Col GG Pamidi & Dr Roshan Khaniejo**



The United Nations General Assembly as early as 1946 called for the total elimination of nuclear weapons. In 1996 it recommended that an annual Nuclear Weapons Convention should be organized to achieve global disarmament. Numerous   initiatives taken by UN and other states indicate the significance of a Nuclear Weapon Free World. However, the progress has been limited as the five nuclear weapon states have shown little interest. In fact, for many years NATO took the view that nuclear weapons should be retained to deter an attack with conventional weapons. The logic put forth was that the abolition of nuclear weapons would make the world safe for conventional war, and would result in more number of wars. However, history shows that North Vietnam was not deterred by the USA, nor was Argentina deterred by the UK when it invaded the Falklands. In fact, it aided an extensive nuclear-weapon proliferation. The other western belief that the nuclear deterrent system is highly stable often referred to as “crisis stability” is also flawed in its approach. A handful of nations possessing nuclear weapons and all other nations forbidden to acquire them do not augment stability, it just does the opposite, it breeds fierce competition to achieve the illusive parity and in the bargain, the nation gets dragged to a arms race. In these circumstances what is required is a mature, pragmatic approach.  95 per cent of the nuclear weapons are held by the USA and Russia.   The responsibility for initiating disarmament also lies with them and there has been some major movement in recent years including the New START Agreement that has decided mutually in the reduction of the nuclear stockpile of both the USA and the erstwhile Soviet Union. The stockpile has already come down from approximately 70,000 to 23,000.[1] However the first step towards an eventual NWFW is a formal assurance of No-First-Use(NFU) of nuclear weapons. A NFU commitment would enhance the security of all nations and will also serve the cause of nuclear non-proliferation. This will serve to eventually make nuclear weapons redundant and unusable and that can pave the way for a NWFW. (Even the idea of declaring a NFU by all countries is still a long way off.)


Disarmament, Non-Proliferation and a Nuclear Weapon Free World (NWFW)


The terms Disarmament, Non-Proliferation and a NWFW all have their different connotations and need to be understood as steps towards an eventual NWFW. Disarmament implies all actions to gradually bring down the nuclear weapon holdings of the Nuclear Weapon States (NWS), in other words they include measures to reduce vertical proliferation. Non-Proliferation, on the other hand, refers to horizontal proliferation and it includes all actions to ensure that technology and other means are not made available to Non-Nuclear Weapon States (NNWS). The purported aim is to deny them the capabilities to become a NWS. Thus, non-proliferation primarily relies on various regimes to curb the availability of such means to new states and the main instrument has been the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).


The existing disarmament and non-proliferation regime (including the NPT) has succeeded in making significant cuts in the existing huge arsenals of the NWS. With respect to non-proliferation efforts, it has partially succeeded in slowly down the efforts of a few nations, who in their perceived national security interests, wanted to be a NWS. It has done nothing to increase the confidence of the world comity of nations in the existing discriminatory treaties and regimes. What is needed is a transition to a world that is not discriminatory and also alleviates the fear of a nuclear holocaust that may affect entire mankind should nuclear weapons ever be employed. As more and more individuals, governments and various non-governmental organisations are realizing, the only way to achieve that is an universal abolition of nuclear weapons.


India and Nuclear Disarmament – A Historical Perspective


India’s foreign policy was shaped by Pandit Nehru and nuclear global disarmament was a significant part of it. As early as 1940 he had said, “We believe that complete disarmament of all nation-states should be aimed at, as an urgent necessity, if the world is not to be reduced to barbarism”. Since then India has been a staunch follower of global disarmament. Although India’s relationship with the NPT itself is fraught with controversy, India’s relationship with nuclear proliferation and the call for universal disarmament go back a long way[2].  


India was the first country to call for a ban on nuclear testing in 1954. This was followed up by many other initiatives, for example, on the Partial Test Ban Treaty, and the call for international negotiations on nuclear non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. In 1978, India proposed negotiations for an international convention that would prohibit the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons. This was followed by another initiative in 1982 calling for a "nuclear freeze" - i.e. prohibition on the production of fissile material for weapons, on production of nuclear weapons, and related delivery systems[3]


In 1988, the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi proposed an Action Plan to the Third Special Session on Disarmament for a nuclear weapon free world. The essentials of the RGAP were as under:-

  • There should be a binding commitment by all nations to eliminating nuclear weapons, in stages, by the year 2010 at the latest.
  • All NWS must participate in the process of nuclear disarmament. All other countries must also be part of the process.
  • To demonstrate good faith and build the required confidence, there must be tangible progress at each stage towards the common goal.
  • Changes are required in doctrines, policies and institutions to sustain a world free of nuclear weapons. Negotiations should be undertaken to establish a comprehensive global security system under the aegis of the United Nations.


