Policy Paper

Nuclear Doctrine, Declaratory Policy, and Escalation Control

in Program

During the 10-month long Indian and Pakistani military mobilization of 2001-02, one of the earliest casualties was the official channel of communication between the two states. With New Delhi deliberately downgrading its relations with Islamabad – by withdrawing India’s High Commissioner to Pakistan, and eventually his Pakistani counterpart in India, and halving the strength of respective diplomatic missions  – diplomatic communications were fatally disrupted. This increased the dependence of both states on public diplomacy and rhetoric as the most significant channel of bilateral communication. Such a state of affairs, with inherent possibilities of misperceptions and miscalculations, had dangerous implications for two nuclear-armed states.

During much of the border confrontation, India and Pakistan were communicating with each other on a public basis – in terms of conveying stated intentions, as well as assessing respective intent and capabilities. By their public statements or deafening silences, by the issue of provocative and inflammatory statements and subsequent denials or clarifications, or by relative action, or even inaction on various issues, both countries attempted to send “signals” on nuclear as well as conventional matters. These signals were multiple in nature, carried out at multiple levels, and addressed to multiple constituencies – internal, regional, and international. For both India and Pakistan, the most important constituencies were the domestic public, each other, and the U.S., which had the most influence in the region.  For Delhi, the U.S. could help pressurise Pakistan to cease cross-border infiltration of militants into Indian-administered Kashmir; for Islamabad, the U.S. could restrain Delhi from military action.

Although India attempted to convey clear messages, its nuclear signals appeared confusing, and, at times, were at cross-purposes with one another. It is also not clear whether these signals were even perceived as intended by Pakistan or the other parties. If they were, it is not clear whether they were fully understood, or even taken cognisance of, especially by Pakistan. In this context, this paper examines the challenges and complexities of India’s nuclear signalling during the 2001-02 Indo-Pakistani border confrontation.

Disruption of Diplomatic Communications

Soon after the terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament on December 13, 2001, New Delhi began attempting to coerce Islamabad into complying with its demands, and ending cross-border terrorism in Jammu & Kashmir, and other parts of India. On December 14, New Delhi issued a verbal demarche to Pakistan seeking action against the activities of two Pakistan-based terrorist organizations – Jaish e Mohammed (JeM) and Lashkar e Toiba (LeT) – identified by Indian intelligence agencies as being responsible for the attack on Parliament. This was followed by another demarche on December 31 seeking the return of 20 fugitives wanted by New Delhi, believed to be living in Pakistan.

As part of its “coercive diplomacy” against Pakistan, India launched “Operation Parakram” (“valour”) on December 19, which was to constitute the largest and longest mobilisation of the Indian armed forces. This was a deliberate move, taking place amidst the global “war on terror”, to threaten the use of force against Pakistan. It included the deployment of India’s three strike corps (comprising armoured and mechanised formations) at forward positions on the international border with Pakistan. All leave to armed forces personnel was restricted, and all training programmes and military courses suspended. With Pakistan’s counter-mobilisation, nearly one million armed personnel were deployed across the India-Pakistan borders.

In order to further increase pressure on Islamabad, New Delhi systematically began to downgrade its diplomatic relations with Pakistan, along with the ending of all transportation linkages and economic relations. On December 14, the day after the attack on Parliament, New Delhi sought the immediate recall of its High Commissioner in Islamabad, Vijay Nambiar, along with the termination of all bus and train services between the two countries, to be effective from January 1, 2002. While it was widely expected that Pakistan would reciprocate by recalling its High Commissioner in New Delhi, Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, it did not do so. In an astute move, Qazi remained High Commissioner to India for the next four months, even though he was deliberately ignored by the Indian Government during this period.

In continuation of its policy of “coercive diplomacy”, on December 21, 2001, India ordered the reduction of the strength of the Pakistani High Commission in New Delhi by half within 48 hours, and restricted the movement of Pakistani diplomats in New Delhi. It also banned all over-flight of Indian territory by Pakistani aircraft from January 1, 2002. Within an hour, Pakistan announced reciprocal diplomatic measures, including the reduction of the strength of the Indian High Commission in Pakistan, and restrictions on the movement of Indian diplomats in Islamabad. On May 18, 2002, Pakistani High Commissioner Qazi was finally asked to leave India, in the wake of the terrorist attack in Kaluchak, near Jammu city. The Indian Government told Pakistan to recall Qazi within a week, “for sake of parity”.1 

By early January 2002, both the Indian and Pakistani High Commissions in respective capital cities were operating on a skeletal staff, the Indian Mission in Islamabad did not have a resident High Commissioner, and all transportation links between the two countries were cut off, amidst the growing military mobilisation of armed forces personnel (to reach a figure of 1 million) across the Indo-Pak borders.
Although Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee and Pakistani President Musharraf met twice during the border confrontation at multilateral summits in “third” countries – the seven-nation South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Summit in Kathmandu in January 6-7, 2002, and the 16-nation Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures (CICA) at Almaty, Kazakhstan, on June 3-4, tensions did not ease. Indeed, according to the Indian National Security Advisor, Brajesh Mishra, the five minute Vajpayee-Musharraf meeting in Kathmandu was merely “a replay of the Agra Summit” (2001) (where Vajpayee and Musharraf failed to agree on the “core” issues of tension between the two states).2

Nuclear Signalling – Past and Present

In view of these developments, it was not surprising that nuclear signalling by both New Delhi and Islamabad was unprecedented – in terms of the duration as well as the variety and multiple levels at which the signals emanated. The ten-month border confrontation (December 2001 – October 2002) was the longest period of military mobilisation by both countries since their independence in 1947. A variety of nuclear signals took place – flight tests of ballistic missiles, public speeches – to the public and the armed forces – and press briefings. These also emanated at multiple levels in both countries –the political, military, and bureaucratic leadership.

