INDIAN NUCLEAR DOCTRINE: Will there be a change in NFU policy?


Stating that the NFU policy has worked well so far for India Dr. P.M.Kamath says, it would do well for the Modi government to embrace the concept of a global treaty on NFU of nuclear weapons to maintain the bipartisan nuclear doctrine.

India declared herself as a Nuclear Weapons State soon after the May 1998 nuclear tests and also came out with a nuclear doctrine. The heart of the doctrine is a commitment by India not to use the nuclear weapons as the weapons of offence but purely of defence. This was proposed to be achieved through a declared policy of No First Use (NFU) of nuclear weapons. NFU also guarantees that India will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear weapons state.

Other features of NFU However, if India becomes a victim of misadventure either by Pakistan or by China, India has declared that it will respond by massive retaliation in second strike. Indian current policy states that it will also consider an attack as needing a massive nuclear response, when (a) there is a nuclear first strike (b) whenever a non-nuclear weapons state joins in alliance with a nuclear weapons state and as a member of such an alliance attacks India or the nuclear weapons state as the leader of the alliance attacks India, in all such cases alliance members will invite the punitive nuclear use of second strike by India, and (c) if a non-nuclear weapons state uses biological or chemical weapons against India, it is authorised by the doctrine to use nuclear weapons against such a state in its own defence in second strike.

The present BJP government led by Narendra Modi should not go down in the history as the government that gave up NFU!

NFU as a bipartisan policy

The NFU policy has worked well so far. Soon after the May 1998 nuclear tests conducted by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) then led by Atal Behari Vajpayee, domestically the Congress Party led by Sonia Gandhi, and globally the West led by the US, were in many ways similar in their vehement criticism, condemnation, creation of a conglomeration of critics and calling for immediate reversal of Indian nuclear policy. Yet once the Congress led UPA under the premiership of Manmohan Singh assumed power in May 2004, it came around to accept the NFU as a policy without many changes. Thus for instance, in his interview with Wolf Blitzer of CNN in Washington, DC, ex-PM Manmohan Singh had said on 20 July 2005 that his government is very much committed to NFU of nuclear weapons.

Having done quite a bit of research by going through the original sources, I do strongly feel that the then US president Bill Clinton, a vehement critic of Indian nuclear policy, came round in his second term to accept Indian compulsions to acquire nuclear weapons, improve the US relations with India and before his presidency was to end, was in the midst of negotiating a nuclear deal with this country. It is building on the same grounds, his Republican successor George W. Bush offered a nuclear deal to India in July 2005.

However, the BJP while leading the opposition during the UPA’s ten years did not hesitate to suggest, that too by one of its original promoter, Jaswant Singh in early 2011 reviewing of Indian commitment to NFU of nuclear weapons. It was then the turn of the then Minster for External Affairs, S M Krishna to reiterate India’s continued adherence to it.

Suggestion to revisit the nuclear doctrine

The BJP manifesto in 2014 general elections stated that the party will follow a “two pronged independent nuclear programme, unencumbered by foreign pressure and influence, for civilian and military purposes…” To that goal it will: “Study in detail India’s nuclear doctrine and revise and update (emphasis added) it, to make it relevant to challenges of current times.” It will also aim to “Maintain a credible minimum deterrent that is in tune with geostrategic realities.” Soon after the publication of the BJP manifesto, there were many articles and comments in favour of a review and against it.

Arguments in favour and against change

All those who hope to see a change in present NFU policy point out that Indian policy of NFU has not been favourably received by Pakistan. On the other hand, Pakistan has not only increased the number of nuclear weapons possessed by it (100-110) in comparison to India’s (90-100), but it has also acquired tactical nuclear weapons to meet the Indian preponderance in conventional armed forces.

This concern can be met by pointing out that the very fact that India has a preponderance in conventional forces which can easily run over Pakistani ground forces, has made it to embrace the policy of First Use (FU) of nuclear weapons. But also its fear of defeat in conventional warfare led it to go for tactical nuclear weapons. Pakistan’s game plan seems to be that in the event of another Mumbai 26/11 like surprise and stealthy terrorist attack on some economic or nuclear or defence nerve centre, India might be under pressure to attack, but might not venture into a conventional military attack for the fear of Pakistan’s use of tactical nuclear weapons; thus enhancing its sense of security.

This can, however, be met by updating the exceptions, already included to the NFU stated earlier, by including a clear statement that any use of tactical weapons against Indian interests or defence forces will be considered as an unprovoked nuclear attack and India will appropriately and adequately respond by a second strike with nuclear weapons.

Second reason advanced by those who favour a revision of the nuclear doctrine is: Pakistan-based, promoted, protected and financed anti-India terrorist groups could lay their hands on Pakistani nuclear weapons. This is a widely expressed global fear on Pakistani nuclear weapons. Hence, terrorist groups are likely to use them against India.

As in the case of the first problem, the way out to meet this problem is to include terrorist attacks against India, with whatever type of nuclear weapon, also as an exception to the NFU and going for a massive second strike. But to make this threat of second strike effective in creating the necessary fear in Pakistani intelligence agency under the guidance of the military forces, we need to have effective intelligence with the intelligence agents willing to penetrate into the adversary terrorist groups to find out threats to national security.


We should clearly know that the BJP manifesto nowhere says specifically that NFU is subject to review; though it is an important part of the doctrine, it is not the entire nuclear doctrine by itself. Review of the doctrine to update it to meet the contemporary challenges to Indian national security, by including the above mentioned two exceptions to the existing exceptions to the NFU is merely updating the doctrine and is not tantamount to give it up in favour of the FU of nuclear weapons. A FU is not a defensive use of nuclear weapons, but an offensive use in war making. Nuclear weapons have to remain instruments of high political diplomacy and not war making. There is no space here to argue in detail as I have done elsewhere that NFU is not only ethical and moral but it is also highly democratic doctrine in world politics. It is said by some that the BJP in its manifesto mentioned vaguely revision and updating of nuclear doctrine probably in response to then Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh’s suggestion on 2 April 2014 of establishing a global NFU of nuclear weapons. If that is so, the BJP with its massive majority, just need not tinker or revise the essence of NFU, just because it is also embraced by the Congress. But it will do well to remember: It was Atal Behari Vajpayee who for the first time used the NFU in the UN in 1978 as the Minister for External Affairs in the Janata Party government led by Morarji Desai. The present BJP government led by Narendra Modi should not go down in the history as the government that gave it up! Instead it should embrace the concept of a global treaty on NFU of nuclear weapons to maintain the bipartisan nuclear doctrine.


Dr. P.M Kamath

The writer formerly was Professor of Politics, University of Bombay, currently he is Hon. Director, VPM’s Centre for International Studies and Adjunct Professor, Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal University, Manipal. Of his 18 published books so far, three are on the topic under discussion here: Nuclear Disarmament: Regional Perspectives on Progress, India’s Policy of No First Use of Nuclear Weapons: Relevance to Peace and Security in South Asia and Indian Nuclear Policy: From Idealism to Realism.