This remains the official line (with some modifications) in dealing with nuclear disarmament. India’s Nuclear Doctrine, was clearly enunciated in January 2003 wherein India pledged its “continued commitment to the goal of a nuclear weapon free world through global, verifiable and non - discriminatory nuclear disarmament.” This   approach has since been reiterated on several occasions.


Policy Statements.  India’s approach has been comprehensively articulated in the statement made in the UNGA First Committee by its Permanent Representative to the Conference on Disarmament (CD) on 10 October 2008. Salient aspects are[4]:-

  • India called upon the nuclear weapon states to negotiate a No-First-Use agreement.
  • An agreement for non use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear   weapon states.
  • To reduce the salience of nuclear weapons in their security doctrines.
  • Most important of all, India urged the negotiation of a Nuclear Weapons Convention “leading to the global, nondiscriminatory and verifiable elimination of nuclear weapons with a specified timeframe”.


India and Nuclear Disarmament- Current Position and Way Forward


During October 2010, the National Security Adviser (NSA) had informed Shri Mani Shankar Aiyar, MP (RS), who had proceeded to New York as India’s Representative to the UN’s First Committee on Disarmament, then in session, that the Prime Minister had decided to constitute an informal group to consider how best the ideas contained in the 1988 Rajiv Gandhi Action Plan for a Nuclear-Weapons-Free and Nonviolent World Order (RGAP 88) could best be carried forward.


After further consultations between NSA and Shri Aiyar, the Group was constituted under the Chairmanship of Shri Mani Shankar Aiyar, IFS (retd), former Joint Secretary, PMO and former Union Minister, now MP (RS). It also had seven eminent members drawn from the academia as well as from the diplomatic community. The salient aspects of the report are as under:-


  • It identifies a series of ‘general’ reasons and as many as 19 India-specific reasons as to why this is the correct and opportune time to carry forward the agenda of universal, non-discriminatory, phased and verifiable steps, backed by required collateral measures for the elimination of nuclear weapons in an internationally  agreed  time frame[5].
  • The general reasons include the US President Obama’s commitment to nuclear arms elimination weapons, the opinion of many influential policy makers in the US as articulated in the Wall Street Journal article by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Kissinger, Nunn, Perry and Schultz, as also the US-Russian agreement on restricting and bringing down their respective nuclear arsenals. It also discusses the beneficiaries of the Extended Nuclear Deterrence also coming to the forefront of the nuclear disarmament campaign as a positive development.
  • The report also talks about India leading the campaign and goes onto to identify several reasons as to why this should be so. Amoung the several reasons identified is that first and foremost being the difference in the nuclear status of India.  While in 10988 India was a threshold nuclear state, today it is a self declared State with Nuclear Weapons(SWS). The reason as to why it s so classified a SWS is that a NWS is that which had attained the status of a nuclear weapon state at the time of the controversial and discriminatory NPT.
  • No other country is more threatened than India is by the growing nuclear arsenals in the Indian neighbourhood and the prospects of terrorists accessing nuclear materials or even weapons.
  • The report also focuses on the ‘strategic partnerships’ that India has forged over the years with all the major players on the international stage, including the US and Russia.
  • The repost also urges that there be an official or expert Indian participation in any other conferences on disarmament that might be convened by interested Sates or civil society organisations.


Impact on India’s Security


One school of thought states that India’s security would be much better served in an environment where there are only conventional weapons. The specific logic and rationale behind this is:-

  • It will not only obviate the possibility of a global nuclear holocaust, a regional nuclear exchange, or a terrorist attack with nuclear weapons or materials, but will deprive Pakistan of a nuclear shield behind which to engage in terrorist actions against India.
  • As articulated by many, the introduction of nuclear weapons in the Indo-Pak balance of power has not been to India’s advantage since it has given the country diminishing returns from its conventional superiority[6].
  • Since India has no hostile intentions vis-à-vis China, India will not need nuclear weapons if all nuclear armed countries, including China, do not have them.
  • For India, its conventional forces are sufficient to keep China’s possible hostile intentions in check.
  • India’s need for nuclear weapons has arisen only because China and Pakistan have them.
  •  India’s use for nuclear weapons, as reiterated in its nuclear doctrine, is purely for deterrence and not for first use.


Therefore, it is essential for India to not only become proactive, but also lead the current world movement for nuclear disarmament. As the Report of the Informal Group has put it in the last paragraph of the report[7]:-

“India must continue to pursue its vision of a non-nuclear world since an NWFW would be good for the planet, good for the region, and good for India’s national security.”