During the Kargil conflict of May-July 1999, nuclear signalling by Islamabad was restrained. This appears to have been due to Indian military action limited to its own side of the Line of Control (the de facto border dividing Indian – and Pakistani -administered Kashmir), along with the Indian political leadership signalled restraint in the use of force across the LoC. The official Indian post-conflict review – the Kargil Review Committee Report of December 15, 1999 – reveals that Pakistan conveyed only “veiled” nuclear signals to India during the conflict. However, in May 2002, a former senior Clinton administration official publicly alleged that Pakistan was preparing its nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles for possible deployment in July 1999.3 Since New Delhi may not have been aware of such a move, and taking place as it did towards the end of the conflict, it did not impact upon the situation on the ground.

Prior to the nuclear tests of 1998, there were two instances of nuclear signalling – during the spring 1990 Indo-Pakistani military crisis and India’s military “Exercise Brasstacks” in 1987. In 1990, Pakistan is believed to have made an “implied” nuclear threat to India, although Robert Gates, the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), did not make any reference to this nuclear signal during his mission to India in May 1990.  During “Exercise Brasstacks” Pakistan conveyed two nuclear “signals” to India – through diplomatic channels to India’s High Commissioner in Islamabad, S.K. Singh, and publicly by Dr. Abdul Qadir Khan, its chief nuclear scientist, in an interview published after the end of the military exercise in the British Observer newspaper.

In an attempt to understand India’s nuclear signals during the 2001-02 border confrontation – both in terms of conveying stated intentions, as well as assessing respective intent and capabilities – it is best to examine them in three phases, with the first two comprising the crises periods, and the third the non-crisis period. The first phase can be defined as the period between the terrorist attack on Parliament on December 13, 2001 and the attack on the Army residential camp in Kaluchak on May 14, 2002; the second phase covers the post-Kaluchak period till the end of the crisis in mid-June, 2002; and the final phase from Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee’s claim of victory without war on June 17, 2002 to his “hand of friendship” speech in Srinagar on April 18, 2003.

Nuclear Signalling – Phase I: December 13, 2001 – May 14, 2002

These five months included the first crisis in the immediate aftermath of the December 13 attack, when, according to the Indian National Security Advisor, Brajesh Mishra, New Delhi came close to using force against Pakistan.4 This period comprised half the total duration of border confrontation and military mobilisation between India and Pakistan. During this period, New Delhi appeared keen to give two major signals to its multiple constituencies – its domestic public, the Pakistani Government, and Washington, D.C. – although it did not always appear as such. First, that its much-publicised threat to use conventional force against Pakistan was real and credible, with limits to its restraint and patience fast-approaching – unless, of course, Pakistan complied with its demands to end cross-border terrorism. Second, that it would strenuously avoid any nuclear signalling to Islamabad, as well as deliberately ignore any nuclear signalling from Islamabad, over the use of Pakistani nuclear weapons to deter an Indian conventional military attack. New Delhi was only too aware that since the early 1990s Pakistan had been attempting to link the Kashmir dispute to nuclear weapons in a political manner. It was not felt that this crisis would be any different. By showing Kashmir as a “nuclear flashpoint”, Pakistan hoped to involve the international community in its resolution, which was largely opposed by India (with the exception of U.S. involvement in facilitating the deal with Pakistan to formally end the Kargil war). Any Pakistani nuclear signalling during the confrontation was therefore to be seen by New Delhi as a political ploy to raise international concern over a nuclear war over Kashmir.

It was not surprising, therefore, that in the first official reaction to the December 13 terrorist attack, the Indian Cabinet vowed to “liquidate the terrorists and their sponsors wherever they are, whoever they are”, but without naming any state. Prime Minister Vajpayee also boldly stated, “now the fight against terrorism has reached its last phase. We will fight a decisive battle to the end”, without going into specifics.

However, within two weeks of these events, New Delhi and Islamabad were exchanging navigational coordinates of their nuclear installations and facilities on January 1, 2002, as they had done for the past thirteen years, in accordance with the bilateral agreement on the “Prohibition of Attack against Nuclear Installations and Facilities (December 31, 1988). Neither Delhi nor Islamabad apparently felt it prudent to discontinue existing practice on this Confidence Building Measure (CBM), notwithstanding tense bilateral relations. Both apparently felt that continued notification was an easier option than refusing to do so unilaterally. Especially, as the agreement had no security implication of any significance, with both states deliberately continuing to neglect to notify each other of one nuclear-related facility each, without any consequence. However, this may have sent “mixed” signals to each other – of reassurance that nuclear-related CBMs were insulated from the upheavals of politics, although this may not actually have been the case.

