Debating the Nuclear Legacy of India and One of Its Great Cold War Strategists
When discussing strategic thinkers of the 20th century, we tend to think about figures such as Henry Kissinger, George Kennan, Hans Morgenthau, and Thomas Schelling amongst others. The legacies of all of these men are often contested and debated, as they were – in various ways – central to America’s strategic direction during the Cold War. Kissinger in particular sparks passionate debate whether one is discussing the Vietnam War, U.S. policy in South Asia, ties between the United States and China, or human rights.
Not only are these individuals all Westerners — they are all Americans. The reasons to look beyond the American experience of strategy-making should be obvious, yet it happens too rarely. Debates over legacies and strategic choices in other nations — particularly large ones — deserve more attention than they receive. And as the debate ignited by Vipin Narang when he recently suggested that India may no longer be committed to a doctrine of no first-use of nuclear weapons is indicative of the need to expand our scope. His claim hinges on the recent writings of Amb. Shiv Shankar Menon, one of India’s foremost contemporary strategic thinkers. This issue serves to underline the relevance of such non-Western strategic thinkers to the prevailing threats to global peace and stability. For this reason, such figures should receive increased scholarly attention and scrutiny. Moreover, given the questionable record of U.S. strategy since the end of the Cold War, the biggest beneficiaries of such an expanded discourse might be Americans themselves.
Let us then turn to one of these strategic giants who is not as well-known as he should be outside of his home country. Parmeshwar Narayan Haksar was one of the most notable Indian strategists of the Cold War. He is barely known in the United States, but he was a central figure in charting India’s strategic direction in the mid-20th century. And unlike most American strategic figures, he was instrumental not just in foreign, but in domestic policy as well.. And, as I discuss below, Haksar recently became the subject of a minor dust-up in another U.S. publication.
India’s Great Cold War Strategist?
In the words of Jyotindra Nath Dixit — India’s former Foreign Secretary and National Security Advisor — Haksar was one of the most important “behind-the-scenes operators” in the creation of modern Indian foreign policy. Born to a Kashmiri pandit family, he was close to India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. His time in the United Kingdom studying law provided the most formative intellectual influences of his life. It was there that he met Krishna Menon and Rajni Palme Dutt. Both were activists, but of a different sort. Krishna Menon introduced Haksar to India’s freedom movement through the India League. Rajne Palme Dutt was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Both Marxism and India’s freedom movement left a deep impression on Haksar, making him into a man of the liberal left. He was brought into the Indian Foreign Service by none other than Nehru in 1947 as an “officer on special duty” in India’s Ministry of External Affairs, most likely on Krishna Menon’s recommendation. From the word go, Haksar was in the thick of Indian Cold War diplomacy. His first big assignment came in early 1948 when he was a member of the Indian delegation to the United Nations Security Council on the Kashmir question. Nehru wrote Lord Mountbatten on Feb. 28, 1948 that, among stalwarts like Gapalaswami Ayyangarr, Girija Shankar Bajpai and others, “there is another very intelligent and bright young man named PN Haksar whom we sent with the delegation.” Later, Haksar spent four years assisting Krishna Menon at the Indian High Commission in London. From the mid-1950s through the mid-1960s, Haksar held various portfolios: Alternative Chairman of the Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission on Korea, Ambassador to Nigeria and Austria, and India’s Deputy High Commissioner in London.
The real break in Haksar’s bureaucratic career came in late 1966 when Indira Gandhi appointed him as the Secretary at the Prime Minister’s Secretariat, which is the office of the Indian prime minister. Haksar’s arrival in the Secretariat was borne out of a major crisis which Indira Gandhi faced in early 1966. After the sudden death of Prime Minister Shastri in Tashkent in January 1966, Indira Gandhi seized the reins of the Indian National Congress and became India’s prime minister. Opposition within the Congress Party was substantial and the domestic situation was precarious. India had suffered one of its biggest food crises in 1966. The economy was in doldrums. Western assistance was therefore an immediate requirement and Indira Gandhi’s visit to the United States in April 1966 was principally motivated by these considerations. However, she also faced pressure from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank to open up the Indian economy and devalue India’s currency.