However, an important caveat needs to be added here; India needs to be hard nosed and pragmatic while doing this since India has worked diligently for many years to develop a nuclear capability. No move must be unilateral and must follow the articulated policy of global and non-discriminatory disarmament. 


A Nuclear Weapons Free World and ‘Global Zero’

While a nuclear weapon free world is a long cherished dream nourished by many, the term “Global Zero” is relatively new and is an international initiative launched in December 2008 to promote the elimination of nuclear weapons. They proclaim that in a phased manner it is possible to destroy all nuclear devices held by official/unofficial nuclear states.  They target 2030 as the year by which proportionate dismantlement of all nuclear arsenals to zero is possible, provided the four phased targets are met with. Their main strategy starts with a bilateral accord between the US and Russia, to reduce their arsenal in a phased manner, followed by multilateral negotiations by other nuclear states for proportionate reductions of their stockpiles. They lay stress on a comprehensive verification/enforcement system, including no-notice, on-site inspections, and safeguards on the civilian nuclear fuel cycle in order to prevent diversion of materials to build weapons.[8]

The process is political and is evolving on three dimensions[9]:

  • The nation state (including domestic institutional players).
  • The international diplomatic community (encompassing not just blocs of states like the “North”, the “South” or the Non-aligned Movement but also cross-cutting coalitions like the New Agenda Coalition, which had a significant impact at the 2000 NPT Review Conference).
  • Civil society (including both national and international networks like ICAN, Global Zero, and many others).

The Realist School. Some scholars and analysts condemn the process of nuclear disarmament and the concept of a NWFW. They believe that International Relations are always based on a Realist Paradigm where “National Interest” is the sole principle inspiring the countries to react. They aver that nuclear disarmament cannot be conducted in isolation or alienated from parallel collateral measures that simultaneously reshape the premise and architecture of international security. They contend that will make the challenge of nuclear disarmament so complex that nation will be deterred from even contemplating the necessary steps. They opine that it appears far easier to retract into the comfort zone of the present reality than venture into the unknown alleys of a new world order[10]. They contend that since the major powers will practically not subscribe to such an action plan, the plan defies its very purpose. A thorough review of anti-disarmament literature and statements yields essentially twelve arguments—the “dirty dozen”—that have been recycled over several decades. In brief summary, they argue the following[11]:

  • The concept is utopian/impractical.
  • It is dangerous (e.g., encourages proliferation by states once covered by the nuclear umbrella).
  • More urgent priorities exist (typically, non-proliferation and counter-terrorism).
  • It is irrelevant (i.e., proliferation choices are not made in response to policies of the NWS).
  • It is best seen as an “ultimate goal” or mere “vision”.
  • It denies the great value of nuclear weapons in “keeping the peace”, sustaining order, deterring both nuclear and conventional wars.
    • It is unenforceable.
    • It is unverifiable.
    • It would open-up the spectre of large-scale conventional wars.
    • It denies that nuclear weapons are a cheaper way to prevent wars than relying on conventional arms alone.
    • It fails to recognize that nuclear weapons are only “dangerous” when they are in the “wrong hands”.
    • It fails to concede that nuclear weapons “cannot be disinvented”.

The other two approaches to disarmament and non-proliferation are:

  • Idealistic.  They are those that want the entire idea be accepted universally but it has become difficult to articulate a time-bound executable programme. The main thesis of this group is that “a position of deep reductions in nuclear weapons must first be achieved ” – from which abolition can be “envisaged, mapped and navigated”, conditions for the same must first be created. However, it neither puts any precision on these conditions nor outlines the “exact shape and detailed content” of what should constitute the starting point.
  • Pragmatic. They advocate a direct, bold and time –bound programme that calls for action by both the NWS as well as the NNWS seeks to achieve nuclear disarmament not by a series of incremental moves but in a time-frame, through a multilaterally negotiated, universal, non-discriminatory and internationally and effectively verifiable convention or treaty. The initiative commenced by Global Zero envisages such an approach.


Possible Reactions of Asian Nuclear Nations to a Nuclear Weapons Free World


China. China will probably remind that they are in principle ready to join nuclear disarmament talks after Russia and US decrease their nuclear forces to Beijing’s level or Beijing achieves a parity with them. However at this juncture it is difficult to envisage either Russia or US acceding to Beijing’s position.[12]

North Korea. The main aim and purpose of DPRK’s nuclear weapons appears to be to garner international attention. Its potential nuclear capability injects a high degree of uncertainty into its games of bluster with Seoul and forces Beijing, Moscow and Washington to accord it the attention it craves for. So, it is logical to assume that North Korea would be loath to give up nuclear weapons without extracting a high price for it.