The announcement that Musharraf was preparing a televised address to the nation on January 12, 2002 was met with a sense of expectation in New Delhi for two reasons – firstly, that India’s politico-military pressure could have begun to work, and secondly, that this could be reflected in Musharraf’s speech, with Pakistan preparing to meet some of India’s demands. Dressed in civilian clothing, and apparently reading from a handwritten text, Musharraf’s speech attempted to cater to a multiple audience. Although New Delhi cautiously welcomed Musharraf’s announcements (including the ban on five sectarian and jehadi organisations) as a “major shift” in Islamabad’s policy, it was well aware that it fell short of the goals envisioned in its “coercive diplomacy” policy. In essence, Musharraf’s promises needed to be implemented by “concrete action” on the ground.

The first nuclear signal from Islamabad emanated from Pakistani President Musharraf’s speech on the occasion of Pakistan’s National Day on March 23, 2002. Not only was his speech seen in New Delhi as a reversal of his January 12 promises, but it was tinged with a warning to India of an “unforgettable lesson” if it dared to challenge Pakistan. The “unforgettable lesson” was seen as alluding to the use of Pakistani nuclear weapons to counter an Indian conventional attack across the LoC. Although there was no official response to this nuclear signal by the Indian Cabinet, Defence Minister George Fernandes criticised Musharraf’s statement as “childish”. 

Surprisingly, the second nuclear signal from Islamabad came at a time of relative calm along the Indo-Pakistani borders. On April 6, 2003 the well known German weekly newsmagazine, Der Spiegel, published an interview with Musharraf, quoting him as saying that in the event that pressure on Pakistan became too great, “as a last resort, the atom bomb is also possible”. The sensational title of the interview, “Kaschmir konflikt: Pakistans Musharraf droht Indien mit der Atombombe” (Kashmir Conflict: Musharraf of Pakistan threatens India with Nuclear Bomb) added to its impact. The translation of Musharraf’s statement reads as follows, “Using nuclear weapons would only be a last resort for us. We are negotiating responsibly. And I am optimistic and confident that we can defend ourselves using conventional weapons… only if there is a threat of Pakistan being wiped off the map, then the pressure from my countrymen to use this option would be too great”. 5 Amidst much sensational international press coverage the following day, the spokesman of the Pakistani Government clarified that Musharraf had actually said that “the use of nuclear weapons is only as a last resort, if all of Pakistan were threatened to disappear from the map”.

Significantly, Prime Minister Vajpayee publicly declined to comment on Musharraf’s interview, stating, “I will not like to comment till I see the entire statement.” Not surprisingly, Vajpayee never did respond to the “Der Spiegel” interview.

During this phase, the only exceptions to New Delhi’s policy of avoiding all nuclear signalling, took place, perhaps inadvertently, with Indian Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Padmanabhan’s press conference on January 11, 2002, and the flight-test of the “Agni 1” ballistic missile on January 25, 2002.

The day prior to Musharraf’s much advertised address to the nation, General Padmanabhan called a press conference, ostensibly to brief the media on the high state of armed forces preparedness on the borders. At the press conference, he pointed out that the possibility of a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan was in the “realm of the unknown”, and India had already declared that it would not be the first to use nuclear weapons. However, in response to a query from a journalist, Padmanabhan gave an unclear warning to Pakistan on nuclear war. He stated that India possessed the capability of a retaliatory strike, and, warned that if any country was “mad enough” to initiate a nuclear strike against India, then “the perpetrator of that particular outrage shall be punished severely”.6

While this was clearly contradictory to India’s unstated policy on nuclear signalling, what was equally interesting was the response to this statement from the Ministry of Defence (MoD). Within hours, in an unprecedented manner, Defence Minister George Fernandes, publicly repudiated the “uncalled for concerns” caused by the army Chief’s observations, much to the consternation of his troops. In a written statement, Fernandes pointed out that nuclear issues should not be handled “in a cavalier manner”.7

However, within two weeks of George Fernandes’ statement, India flight-tested its medium-range “Agni” ballistic missile on January 25, 2002, on the eve of its Republic Day. Although Pakistan was provided advanced notification of the missile test (along with the P-5 states), in the spirit of the Lahore Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) (February 21, 1999), it was clear that a nuclear-capable ballistic missile with special characteristics had been tested. Notwithstanding the statement of the official spokesperson of the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) that “this (test) is not directed against any country”, considerable publicity was given to the range of the missile – 700 kms – with the implicit signal that it was, quite clearly, a Pakistan-specific nuclear-capable missile.

Nuclear Signalling – Phase II: May 14, 2002 – June 17, 2002

This one-month was the tensest of the entire military confrontation, when New Delhi came close to using force against Pakistan for the second time, after the May 14 terrorist attack in Kaluchak. During this period, the war rhetoric from India was at an all-time high, with New Delhi appearing hard-pressed to continue threatening the use of force, whilst deliberately ignoring Pakistan’s nuclear signalling, which came fast and furious. An added dimension to India’s policy appeared to be a public appeal to the international community to reign in Pakistan’s support of terrorism.