Indira’s close advisors including the the principal secretary at the time, Laxmi Kant Jha, advised Gandhi not only to loosen up the economy but also to take a pro-Western position on issues such as the Vietnam War. Haksar, then serving as Deputy High Commissioner to London, argued against these measures. However, as Inder Malhotra argued in his biography of Gandhi, “Haksar’s role was relatively minor and largely behind the scenes.” In June 1966, when Gandhi devalued the Indian currency, major protests followed. The Congress Party passed a resolution against its own prime minister and the leftist opposition was up in arms. Kathrine Frank notes, “within months of becoming the Prime Minister, Indira had managed to make herself far more unpopular than Shastri had ever been.” Indira Gandhi herself admitted that “she had been taken for a ride” by her own advisors. She also realized that “her political survival depended on a reversion to left-leaning policies and revival of her mildly radical image.” It is under these circumstances, that Indira Gandhi turned towards Haksar and jettisoned Jha. In addition to his diplomatic acumen, Haksar’s loyalty to the Nehru-Gandhi family and his leftist political credentials were major factors behind Indira Gandhi’s decision. Gandhi and Haksar were also friends from their student days in the United Kingdom.
Between 1967 and 1973, Haksar steered Indira Gandhi’s foreign and domestic politics. With Haksar’s arrival in the Secretariat, Indira’s domestic policy took a sharp leftward turn. The hallmark reform of this period was the nationalization of banks in 1969. Haksar was equally instrumental in centralising Indira’s authority within the Congress Party. His main contributions however were in the field of foreign and security policy. In his role as Indira Gandhi’s foremost advisor, Haksar had a “potent” influence on Indian foreign policy and may have been India’s most “successful strategist.” This was a period in India’s history where the country faced some of its most difficult challenges, both internal and external, including the December 1971 war with Pakistan. Jyotindra Nath Dixit has summarised Haksar’s contributions to Indian foreign and security policy in these words:
[Haksar] was the most influential civil servant in Indira’s government throughout his seven years [sic] tenure. He was equally influential in the management of domestic politics…. Haksar gave impetus to India’s defence and technological cooperation with the Soviet Union. He also structured a strategic equation with the Soviet Union….he also advocated that civil service, particularly the foreign service should move away from their constitutionally stipulated character as non-political entities and be committed to the ideology of the prime minister…. [O]n balance, he stands out as one of the most distinguished and creative public servants [in India].
Haksar, like many others, was sidelined during the emergency period between June 1975 and March 1977 when democracy was suspended. There were multiple reasons for the imposition of the emergency, including massive protests against Gandhi’s government led by the firebrand Socialist leader Jayaprakash Narayan and the tyrannical tendencies of Gandhi’s son Sanjay. Its most immediate cause, however, was the June 1975 decision of the Indian Judiciary (known as the Allahabad High Court verdict) to terminate Gandhi’s membership of the Parliament as it found her guilty of electoral malpractices in the general elections of 1971. Haksar was fearful of the growth of Sanjay Gandhi’s power before and during the emergency period and was also concerned that he was distorting his mother’s political career and legacy.
In 1973, when Indira Gandhi granted a lucrative government automotive manufacturing contract to her son, Haksar had pointed out the “impropriety” of her actions. Under Sanjay’s influence, as Katherine Frank notes, “despite the massive contribution Haksar had made to her prime ministership, Indira was now prepared to jettison him.” His position of principal secretary was not renewed in 1973 and Haksar had gracefully retired from government service. Prithvi Narain Dhar , an economist by training, was appointed in his place. Later in 1975, Haksar was given the deputy chairmanship of the Planning Commission, an institution which had lost much of its relevance under Gandhi and had become “a retirement home for the socially benevolent.” . During the emergency, as Inder Malhotra suggests, “awful treatment [was] meted out to the family of PN Haksar, unquestionably the ablest and most dedicated of chief advisors ever to serve her [Gandhi].”Haksar himself suffered personal harassment during this period when his family’s businesses were investigated for tax fraud.
