New Delhi: Amid India’s increasing bilateral tensions with Pakistan, defence minister Rajnath Singh on Friday hinted that India may abandon its 'No First Use' policy on nuclear weapons.
“Till today, our nuclear policy is 'No First Use'. What happens in future depends on the circumstances,” the defence minister said while being flanked by Army Chief Bipin Rawat.
Singh’s major statement was made on the death anniversary of former PM Atal Bihar Vajpayee in Pokhran, where he attended the closing ceremony of the army scout master competition. It was here in Pokhran that India had in 1998 secretly conducted five nuclear tests, after which the commitment to not use nuclear weapons first was adopted.
Singh also repeated the assertion that India has remained firmly committed to the doctrine of ‘No First Use’, but that may change in the future through a tweet.
A No First Use (NFU) policy refers to a pledge by a nuclear power not to use nuclear weapons as a means of warfare unless first attacked by an adversary using nuclear weapons. The government's stated position till now has been that nuclear weapons are solely for deterrence and India will pursue a policy of "retaliation only".
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, too, in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha election, had ruled out the first use of nuclear weapons and said India’s arsenal is for defence and protection, "not to suppress anyone".
The NFU doctrine had helped India get civil nuclear technology after it signed a deal with the US, despite being a non-member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group and a non-signatory of Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
However, in recent times, there have seen a number of statements from sitting and retired senior members of the nuclear security establishment questioning the NFU policy. Former defence minister, Manohar Parrikar, had also expressed doubts over the utility of NFU in November 2016.
This strategic shift is in line with the more muscular approach of the ruling BJP towards national security, as evidenced by the airstrikes in Pakistan, in February this year in response to the Pulwama terror attack. The aerial bombing of a terror base in Balakot was the first time that Indian Air Force jets had crossed the border since the 1971 war.
The calls for updating the India's nuclear doctrine, which was formalised in 2003, have resurfaced amid the increasing tensions with Pakistan.
Pakistan does not have an NFU policy and has built a nuclear weapons programme designed to deter India and neutralise its much larger conventional military.
The country's political as well as military establishment have often times used the larger arsenal and lack of restraint policy as blackmail for dialogue. India also has concerns about China, which has a bigger military and more advanced strategic weapons.