Just after the Kaluchak attack, Vajpayee informed President George W. Bush in a telephone call that, “India will take appropriate action”. Vajpayee also informed Parliament that the nation would counter the attack at Kaluchak. Subsequently, both Houses of Parliament adopted a unanimous resolution condemning the “most dastardly” attack, and pledged to end the “senseless acts of terrorism”. The Indian COAS, General Padmanabhan, on an official visit to Nepal, was quoted as stating, “the time for action has come”, though he added that this was a political decision.
On May 20, Union Home Minister L.K. Advani said the Government “would go ahead and win the proxy war like we did in 1971”.  However, on May 21 in Jammu, Vajpayee stated that he did not “see any war clouds”. In Kupwara, the following day, addressing Army personnel, he contradicted his earlier statement by emphatically asserting that “the time has come for a decisive battle and we will have a sure victory in this battle”. In Srinagar the next day, questioned on his statement on war clouds, Vajpayee stated that “the sky may be clear, but sometimes even when the sky is clear there is lightning”, but he hoped that lightning would not strike. In a formal statement issued on the occasion, Vajpayee was quoted as having stated that India was preparing for a “decisive victory”. These statements were perceived by Indian security analysts as referring to a possible surprise attack against Pakistan. A “war of words” also appeared to be playing out on the Indian media. To an unsourced Indian media report that Pakistan had deployed nuclear-capable “Shaheen-1” ballistic missiles (with a range of 800 kms) on the border, an unnamed Indian official was quoted as stating that India’s missile systems had been in position for some time.

These were, arguably, the most important – though confusing and apparently contradictory – Indian pronouncements at a critical juncture of the crisis. It is crucial to note that Vajpayee’s comments on a “decisive battle” on May 22 were made during an address to Army troops in Kupwara. These were officers and jawans who were already beginning to tire of being at the highest level of operational preparedness for over five months, amidst harsh weather conditions. Vajpayee’s speech essentially appeared intended to boost the morale of Indian armed forces personnel, and provide some direction to the increasing confusion over the future course of action vis-à-vis Pakistan. But, at the same time, it appeared intended to impact on Islamabad and Washington, especially the latter in indicating limits on India’s patience over Pakistan’s perceived intransigence. 

This was reflected a few days later as well. On May 26, a day before Musharraf’s well-publicised second address to the nation, Vajpayee gave a stern warning to Pakistan, while, at the same time, stressing the critical role the international community could play in reigning in Pakistan, and averting a war. From the northern hill station of Manali, where he had ostensibly gone on holiday after his visit to Jammu & Kashmir, Vajpayee reflected that “we should have given a fitting reply” the day “they” attacked Parliament. Although this was subsequently clarified, as not stating that “we should have struck, but that it would have been better to…have taken action immediately after December 13”, its import was clear.7 At the same time, Vajpayee added, “world leaders told India to keep patience while condemning the December 13 attack. But, India won’t follow the same advice now. The world should understand there is a limit to India’s patience”.

Musharraf’s televised address to the nation on May 27 was seen as another opportunity to ease tensions with India, the first having been frittered with the lack of implementation post-January 12. But, dressed in military uniform, Musharraf’s speech was perceived as highly provocative in New Delhi. Not surprisingly, the Indian Government’s response was harsh and focused. At a press conference the following day, External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh began by stressing that the address was both “disappointing and dangerous”; disappointing in the repetition of earlier assurances, and dangerous, as “tension has been added to, not reduced”.

Partly in response to the war rhetoric emanating from New Delhi, a senior member of the Pakistani Cabinet, Lt. General Javed Ashraf Qazi, told the official Iranian News Agency (IRNA) in Islamabad on May 22 that Pakistan would not hesitate to use nuclear weapons if its survival was at stake. As Minister for Railways, and a former Chief of the ISI (1993-95), Qazi stated, “If it ever comes to the annihilation of Pakistan then what is this damned nuclear option for, we will use (it) against the enemy,” He added, “if Indians will destroy most of us, we too will annihilate parts of the adversary. If Pakistan is being destroyed through conventional means, we will destroy them by using the nuclear option as they say if I am going down the ditch, I will also take my enemy with me”.

A week later, Pakistan’s Permanent Representative to the UN in New York, Munir Akram, asserted his country’s right to use nuclear weapons against India’s conventional superiority. At a press conference in New York on May 29, his second day in office, Akram stated, “we have to rely on our own means to deter Indian aggression. We have that means and we will not neutralise it by any doctrine of no first-use”. Accusing India of having a “license to kill” with conventional weapons, he queried “how can Pakistan, a weaker power, be expected to rule out all means of deterrence”?