Later, Haksar took up writing and published and edited a number of books on domestic and foreign policy including a biography of his early years. His writings are illustrative of his political ideas: that détente between the United States and the Soviet Union was good for India,that nuclear weapons did not provide adequate security, and that India had to address its own limitations before it could take on a bigger global role. According to his daughter, this “hard boiled diplomat” died “a broken man” in 1998 for two reasons: “one was the collapse of the Soviet Union and secondly the Kashmir situation.”
Haksar and India’s Nuclear Program
Most scholarship on India’s nuclear history seems to agree that India has always been a reluctant nuclear power. Independent India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, is given much credit for the country’s development of nuclear technology. By 1955, India was the first Asian country to have a research reactor. By 1965, its first reprocessing plant was commissioned and it started producing small quantities of plutonium by 1968. In the mid-1960s, therefore, India’s decision to pursue a nuclear weapons program as a national security project put it in a unique position among developing countries; at least this is how it was viewed from the outside. Yet, one sees only a gradual evolution of India’s nuclear weapons program, as I discuss in my report, The Imagined Arsenal: India’s Nuclear Decision Making, 1973-76.
Haksar’s views on a nuclear weapons program during his stint in the Secretariat between 1967 and 1973 are important for two reasons. First, given that India’s nuclear policy has always been driven by the prime minister’s office, Haksar’s position was pivotal to India’s nuclear decision-making in this period. Second, Haksar’s time in that office overlapped with some major events which influenced India’s nuclear policy, such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the increasing sophistication of China’s nuclear program, and finally the 1974 peaceful nuclear explosion.
The NPT was designed to arrest further spread of nuclear weapons among non-nuclear weapon states. It legitimized the nuclear capability of existing nuclear weapon states and proscribed weapons program for others. India was one of the principal negotiators as it initially conceived the treaty as an instrument to halt China’s development of nuclear weapons. However, the shape the treaty took as it was negotiated in the mid-1960s did not serve India’s interests. As the treaty approached its final conclusion in 1967 and 1968, Indian decision-makers decided not to be a party to the treaty. Haksar was firmly of the opinion that the treaty was not in the best interests of India or its security.. As he told Prime Minister Gandhi in July 1967,
[W]e cannot simply delude ourselves that by signing a Non-Proliferation Treaty, we would solve the problem of our security. That problem will remain with us irrespective of the signing of the treaty.
The problem was in fact China, which would have not signed the treaty. And even if China was a party to the treaty, Beijing was designated a nuclear weapons state and would be therefore be free to pursue its nuclear weapons program. Haksar and other Indian officials felt that this meant New Delhi would be foolish to foreclose its nuclear option. However, this did not translate into a pitch for a nuclear weapons program. As Srinath Raghavan has argued elsewhere, détente was important for India to isolate China and the NPT was a crucial part of the continued success of that strategy. The development of an Indian nuclear bomb would have punched a big hole in the NPT and invited hostility from the two superpowers. In Haksar’s instructions to India’s permanent representative to the United Nations on NPT (available in yet another top secret memo written on April 20, 1968), Haksar tried to balance these contradictory interests. As Haksar explained,
We cannot fail to notice that out of the five nuclear weapons powers, two will not be signatories to it. This might not have mattered but for the fact that one of the non-signatories is our neighbour, namely, China, who is full of hostile intentions towards our country.
This balance was to be achieved without provoking the superpowers or sabotaging the NPT. His directions to India’s Permanent Representative at the United Nations are illustrative of this approach: “avoid polemical tone against the nuclear powers”; mention the Chinese threat but “we should neither overplay that threat nor underplay it”; “should not mention Pakistan”; “mention that our policy as hitherto continues to be to refrain from doing anything which would escalate the nuclear arms race” and “on the question of the time table for conclusion of the Non-proliferation treaty, we should not spearhead any move for delay and postponement.” Haksar’s approach to the NPT was guided by both India’s national interests but also the need to maintain an international political environment where China could be isolated. For these objectives, detente was an essential condition.