Pakistan. Pakistan, ironically, was one of the first to propose a Nuclear Weapon Free Zone. In 1975, one year after Pokhran-1, Pakistan proposed the establishment of a NWFZ in South Asia through a UN General Assembly Resolution. This was discussed again in the 2000 NPT Review Conference. However, since the proposal does not include China, India is skeptical about it. Whether Pakistan is prepared to walk the talk remains to be seen. Publicly, there appears to be no reason to doubt its sincerity since Pakistan has made it abundantly clear that its fear is from India alone. However, the persistent mistaken belief of Pakistan that its nuclear weapons are a sure-fire protection against the conventional superiority of India is bound to make it extremely difficult for the Pakistani establishment to give up its crown jewels. Yet another reason for skepticism is about the sincerity of Pakistan’s efforts and the transparency of its ‘Establishment.’ The public pronouncements by Pakistani leaders and their actions are not the same and their duplicity was made evident to the entire world by the presence of Osama bin Laden, the world’s most wanted terrorist in close proximity of a military garrison in Pakistan. This, when Pakistan is considered to a close ally and a front line state in the on-going war against terrorism. Such actions do not foster confidence in Pakistan’s intentions. Under such circumstances, cynicism is not out of place and intrusive inspections and verification  would be required to ensure that it sticks to whatever it may profess.


Israel. Israel maintains that there has to be a comprehensive peace between Israel and its neighbors before Israeli disarmament. The NPT Review Conference scheduled during 2012 is unlikely to result in making the Middle East a Nuclear Weapon Free Zone (NWFZ).


Reactions by the Nuclear Weapon States less China


US and the Western Nuclear Powers (UK and France). The deep cuts in the stockpile as enunciated in the New Start notwithstanding, there appears to be no fundamental change in the approach of the US towards nuclear weapons. They are unlikely to agree to a complete abolition of nuclear weapons anytime in the near future.


Russia. The end of the Cold War has not resulted in the decades’ long hostility with the US disappearing entirely. The Russians view the growing NATO presence in Europe suspiciously and are unlikely to accept a complete abolition of nuclear weapons any time in the near future.




Both the realistic and pragmatic views are not mutually exclusive. As it is, one can argue that the stage is already set since the arguments of both the sides can be accommodated. With the new START having been successfully negotiated, significant cuts will be achieved. In recent years, the twin threats of proliferation and terrorism have led to a growing chorus of world leaders calling for the global elimination of nuclear weapons. All that is missing is the will and commitment by the world leaders to an action plan. If that can be secured, the goal of a NWFW can indeed be achieved. The path is long and arduous but the ultimate goal will make it eminently worthwhile. There is a need to avoid conflating the old goal of nuclear disarmament with nuclear arms control. India has articulated both its security concerns as well as its desire for a global nuclear weapon free world. A declaration of a No-First Use policy by all the NWS would be a good start point.





[1] IDSA Task Force on Disarmament, April 2010

[2] Lieutenant General ML Naidu, PVSM, AVSM, YSM (Retd), “Nuclear Proliferation and Nuclear Disarmament –A View from India”, Journal of the United Service Institution of India, Vol. CXL, No. 581, July-September 2010.

[3] Permanent Mission of India to the Conference on Disarmament, Geneva. Accessed on the official website  http://www.mea.gov.in/pmicd.geneva/?1017

[4] Report of the Informal Group on RGAP 88, Page-3

[5] Statement by the Honorable MP, Mani Shankar Aiyar at the UN HQs on UN Day, 11 October, 2011. Accessed at http://www.ewi.info/system/files/Mani%20Shankar%20Aiyar%20Speech.pdf

[6] Happymom Jacob, “ A Precarious Indo-Pak Nuclear Balance”, The Hindu, 27 January 2012.

[7] Report of the Informal Group on RGAP 1988. Page-185

[8] Global zero website, www.globalzero.org

[9] Randy Rydell, “Moving Towards a Nuclear Weapon Free World:

Conditions for Nuclear Stability at Low Numbers”, United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs.

[10] See ‘Report of the Informal Group on RGAP 1988.Page-46’.

[11]Randy Rydell, ibid.

[12] Kwa Chong GuanA Second Nuclear Age In Asia?S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, 2011.


** Colonel GG  Pamidi &  Dr Roshan Kaniejo are Senior Research Fellow and Associate Research Fellow respectively at the Centre for Strategic Studies and Simulation, USI.

(Article uploaded on August 9, 2012). 

Disclaimer : The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation that they belongs to or of the USI.



MacGregor Medal