Although none of these Pakistani statements were ever denied, or alleged to have been, misquoted by the media, additional pronouncements were made to alleviate their impact, in view of possible negative international public opinion. In an interview to the Washington Post published on May 26, Musharraf attempted to downplay the threat of nuclear war. On being asked to describe the circumstances in which he would consider using nuclear weapons if war were to erupt, he said, “This is a – it is such a question which I wouldn’t like to even imagine, frankly, that we come to a stage where this is due. But let me give an assessment that this stage will never come…We have forces. They follow a strategy of deterrence. And we are very capable of deterring them… I really don’t think we will ever reach that stage, and I only hope that we – I hope and pray that we will never reach that stage. It’s too unthinkable”.

Nonetheless, in the midst of this rhetoric, Pakistan flight-tested three types of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles. Although Islamabad also unilaterally provided New Delhi (along with the P-5 and other neighbouring states) with advanced notification of these tests in the spirit of the Lahore MoU, their timing could not be missed. On May 25, the North Korean-based “Ghauri” (“Hatf-5”) (1,500 km range) medium-range surface-to-surface ballistic missile was tested, followed by the Chinese “Ghaznavi” (“Hatf-3”) (“DF-11”) short-range (300 km range) the next day. Two days later, coinciding with the visit of British Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, to Islamabad, Pakistan launched the “Abdali” short-range (180 kms) ballistic missile. Taking place as they did, amidst the presence of some 5,000 American military personnel in Pakistan, deployed in view of the war on terror in Afghanistan, these tests also sent a strong message of independence of military action.
Although Pakistan’s nuclear signalling – public statements and missile tests – were viewed as extremely provocative by New Delhi, there was no reaction to them in kind, for fear of invoking Kashmir as a “nuclear flashpoint”. New Delhi therefore tried to react nonchalantly to these developments. India publicly scoffed at Pakistan’s ballistic missile flight tests. Vajpayee, in Manali at the time of the first test, appeared singularly unimpressed, dismissing it as “routine”, and saying that India was not taking it seriously. At various times, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) response to the missile tests were that it was not greatly impressed, as there was “nothing indigenous about it” (they were based on either imported technology or acquired hardware); they were a glaring example of missile proliferation; and were targeted primarily at Pakistan’s domestic audience.

At the same time, however, India began appealing publicly to the international community to constrain Pakistan’s adventurism in Kashmir, emboldened by the condemnation of the Kaluchak attack by a senior American Administration official on a visit to Delhi at the time. On the day of the Kaluchak attack, Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, Christina Rocca, at a speech at the Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) in New Delhi noted that “it is just this type of barbarism that the war on terrorism is determined to stop”.

At the May 28 press conference, Jaswant Singh for the first time publicly expressed disappointment that Musharraf and some of his Ministers were speaking “very casually about nuclearisation”. He stated that “this tantamounts to nuclearisation of terrorism”, adding that “…in this we see an example of how promotion of terrorism and the threat of nuclear weapons is being held simultaneously. The international community has to take note of the seriousness of these two dangers”. A few days later, Defence Minister George Fernandes, participating in the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) “Shangri La” dialogue in Singapore queried why “world opinion is not reacting to such open threats of Pakistan on use of nuclear weapons. Is this not an attempt to blackmail India and the rest of the global community”?

Vajpayee went even further a few months later, when he stated that “dark threats were held out that actions by India to stamp out cross-border terrorism could provoke a nuclear war”. Addressing the 57th Session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, he warned that nuclear blackmail had emerged as a “new arrow in the quiver of State-sponsored terrorism”. He went on to say, that to succumb to such blatant “nuclear terrorism” would mean “forgetting the bitter lessons of the September 11 tragedy”.

The only exception to New Delhi’s circumspect, and largely restrained, policy on nuclear signalling to Pakistan during this phase – to strenuously avoid any mention of nuclear weapons, as well as deliberately ignore any nuclear signalling from Islamabad – arose, quite unexpectedly, from an interview of the senior-most bureaucrat in the MoD. In early June 2002, Defence Secretary Yogendra Narain told the New Delhi-based weekly newsmagazine Outlook that India would retaliate with nuclear weapons if Pakistan used its atomic arsenal; both countries were therefore required to be prepared for “mutual destruction”.8 However, in a manner similar to the Government’s reaction to General Padmanabhan’s press statements in January 2002, a public denial was issued. Ironically, the press release from the MoD itself, stated, “the Government makes it clear that India does not believe in the use of nuclear weapons. Neither does it visualise that it will be used by any other country”.9

Nuclear Signalling – Phase III: June 17, 2002 – April 18, 2003

These ten months saw the dramatic easing of Indo-Pakistani tensions through U.S./UK facilitation, the successful conduct of assembly elections in Jammu & Kashmir, and the withdrawal and demobilisation of the Indian and Pakistani armed forces from the international border. This phase ended with Vajpayee’s famous “hand of friendship” speech in Srinagar.

During this non-crisis period, India’s policy on nuclear signalling was abruptly reversed. Instead of deliberately avoiding and ignoring nuclear signals, as in the recent past, in the current “non-crisis” phase it appeared intent on conveying to Pakistan the credibility of its nuclear forces and its “second strike” nuclear capability, in the event of any doubts on this account in Islamabad. Not surprisingly, India’s official nuclear doctrine was also publicised in January 2003.