In the background were concerns over the budding Soviet military relationship with Pakistan. This was mostly a domestic problem for Indira Gandhi’s government. Between 1967 and 1970, right wing nationalist political parties such as Bharatiya Jana Sangh and Swatantra Party used the softening ties between Moscow and Islamabad as well as Indian participation in the NPT talks to target the government’s foreign policy. These parties were also the biggest public champions of the need for India’s nuclear weapons program. As declassified Hungarian documents suggest, the fear that these “reactionary forces” (Soviet terminology) — Jana Sangh and Swatantra — would change India’s foreign policy were equally entrenched in the Soviet mind.
In response to such domestic criticisms, Haksar wrote a top secret memo for Indira Gandhi on July 13, 1968. As he argued, the Soviet military supplies raise two important concerns for the Indian government:
one in the field of our relations with the USSR and the other in the domestic field (criticisms of Jana Sangh and Swatantra party). It is the latter which is of immediate consequence.
For Haksar, foreign relations were a balance sheet of credits and debits. Even when the Soviet military supplies to Pakistan fell on the “debit side,” the overall situation remained “favourable” to India. Haksar’s advice to Gandhi was not to overreact to the Soviet actions and instead remind the Jana Sangh and Swatantra party “that international relations are an amalgam of complex and even contrary factors.” In hindsight, Haksar’s foresight on international politics and Indo-Soviet relations was evident when, after the Ussuri river clashes in March 1969, the Soviets proposed a treaty of peace, cooperation and friendship to India (Indira Gandhi signed it only in August 1971). The Soviet-Pakistan honeymoon also died soon after. When in 1971 India needed Soviet assistance to counter Chinese and American support to Pakistan, Haksar suggested re-floating the original Soviet proposal made in March 1969. In August 1971, India and the Soviet Union signed a treaty of peace, friendship and cooperation which acted as a deterrent to both China and the United States from actively supporting Pakistan during the December 1971 war.
As China increased its nuclear capabilities between 1967 and 1970, including an ICBM capability in April 1970, domestic opponents of the Indira Gandhi government agitated for India to get the bomb. Haksar stood firm. On April 20, 1970, Haksar drafted a note providing a “broad framework” for the prime minister to counter the parliamentary opposition. As Haksar suggested, India’s entire nuclear program is
likely to be distorted if one were to single out the nuclear technology to produce a blast, whether it is for a peaceful purpose, or for a military purpose…only a thin line divides the two.
On the issue of peaceful nuclear explosions, Haksar wrote in 1970, at the “present moment, the peaceful uses of nuclear explosives (detonators) is very much at the development stage…a practical technology of economic value based on such uses is yet to emerge.” The government, Haksar wrote, “remains convinced that we shall not purchase our security by diverting our resources and energies towards utilisation of atomic energy for military purposes.”
The road to India’s 1974 peaceful nuclear explosion is still not fully mapped out, but we do know that Haksar played a leading role. Preliminary scientific research on nuclear devices began at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in 1965, largely to cajole the scientific community. But this was also a result of scientific socialisation. The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) of the United States had long argued the benefits of peaceful nuclear explosions to the world for, as George Perkovich notes, large engineering projects like canal excavations. Some proposals along these lines were made to India under the Plowshare project by the AEC in November 1964. However, as NPT negotiations progressed, the United States began to changeits position.
No firm decision to carry out a peaceful nuclear explosion was taken by the Indian government until 1970 at the earliest. In fact, others claim this decision was taken only in 1972. Some have argued that the immediate trigger for this decision was the December 1971 incident involving the USS Enterprise (CVN-65) when President Richard Nixon sent the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet to intervene in the Bangladesh war. Yet, after the war, India emerged as South Asia’s regional hegemon with the Soviet Union as its most important security partner.
