Mahabharata and India’s ‘No First Use’ Nuclear Policy

Several parallels can be drawn between the circumstances that led to the war in Mahabharata and today's geopolitical scenario. PC:

Mahabharata, the ancient Indian epic, explains and teaches about politics, diplomacy, governance, law, rights, duties of rulers and ministers, and the roles of warriors and other personalities that exist in society.

A comprehensive literature that touches upon almost every aspect of human life, the Mahabharata also covers national security and its components such as military, espionage and even welfare of the kingdom and its subjects.

In Mahabharata, many characters are bound to their ‘oaths’ or principles. However noble, these oaths and principles ultimately led to their downfall as well as that of the Hastinapur kingdom.

In today’s context, various parallels can be drawn between these oaths and principles and India’s nuclear policy. Let’s look at the key oaths in Mahabharata initially.

Firstly, the oath taken by  Bhishma, the prince of Hastinapur. His life-long oath of celibacy and service to the king of Hastinapur cost the kingdom of Hastinapur a capable king. 

The kings that followed were Pandu (who died within a few years) and Dhritarashtra. Clashes between the sons of Pandu and Dhritarashtra increased Hastinapur’s troubles and led to war. Retrospectively, the war could have been avoided had Bhishma not taken the oath in the first place, or had broken it, considering the situation of the kingdom.

Secondly, the oath taken by Karna. Karna was blessed with a natural body armour since birth, and no warrior could defeat him on the battleground. However, Karna was known as Danveer (generous); he pledged to not refuse anyone seeking help or favour.

Before the war, Indra asked Karna for the body armour; Karna obliged, and only then Arjun could kill Karna. Karna’s oath and generosity led him to ultimately lose his life on the battleground. 

Thirdly, the morals and ethics of Dronacharya and Kripacharya. Both were indebted towards the kingdom of Hastinapur, and they had to fight from the side of the Kauravas even though they knew that the side of the Kauravas was of ‘Adharma’ or untruth.   

Fourthly (and slightly differently), the oaths and principles of Arjun, Bheem and Yudhishthir. Bheem and Arjun had pledged they would never leave weapons on the battleground. Yudhishthir, the eldest symbolised Truth, and was also bound to it. However, it was only Krishna who made them break these oaths and principles, secure themselves, and win the battle. 

Many such examples can be found across the entire story of Mahabharata. Oaths, pledges, principles and even curses ruined many and cost them their lives.

When we view India’s National Security and especially India’s nuclear policy, I think we are bound by some of such oaths and ethics governing the policy. India’s nuclear policy is moralistic, idealistic, reflective of India’s history and culture and appropriate for India to present its views regarding nuclear weapons in a more sophisticated manner to the world. It is a great example of how nuclear policy should ideally be.

Official Nuclear Policy after Pokhran II

In the wake of the Pokhran tests, the Indian government made a number of key statements which describe a new nuclear posture. This posture comprises the following seven elements:

  • Minimum deterrence
  • No first use (NFU) and non-use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states
  • A programme of missile testing
  • A moratorium on nuclear tests and accession to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT)
  • Negotiating a Fissile Materials Cutoff Treaty (FMCT)
  • Export controls
  • Promoting global nuclear disarmament

These seven elements are based on pragmatism which is good for India’s deterrent capability, but I doubt the ‘no first use’ point in present and future context.

Security paradigms have changed. The role of non-state actors has increased globally, with increased cross border terrorism, internal conflict, piracy, maritime terrorism, and cyber terrorism. 

In regions such as the Middle East where countries such as Libya and Syria are engulfed in terrorism, the possibility of hostile non-state actors acquiring nuclear technology is very real and the biggest nuclear threat the world faces today. 

Further, certain countries claim to have no nuclear weapons, but ground reality could be different. USA, Russia, France, UK, China are official nuclear-weapon states and signatories of the NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty). India, Israel and Pakistan never signed the NPT, yet they possess nuclear arsenals. 

The world knows that Pakistan had nuclear weapons before India tested in 1998 and yet, Pakistan used to be known as a non-nuclear weapon state. Iraq initiated a secret nuclear program under Saddam Hussein before the 1991 Persian Gulf War. North Korea announced its withdrawal from the NPT in January 2003 and has tested nuclear devices since then. Iran and Libya have pursued secret nuclear activities in violation of the treaty’s terms, and Syria is suspected of the violation as well. 

In this context, the ‘no first use’ (NFU) aspect of India’s nuclear policy is an issue. Today, India has economic, political and socio-cultural engagements in every corner of the world, so security threats could be as widespread too.

In the coming future, if a de facto (but not de jure) nuclear weapon state, or a terrorist organization acquires access to nuclear facilities and threatens, how would India and other states handle the situation and ensuing chaos? The world might face such cases in the foreseeable future, and that is why India must rethink the NFU policy.

India’s current Defence Minister, Mr Rajnath Singh once said, “Till today, our nuclear policy is ‘no first use. What will happen in future depends on the circumstances.” His predecessor, the late Mr Manohar Parrikar, once made a statement questioning the need of the NFU policy.

Parrikar said, “Why should I bind myself? I should say I am a responsible nuclear power and I will not use it irresponsibly.” Academicians such as Bharat Karnad also doubt the NFU policy and maintain that in the case of a war, it is not practically possible to follow it. After all, if one was attacked, what would one do?

Upon analysing the various aspects of current national security and the policy, I feel we should keep our options open. We should not restrict ourselves like the characters of Mahabharata did. 

In Parrikar’s words, we should not ‘bind’ ourselves; threats can come from any corner of the world. At the same time, we also need to reduce the possibility of a nuclear arms race, particularly in South Asia. If at all we change our nuclear policy, there should not be any dilemma or feeling of insecurity within our neighbouring states.

This is particularly important because if we look at the overall picture of the nuclear arms race since the Cold war period, we would observe that whenever USA increased its nuclear weapons it was followed by the Soviet Union and eventually, China. 

Ultimately, to maintain a ‘balance of power’ in the region, India too resorted to dabbling in nuclear technology. This gave rise to Pakistan’s feeling of insecurity and Pakistan began reacting to India’s actions. Such a domino effect across the region is does not favour anyone. 

India’s current nuclear policy is good for today and the immediate future, but considering medium-term and long-term future threats, we need to start revisiting our security policies, without compromising on our message to the world, and look at opening new avenues for strengthening India’s national security.

Nihar Kulkarni

Nihar Kulkarni is currently pursuing Defence and Strategic Studies at SPPU, Pune. His interest areas are International Geopolitical affairs, Security, Strategic Culture of India and History.

The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.


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