With the dramatic easing of tensions, Vajpayee claimed victory in the crisis in the absence of fighting a war. In an interview to a widely read Hindi language newspaper, Dainik Jagran, on June 17, he was quoted as saying that war with Pakistan was averted only due to Islamabad’s guarantee that it would crack down on Pakistani-based Islamic militants crossing into Kashmir. This was achieved through international pressure on Pakistan, in order to meet India’s demand that it end cross-border terrorism. In a clear indication that Pakistan’s nuclear deterrence had not worked, he stated, “If Pakistan had not agreed to end infiltration, and America had not conveyed that guarantee to India, then war would not have been averted”.10 The MEA was quick to clarify that Vajpayee’s remarks should not be construed to indicate that India was ready to start a nuclear conflict with Pakistan.11 

Vajpayee’s remarks were immediately challenged by an indignant Musharraf the following day, when he asserted that deterrence had, in fact, worked. At a dinner for Pakistani nuclear scientists and engineers, Musharraf stated that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons had brought a “strategic balance” to South Asia. He said that “heightened international concerns of a nuclear conflict in South Asia, and the hesitation, frustration, and inability of India to attack Pakistan, or conduct a so-called limited war, bear ample testimony to the fact that strategic balance exists in South Asia and that Pakistan’s conventional and nuclear capability together deter aggression”.12 India was quick to denounce this statement. While accusing Islamabad of trying to justify its “nuclear blackmail”, it urged the international community not to ignore the “continued manifestations of Pakistani irresponsibility, loose talk, and undiluted hostility towards India”, along with the “continued concoction of doomsday theories to justify its use of nuclear blackmail”.13

In support of his contention, Musharraf, in late December 2002, indicated that he had been prepared to use “unconventional weapons” in the event of an Indian attack. Addressing veterans of the Pakistani Air Force in Karachi on December 30, he stated that “we have defeated our enemy without going into war”.14 He stated that the Indian Prime Minister had been informed by visiting world leaders ‘‘that if the Indian Army moved just a single step beyond the international border or the LoC then Inshallah (“By the Will of God”) the Pakistan Army and the supporters of Pakistan would surround the Indian Army and that it would not be a conventional war.’’

Although Musharraf did not specifically mention “nuclear weapons” in his speech, it was apparent he was referring to little else. Significantly, he also made it clear that Pakistan’s “low” nuclear threshold ought to be lowered further, to “a single step” across the LoC by the Indian armed forces. This was quite different from his earlier (April 6, 2002) “last resort” nuclear threat. The Indian Government promptly responded by noting these ‘‘highly dangerous and provocative’’ remarks. Subsequently, there was an official Pakistani attempt to “clarify” Musharraf’s remarks by an attempt at obfuscation, which appeared to serve no real purpose. What Musharraf actually indicated, it was clarified, was the use of “only unconventional forces and not nuclear or biological weapons…they (a section of the media) took this unconventional form of people rising against the Indian armed forces as meaning nuclear weapons”.
These statements prompted Defence Minister George Fernandes into sending a spate of nuclear signals to Pakistan. Fernandes began by saying that he did not take Musharraf’s December 30 statement seriously. A week later, he told a Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) gathering in Hyderabad that “we can take a bomb or two or more…but when we respond there will be no Pakistan”. To a question of the danger posed to India if Pakistani nuclear weapons fell into the hands of hard-line Islamic terrorist elements, he elaborated, in a BBC phone-in radio programme in Hindi on the occasion of India’s Republic day on January 26, 2003, “We have been saying all through, that the person who heads Pakistan today has been talking about using dangerous weapons including the nukes. Well, I would reply by saying that if Pakistan has decided that it wants to get itself destroyed and erased from the world map, then it may take this step of madness, but if (it) wants to survive then it would not do so”.

In order to emphasise its nuclear forces, and the credibility of its “second strike” nuclear capability, India provided a glimpse of its much-delayed nuclear doctrine and nuclear command and control arrangements on January 4, 2003. The press statement from the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) stated that India’s nuclear doctrine was based on a posture of “No First Use” (NFU), with the aim of “building and maintaining a credible minimum deterrent”. Nuclear retaliation to a first strike was to be massive, and designed to inflict unacceptable damage. Nuclear retaliatory attacks could only be authorised by the civilian political leadership through the newly established Nuclear Command Authority (NCA). The NCA comprises a Political Council and an Executive Council. Whereas the Political Council, chaired by the Prime Minister, is the sole body which can authorise the use of nuclear weapons, the Executive Council, chaired by the National Security Advisor, provides inputs for decision making by the NCA and executes the directives given to it by the Political Council.
The statement also noted that the CCS was satisfied with existing command and control structures, the state of readiness, the targeting strategy for a retaliatory attack, and operating procedures for various stages of alert and launch. It also reviewed and approved the arrangements for alternate chains of command for retaliatory nuclear strikes in all eventualities. Finally, the CCS statement publicised the appointment of a Commander-in-Chief, Strategic Forces Command, to manage and administer all Strategic Forces.
Notwithstanding India’s public commitment to NFU, there appeared to be two major caveats to this posture in the CCS press statement. First, that nuclear weapons would not only be used in retaliation against a nuclear attack on Indian territory, but also “on Indian forces anywhere”, which remained undefined. Second, that India would “retain the option of retaliating with nuclear weapons”, in the event of a major attack against India, or Indian forces anywhere, by “biological or chemical weapons”.15 In tandem with this assertive NFU nuclear posture, there were publicised reports that the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB), a group of non-officials formally established to advise the National Security Council (NSC), had suggested a review of NFU, a few days prior to the publication of the broad concepts of India’s nuclear doctrine. A week later, on January 10, 2003, India carried out another test of its nuclear-capable “Agni” ballistic missile.