Based on Hungarian foreign ministry documents, Balazs Szalontai has come to a different conclusion regarding India’s first nuclear test: the 1974 test was to declare India’s strategic autonomy from the Soviet Union. Other academics point to domestic politics especially the role of scientific bureaucracy and Gandhi’s attempts to divert domestic opposition by rallying the nation under the euphoria of a nuclear test. The lack of available archival documents makes it difficult to pinpoint the exact reason for the prime minister’s decision. The Indian government’s position had, however, always been to argue that peaceful nuclear explosions were helpful in economic development such as canal constructions and exploration for minerals and oil. Contestations over the decision notwithstanding, Haksar played an important role in providing the necessary bureaucratic support for conducting the peaceful nuclear explosion. As Raja Ramanna has argued, Haksar was the ‘intermediary” between the scientists and the prime minister.
Yet, when the decision over the timing of the test was being hotly debated in late 1973 or early 1974, economists like Prithvi Narain Dhar argued against the explosion due to likely negative consequences for the Indian economy. Haksar took the positon that the test should be postponed. For India’s nuclear scientists, Haksar’s objections were “difficult to understand.” As Raja Ramanna suggests, “[Haksar] was of the view that we should wait for election time, some six months later, to be able to use it to defeat the opposition parties.” For Haksar, Indira’s chief strategist, political consideration were always in command. In Haksar’s view, as he later told George Perkovich during an interview in February 1996, scientists were “a very poor evaluator of a very complex phenomena called politics.” But in 1974, scientists won the debate and the peaceful nuclear explosion went ahead in May. Yet, the exact date of the explosion provided Gandhi political mileage. This was precisely the time when the government was facing huge labor protests. As Inder Malhotra notes in his biography of Gandhi, “On 18 May 1974, the country temporarily forgot the railway strike…to hail a landmark in its history.” Whether the explosion was motivated by reasons of security or by compulsions of domestic politics is a major debate among India’s nuclear historians. However, archival evidence suggests that the 1974 test was not followed immediately by a nuclear weapons program nor was India preparing for one.
The device used in the May 1974 explosion was not weaponized. As Gaurav Kampani has elaborated elsewhere, there is a fundamental difference between exploding a nuclear device and the process of weaponization. India’s peaceful nuclear explosion involved a nuclear device which, by definition, can only be considered as an “apparatus that presents proof of scientific principle that explosion will occur.” By contrast, weaponization entails a “rugged and miniaturized version of the device.” It also involves a “process of integrating the nuclear weapon with delivery systems” and its “operationalization” with the “development of soft institutional and organizational routines” for deployment and use. The 1974 explosion fit none of these criteria.
In August 1974, when asked in an interview for a magazine about the consequences of India’s “small , vulnerable nuclear force” on Pakistan, Haksar countered, “I for one do not know where is India’s alleged ‘small vulnerable nuclear force’ against which Pakistan may feel compelled to launch a ‘pre-emptive air strike.’” This was a clear rebuttal of the notion that India had a nuclear weapons program. Revelations from archival research indicate, as noted, that the 1974 peaceful nuclear explosion was not a weapon and that India’s leaders did not follow it up with concerted efforts to weaponize India’s nuclear capability or develop the necessary delivery systems. This is most evident in a top secret communication between India’s Ministry of Defence and Ministry of Finance in January 1975. The Finance Ministry claimed that the 1974 test provided India a rudimentary nuclear capability and therefore argued that the Defence Ministry should not seek more funds. The Ministry of Defence was simply aghast. It complained about the Finance Ministry’s misguided views to India’s highest decision-making body: the Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs, which functioned directly under the prime minister. India’s defense mandarins argued that it was “unfortunate” for the Finance Ministry to have even made a “mention of the nuclear blast” as it “plays no part in our defence preparedness which is based entirely on conventional weapons.”
For the Ministry of Defence, the problem of associating the 1974 test with a nuclear capability was extremely disconcerting for three reasons. First, India’s nuclear policy was focused exclusively on energy for peaceful purposes. Second, any use of nuclear weapons would bring India international opprobrium. Last, and the most important, was the fact that India had no demonstrated capability in nuclear warheads or delivery vehicles. The Ministry of Defence noted: “[W]e cannot take into account the impact of our nuclear explosion on the [conventional] threat from Pakistan in the absence of [a] tactical nuclear weapon and a delivery system for it.” One can look at it as a bureaucratic struggle for scarce resources but the weight of the evidence suggests that the Ministry of Defence was more accurate in its assessments of India’s nuclear capability. As I have explored in my research, no delivery system was being pursued by India in the 1970s which could have delivered a nuclear payload.
