on the circumstances”. It was not immediately clear whether the Defence Minister was suggesting that India might be willing to revisit NFU.
What is No First Use doctrine, and how did it come into being?
A commitment to not be the first to use a nuclear weapon in a conflict has long been India’s stated policy. Pakistan, by contrast, has openly threatened India with the use of nuclear weapons on multiple occasions beginning from the time the two nations were not even acknowledged nuclear powers.
On January 4, 2003, when Vajpayee was India’s Prime Minister, the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) met to review the progress in operationalizing the country’s nuclear doctrine. An official release issued that day summarized the decisions that were being put in the public domain.
Among the major points in the doctrine was “a posture of No First Use”, which was described as follows: “Nuclear weapons will only be used in retaliation against a nuclear attack on Indian territory or on Indian forces anywhere”.
However, the doctrine made it clear that India’s “nuclear retaliation to a first strike will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage”.
Also, “in the event of a major attack against India, or Indian forces anywhere, by biological or chemical weapons, India will retain the option of retaliating with nuclear weapons”.
The doctrine also said:
* Nuclear retaliatory attacks can only be authorised by the civilian political leadership through the Nuclear Command Authority. The Nuclear Command Authority comprises a Political Council and an Executive Council. The Political Council is chaired by the Prime Minister.
* India would not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states.
* India would continue to put strict controls on the export of nuclear and missile related materials and technologies, participate in the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty negotiations, and continue to observe the moratorium on nuclear tests.
* India remains committed to the goal of a nuclear weapons free world, through global, verifiable and non-discriminatory nuclear disarmament.
While successive governments that followed Vajpayee’s have directly or indirectly reaffirmed their commitment to NFU, the doctrine has been questioned at various times by strategic experts in domestic policy debates, and the idea that India should revisit this position has been put forward at various high-level fora.
In April 2014, the BJP’s election manifesto promised to “study in detail India’s nuclear doctrine, and revise and update it, to make it relevant to challenges of current times”. However, soon afterward, Narendra Modi, then the NDA’s Prime Ministerial candidate, was reported as having told ANI that “no first use is a reflection of our cultural inheritance”.
In 2016, then Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar expressed his “personal opinion” on the NFU, which seemed to question the doctrine.
“Why a lot of people say that India has No First Use policy. Why should I bind myself to a… I should say I am a responsible nuclear power and I will not use it irresponsibly. This is my thinking,” Parrikar said.
“Some of them may immediately tomorrow flash that Parrikar says that nuclear doctrine has changed. It has not changed in any government policy but my concept, I am also an individual. And as an individual, I get a feeling sometime why do I say that I am not going to use it first. I am not saying that you have to use it first just because you don’t decide that you don’t use it first. The hoax can be called off.”