Earlier, India had made several public pronouncements on the possibility of using pre-emptive force against terrorist training camps in Pakistan. It was encouraged by the publication of the U.S. National Security Strategy in September 2002, which asserted the U.S. right “of self-defence by acting pre-emptively”, and the growing signs of war against Iraq in late 2002. This appeared to “legitimise” India’s assertions of using force across the LoC against alleged terrorist training camps in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. In this regard, on September 30, 2002 Finance Minister Jaswant Singh in Washington D.C. stated that every country had a right to pre-emptive strikes as an inherent part of its right to self-defence, and pre-emption was not the prerogative of any one nation. He said, “pre-emption or prevention is inherent in deterrence. Where there is deterrence there is pre-emption. The same thing is there in Article 51 of the UN Charter which calls it ‘the right of self-defence'”. Not surprisingly, this was quickly refuted by the U.S., which questioned India’s rationale for pre-emptive strikes. US Secretary of State Colin Powell pronounced that no parallels could be drawn between the situation in Iraq and the India-Pakistan face off on Kashmir.16

Amidst the war on Iraq, the principle of pre-emption was once again picked up by Indian External Affairs Minister Yashwant Singh. On April 2, 2003, in an Agency France Press (AFP) interview, Sinha rhetorically asserted India’s right to take “pre-emptive” military action against Pakistan, along the lines of the coalition war against Iraq. He stated, “we derive some satisfaction…because I think all those people in the international community…realise that India has a much better case to go for pre-emptive action against Pakistan than the U.S. has in Iraq”. Interestingly, it was George Fernandes who played down this statement, by saying that these were “casual” comments and not Government policy.
Less than a fortnight later, Vajpayee made his now famous “hand of friendship” speech in Jammu & Kashmir. Addressing a public rally, Vajpayee said problems could not be resolved through the barrel of the gun but only through dialogue. Emphasising that the time had come for ushering in a sea change in Indo-Pakistani relations, he stated that “we are extending our hand of friendship but it should be reciprocated”.17


Amidst the 2001-02 border confrontation, New Delhi attempted to convey different and distinctive signals. During the first phase of the crisis period (December 13, 2001-May 14, 2002), India emphatically threatened the use of conventional force against Pakistan. In the second phase (May 14, 2002 – June 17, 2002), an added Indian dimension was the appeal to the international community to reign in Pakistan’s support of terrorism. During both these “crises” phases, India’s unstated, but deliberate and circumspect, policy was to avoid any nuclear signalling, while, at the same time, deliberately ignore any nuclear signalling from Islamabad. This was essentially motivated by an over-riding political consideration – to avoid the perception of Kashmir as a “nuclear flashpoint” by the international community. Indeed, India’s Permanent Representative to the UN in New York, was to describe these events as an “artificial nuclear scare”.

However, during the period of “non-crisis” (June 17, 2002 – April 18, 2003), this policy undertook a dramatic reversal, and emphatically threatened the use of Indian nuclear weapons, and the total destruction of Pakistan, were its (Pakistan’s) nuclear weapons used first against India. This was essentially aimed at countering Pakistan’s nuclear signalling during the “crisis” period, which conveyed Pakistan’s intent to use nuclear weapons to counter an Indian conventional attack. It appeared to be an attempt to primarily convince Indian domestic public, and Pakistan, of India’s nuclear weapon forces and credibility of its “second strike” nuclear policy.

Nonetheless, these signals were not clear and easily discernible; indeed, the opposite was the norm, with signals from both New Delhi and Islamabad appearing confusing and ambiguous. Five major lessons emerge from this narrative on Indo-Pakistani nuclear signalling.

First. A signal is not always perceived as a “signal”. It is not always clear that a signal by one side is always seen as a “signal” by the other. Whereas one side may actually be signalling intent, the other may simply miss it, with worrying implications for stability. Signalling depends, on the first instance, on confirmation of the moves that provide the basis for the signal. But confirmation or rebuttal of the signal requires indications and warning signs that are monitored and conveyed back to the leadership. If these are missed, the signaller may perceive the other’s absence of action as a response, albeit deliberately low-key, forcing it to raise the stakes in a subsequent signal, and thereby further exacerbating tensions. A case in point was Pakistan’s alleged movement of nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles for deployment during the Kargil conflict in July 1999, which New Delhi may not have been aware of, and Islamabad’s consequent reactions, if the conflict had not ended.