The Indian armed forces only started thinking about the impact nuclear weapons could have on their conventional operations in 1975 when a top secret committee set up by the Chief of Army Staff, Gen. Raina, ruminated over India’s security challenges, particularly Pakistan’s gradual nuclearization.. This resulted in the Gen. Krishna Rao committee report – the details of which are still not available in the public domain. However, what is available is the knowledge that beginning in 1974 Pakistan’s nuclear efforts were constantly being monitored by Indian intelligence. India believed that the Pakistani nuclear program had suffered tremendously due to the strict NPT regime imposed after India’s 1974 test Pakistan’s ability to acquire plutonium reprocessing capability from the French was thought to be particularly affected.
Unknown to India at that time were the proliferation activities of A.Q. Khan and Pakistan’s efforts to acquire uranium enrichment technology. It was only later in the 1970s that this became public knowledge. By April 1979, India’s Joint Intelligence Committee concluded that Pakistan had mastered uranium enrichment technology and could produce a weapon in a year or two. Therefore, as Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program progressed in the early 1980s, India started working on weaponization and the development of delivery systems. In fact, Indira Gandhi had considered nuclear testing in 1982 and 1983 but was stopped in her tracks by American pressure. She had also contemplated attacking Pakistan’s nuclear establishment at Kahuta. Gaurav Kampani argues that India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation first tested prototype gravity bombs with Jaguar aircraft in 1984. These attempts however failed due to low ground clearance of the aircraft. In 1985, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi created a top secret committee under Gen. Sunderji to lay down the roadmap for an Indian nuclear deterrent. The committee, as one of its members told me in December 2014, proposed a nuclear deterrent structure composed of 60 to 130 nuclear weapons to be delivered by aircraft. As the committee member argued, “the ballistic missile program had just begun (in 1983-84) and the nuclear submarine was nowhere in sight.” In the late 1980s, new Mirage aircraft acquired from France were tested for this purpose. It was also around this time, in 1990, when the Indian government started thinking for the first time about control-and-command infrastructure for its nuclear deterrent as was outlined in the Arunanchalam committee report. However, it took nearly a decade for New Delhi to put into place an aircraft-based nuclear delivery system. It was only in the mid-1990s that India finalized the first leg of its nuclear deterrent. Twenty-five years after the 1974 peaceful nuclear explosion India openly declared itself a nuclear weapons state after conducting a series of nuclear tests in May 1998.
For some, domestic factors — especially the role of India’s scientific bureaucracy and the quest for international prestige — explain India’s nuclear weapons program. Others point to the nuclear threats presented by China (since 1964) and, later, in the early 1980s by Pakistan. Others have argued that India’s nuclear weapons program was a gradual outcome of the failure of India’s disarmament diplomacy and pressure engendered by the nuclear non-proliferation regime. Some have also suggested that “secrecy” and the lack of trust of the military by India’s civilian authorities were factors which delayed India’s nuclear weapons program. Scholarly debate notwithstanding, there is a broad agreement that India’s nuclear weapons program has always been a piecemeal affair with an uneven and gradual trajectory spanning over four to five decades. This contrasts with all other successful nuclear powers, who made “the bomb” their highest priority.
A “Long Telegram” That is Long on Imagination
Given how rarely Haksar is discussed in American circles, it was unfortunate that one of the few times he was, it was based on faulty sourcing. Late last year, The National Interest published an article by Dr. Vivek Prahladan proclaiming that a declassified “long telegram” written in 1968 by Haksar casts new light on India’s path to a nuclear weapon. Indeed, if this document was an official document written by Haksar during that period as the author claims, this would force us to revisit not just Haksar’s role in steering Prime Minister Gandhi’s foreign and domestic policy, but everything we know about when, how, and why India sought a nuclear weapons capability. It challenged the established wisdom from more than seven decades of accumulated knowledge on India’s nuclear history.
On the basis of this document, Prahladan claims that from at least since 1968, Indian decision-makers had decided to go nuclear with a triadic force structure. Prahladan tells us that this note, titled “Need for India in a Changing World to Reassess her National Interest and Foreign Policy,” lays down the roadmap for an Indian strategic nuclear weapons “stand-off capability.” This capability was to include a nuclear tipped, medium range missile force (2000 to 3000 miles) mounted on nuclear powered submarines and capable of striking “deep inside China.” On the basis of his interpretation, Prahladan calls this note “perhaps the single most important document for establishing the evolving history of India’s nuclear weapons policy.”
In Prahladan’s view, this single document provides a strategic coherence to the most “internally debated and reluctant” nuclear weapons program any country in the world has ever pursued. If these claims are true, there would be major consequences for scholarship on India’s nuclear program, on our understanding of India’s strategic ambitions, and on the role Haksar played in shaping Cold War Indian strategy. Further, it would have major political implications for India today.
Fortunately, there is no firm evidence that indicates Haksar is the author of this document, but this misinterpretation can serve as a useful “teachable moment” for archival researchers. The document in question can be found at the Nehru Memorial and Museum Library in New Delhi – a non-official institution that houses private papers including government documents, personal letters, and all sorts of other materials. Any officially declassified government documents, however, cannot be found here and are instead stored in the National Archives of India. Therefore, one has to be very careful in using documents from the Nehru Library. The papers available in this file (no. 290, PN Haksar Papers 3rd installment) are undated. They do not name their author or any government department responsible for them. There is no insignia on these papers which could associate it with Haksar’s pen, the Secretariat, or the Indian state. These papers also have no category — immediate, confidential, secret, top secret — as is the norm for all government documents.
The note, then, is just a part of a random collection of papers on foreign relations, which includes chapters on Pakistan, China, Russia, and the United States. These were most likely early drafts of a book given to Haksar. Indeed, the file they belong to refers to them as portions of a book. We don’t know who the author is or if Haksar even read them. Since September 2009, ten other scholars have seen file no. 290. To my knowledge, none have used its contents for any scholarship. They have also not been categorized under the “Prime Minister’s Secretariat” in the transcript list for Haksar’s papers prepared by the library. Indeed, even Prahladan himself seems to understand that we cannot confirm the identity of the author because, in his recently published book, he cites the document as “Invalid Source Specified.” So then what are these papers? They are simply everything put down on paper that was found in Haksar’s home when he died in 1998.
However, with the history presented above in hand, we can discredit the dramatic claims made in this document. The record of history is clear: India’s 1974 peaceful nuclear explosion had no immediate to mid-term military significance. The explosion was unaccompanied by any concomitant development of nuclear delivery systems or a weaponized device. The process of nuclear weaponization begin only in the late 1980s and as a response to steady progress made by the Pakistani nuclear weapons program.
If Haksar had written in favour of a nuclear submarine force in 1968, why were India’s first delivery systems based on aircraft which became operational only in 1995 and 1996? Today, its first SSBN is still not fully operational. In fact, until 1998, India was building a nuclear attack submarine rather than a ballistic nuclear submarine and the boat was converted only after the May 1998 tests. The evidence indicates that this “long telegram” had no effect on the trajectory of India’s nuclear weapons program. Therefore, even deductive logic tells us that it is unlikely to be what Prahladan says it is.
If one reads the prescriptions on nuclear weapons carefully and in totality in the document, Haksar emerges as a “nuclear proliferator.” This clashes with everything else we know about Haksar from his contemporaries. It transforms him from the leftist statesman of the historical record into a right-wing ideologue who was disloyal to Indira Ghandi on foreign and defense policy issues.