Second. A non-signal may also be perceived as a “signal”. It is not always clear when a specific action or an event is perceived as a “signal”, even though it may not actually have been intended as such. Specific actions may have technological or bureaucratic dynamics independent of on-going political tensions, which could be perceived as signalling. In a charged political environment such assessments would appear to be more the norm than the exception. It is not always the case that specific actions are always well thought out and extensively deliberated within Governments prior to signalling.
Third. Signalling is confused by a large number of “actors”. Although New Delhi perceived signals to its multiple constituencies as fairly clear and unambiguous, they were not perceived as such, due to the number of principal “actors” involved. Clearly, the principal signaller was Prime Minister Vajpayee. In addition, Defence Minister George Fernandes, and the External Affairs Ministers  – Jaswant Singh, followed by Yashwant Sinha – were involved in signalling at various stages of the crises. Interestingly enough, Union Home Minister L.K. Advani was rarely involved in issuing these signals, although he is perceived as hawkish on these matters. But, at critical times, there were also two other major players involved in nuclear signalling – Army Chief General Padmanabhan, and Defence Secretary Yogendra Narain. This relatively large number of senior individuals involved in signalling tended to confuse New Delhi’s signals, as perceived by Islamabad and Washington D.C.

Fourth. Signals can be at cross-purposes with one another. At crucial times, New Delhi’s signals were contradictory to one another. When the Indian Government appeared keen to play down nuclear signals during the “crisis periods”, the statements by the Army Chief, the Defence Secretary, and the test of the Pakistan-specific nuclear-capable “Agni” ballistic missile appeared confusing, both to Islamabad and Washington D.C. The subsequent clarifications which ensued, from George Fernandes and the MoD muddied the waters even further. It was not clear, for example, whether the actual signal was the Army Chief’s or the Defence Minister’s, especially as they contradicted each other. In a similar manner, it was also not clear whether emphasis ought to be placed on the Defence Secretary’s signals or the subsequent rebuttal by the MoD. Finally, it ought to be assumed that Islamabad may have perceived it all as a deliberate series of moves, thereby confusing the issue even further.

Fifth. The understanding of signals by both sides was weak. In both New Delhi and Islamabad, it was exceedingly difficult to interpret the other’s signals. For example, it was not clear if signals were “signals”; when signals were not “signals”; and which “actors” were sending signals and who were not; exacerbated by signals being at cross-purposes with one another. All this added to greater confusion and made consequent signalling even more difficult.

In effect, there appears to be considerable confusion and ambiguity in both New Delhi and Islamabad in sending, as well as receiving, critical signals during the 2001-02 border confrontation. If misperceptions and miscalculations on nuclear issues are to be avoided in a future military crisis, both states need to do the following:

· Attempt to develop a clear set of principles for signalling to each other, and others, in a public manner in a crisis situation amidst a disruption of diplomatic communication.

·  Attempt to make signalling clear and unambiguous, in an attempt to communicate the signal intended, not convey unintended signals.

· Deliberately limit the number of “actors” initiating signalling, as well as attempt to end contradictory signalling.

· Attempt to understand each other’s principal signallers and the internal dynamics operating within respective political systems.

· Attempt to undertake a “back channel” of communication which can be trusted to provide an accurate interpretation of signals during a crisis period. This would need to be authorised at the highest political levels, as well as insulated from existing political tensions. It would be best to initiate such “back channel” diplomacy amidst the current thaw in bilateral relations.


Rahul Roy-Chaudhury is Research Fellow for South Asia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), London.


1. The Hindustan Times, May 19, 2002.
2. Excerpts of Brajesh Mishra’s interview on NDTV, May 17, 2003; published in Indian Express.
3. Bruce Reidel, “Clinton to Nawaz: You set U.S. up to fail: I won’t let it happen” (excerpts), Indian Express, May 18, 2002.
4. Excerpts of “Talking with Brajesh Mishra”, BBC HARD Talk Programme (as published in Indian Express, November 29, 2002).
5. “Musharraf aims to reassure on nuclear danger”, Disarmament Diplomacy, Issue No. 64, May-June 2002.
6. The Hindustan Times, January 12, 2002.
7. See statement of Defence Minister George Fernandes, Press Trust of India, New Delhi, January 12, 2002.
8. “India will use nuclear weapons if Pakistan does: Defence Official”, The Hindustan Times, June 3, 2002.
9. “War, if at all, will be sans nukes: Army”, The Pioneer, June 4, 2002.
10. The Hindu, June 18, 2002.
11. The Hindustan Times, June 18, 2002.
12. “Pak’s nuke capability can deter India from attacking: Musharraf”, The Hindustan Times, June 19, 2002.
13. “Irresponsible Talk”, The Hindu, June 19, 2002.
14. Indian Express, December 31, 2002.
15. Press Release, “The Cabinet Committee on Security Reviews Operationalisation of India’s Nuclear Doctrine”, New Delhi, January 4, 2003.
16. J.N. Dixit, “Linkage Politics”, Indian Express, April 18, 2003.
17. “Talks, not guns, will solve issues: Vajpayee”, Press Trust of India, Srinagar, April 18, 2003.

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