According to Prahladan, the document in question was written for three reasons. First, in 1968 Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was put under house arrest by Ayub Khan, signalling a more authoritarian military regime in Pakistan. Second, the Soviet Union had started supplying military equipment to Pakistan in 1968 and therefore, Moscow could not be trusted to be a reliable friend to India. Third, detente between the two superpowers resulted in the NPT and consequent pressure upon India to give up its nuclear option. The first reason is so naive that there is no reason to even engage with it (in those days, someone or the other was always being arrested in Pakistan). As we can see from the history presented above, the second and third simply do not hold water. Haksar’s views on these two issues, from top secret documents written by him during the same period, are remarkably different.
When Misinterpreting History Matters
Misrepresenting Haksar distorts India’s nuclear history, manipulates the views of its past decision-makers and creates a narrative that does not in fact exist. This can lead to many negative consequences. There are indeed debates over whether India needs to revise its nuclear doctrine (or indeed already has). Historical arguments that rest on false evidence can shift the debate in the wrong direction. For instance, should Pakistan misunderstand India’s nuclear doctrine and thinking, the results could be catastrophic.
The unattributable document that Haksar clearly never wrote has already been used to attack the present Indian government’s nuclear policy. On Nov. 10, 2016, during a public function, India’s defence minister, Manohar Parrikar, reportedly questioned the logic of India’s no first-use policy on nuclear weapons albeit in his “personal capacity.” This raisedeyebrows among the strategic community over a potential change in India’s nuclear strategy: Would India move towards a first use policy?
Prahladan himself used the document to argue that the current government should not tinker with the sound nuclear policies enunciated by the likes of Haksar. It was picked up by many in India’s strategic community. Nuclear doctrinal debate in India is not new and in fact, such debates have been a running theme in Indian nuclear discussions since New Delhi first enunciated its draft nuclear doctrine in August 1999. The fact remains that since 1998, three different prime ministers and governments have continued to publicly endorse similar policies. Debate is healthy, but misattribution and selective use of archival documents contaminate the discourse. Doctrines are evolutionary concepts and depend upon threat perceptions and security objectives and therefore, if the need arises, should be subject to change. But that is a policy decision to be taken with meticulous weighing of various options. Misrepresented history cannot be the benchmark for such decisions. It also undermines the value which historical research adds to policy formulation.
Bad history also does a disservice to India’s current nuclear diplomacy, which is based upon a widely accepted belief that India has always been a responsible nuclear power. The misattributed document transforms Haksar into a nuclear proliferator where India’s peaceful cooperation agreements with Canada and the United States in the 1960s appear to be a mask for a nuclear weapons program. It also makes India seem to bear heightened responsibility for Pakistan’s nuclearization whereas the evidence indicates that India’s nuclear weapons program was, in fact, a reaction to the Pakistani nuclear program. China’s support for Pakistan’s nuclear program in the 1970s and 1980s engendered a nuclear India and served to create further insecurity for Beijing. The Indian case, interpreted correctly, disproves the linear model of nuclear proliferation: Rather than driven by nuclear insecurity vis-à-vis the bigger nuclear power, Indian nuclear deterrent was an outcome of Pakistan’s — a comparatively weaker military power — nuclear program. This was because unlike Chinese nuclear weapons, which had their origins in its Cold War competition with the United States and the Soviet Union, Pakistan’s nuclear weapons had only one possible motive: to blackmail India and pursue its revisionist agenda in Kashmir and beyond. Even today, Pakistani nuclear weapons serve precisely this purpose, evident in its continuous support for terrorism against India under umbrella of its nuclear arsenal.
Finally, this misplaced association challenges Haksar’s ideological and intellectual attributes. Future research may find he was India’s George Kennan or perhaps its Metternich. Regardless, there is no doubt that his acumen and intellect were fundamental to the process and substance of India’s foreign and security policy from the late 1960s through the mid-1970s. His legacy should be studied, researched and even critiqued; but it cannot be misrepresented or distorted. As Haksar himself told a gathering of journalists in April 1975, the “discipline of facts” must never be broken.
Yogesh Joshi is an Associate Fellow with Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He is currently finishing a history of India’s nuclear submarine program.