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India's Security Environment: Towards the Year 2000

Authored by Dr. Raju G. C. Thomas.

July 29, 1996

38 Pages

Brief Synopsis

In January 1996, the U.S. War College's Strategic Studies Institute and the Center for Strategic and International Studies hosted a conference on "Asian Security to the Year 2000."

In his presentation to the conference, Dr. Raju Thomas examined India's defense perspectives and prospects. From the standpoint of national security, India's post-independence history divides neatly into a turbulent first half, which included conflicts with China and Pakistan, and a relatively more stable period since 1971. That stability has been rattled by significant challenges (Kashmir, Sri Lanka, etc.), as Dr. Thomas points out. Five years ago, the collapse of the Soviet Union seemed to presage a more troubled era. Certainly, it caused as broad a reassessment of strategic policy in South Asia as elsewhere in the world.

Dr. Thomas analyzes India's security environment and the three levels of challenges that India confronts in this post-Cold War period--internal, conventional military, and nuclear. While the challenges in each arena are profound and interrelated, he finds considerable room for optimism that the early years of the next century will see continued stability in South Asia.


The end of the Cold War, marked by the collapse of the Soviet Union, transformed the global security environment. This sudden change generated a catharsis in India's security perspectives and policies. During much of the Cold War, the Soviet Union was a pivotal actor that influenced India's formulation and conduct of its security policies.

India had established security and military ties with the Soviet Union in the mid-1960s following wars with China in 1962 and Pakistan in 1965. The growing collaboration was highlighted in September 1971 by the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace and Friendship which was signed at the height of the East Pakistan secessionist movement.2 With Sino-American "rapprochement" also in progress at the same time, the treaty with the Soviet Union enabled India to resolve the "Bangladesh" issue by force in December 1971. India waged war with Pakistan without much fear of military intervention by Pakistan's then allies, China and the United States. However, even before 1991, India's security problems were not directly related to Cold War politics. The primary sources of Indian security fears were regional, not global, although these fears were compounded by great power intrusions into the region emanating from the politics of the Cold War. Rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, and China and the Soviet Union, enabled Pakistan to obtain American and Chinese military assistance to counter Indian military capabilities. Meanwhile, India had turned increasingly to the Soviet Union for weapons to counter or preempt Pakistani arms procurement.

During this period there were constant pressures on the part of both India and Pakistan to become nuclear weapons states. Two underlying characteristics may be noted about the covert or latent nuclear arms race in South Asia, one perpetual and the other a relatively new situation. First, Pakistan's propulsion towards nuclear weapons arose mainly from strategic imperatives, namely, the threat from India. The nuclear energy rationalization put forward by Pakistan later was an afterthought. The Pakistani program may be viewed, therefore, as a "Security-to-Energy" driven phenomenon. India, on the other hand, perceived nuclear energy programs as critical for meeting anticipated shortfalls in the country's overall energy needs. Thereafter, various security rationalizations for nuclear weapons, such as the Chinese nuclear threat, tended to be spinoffs from the technological capability generated by the energy program. The Indian program, therefore, may be seen as an "Energy-to-Security" driven phenomenon. This analytical distinction is important when attempting to prevent proliferation in South Asia. In the case of Pakistan, it is more critical to address its security concerns, real or imagined. In the case of India, it may be more meaningful to watch its nuclear energy and space programs. These may be for genuine civilian development purposes, but they could be diverted to the making of nuclear weapons and missile delivery systems.

The second characteristic of the South Asian nuclear situation was the change in the direction of India's primary nuclear threat perceptions. As before, India still insists on maintaining its "nuclear option," i.e., it will neither acquire the bomb nor sign the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) for the present. But, India also proclaims the right to acquire nuclear weapons in the future if its security warranted such a move. However, the same "option" policy now exists in a radically different setting. Before the 1974 Indian atomic test, India's nuclear option policy was directed solely at China's perceived nuclear threat, but conditioned by Pakistan's expected reaction. But, as Pakistan proceeded headlong towards acquiring the bomb after the 1974 Indian test, there followed a decade of ambiguity and uncertainty in India about the direction from which it faced a nuclear threat. Was it China or was it Pakistan? By the early to mid 1980s, Indian analysts were convinced that Pakistan had put together an effective nuclear weapons program. Thereafter, India's nuclear option policy was directed primarily at the Pakistani nuclear threat.

This change in the orientation and direction of India's perceived nuclear threats continues into the 1990s. It also marks a significant change in India's ability to control the nuclear situation in South Asia. At one time, India had the "luxury," as it were, of deciding whether or not South Asia would become nuclearized. Now Pakistan determines whether South Asia will become nuclearized--while India can only respond.

Meanwhile, India's internal security problems, to include violent secessionist movements and communal (mainly Hindu-Muslim) rioting, have become perennial since independence. Only the extent and intensity of these problems have varied. Until the early 1980s, the separatist movements were largely confined to the tribes of the northeast: Nagas, Mizos, Gharos, Khasis and others. Following long bouts of insurgency and counterinsurgency, carving out three mini-states from the state of Assam (Nagaland, Mizoram, and Meghalaya) mainly resolved these pressures. Violent separatist movements in the major states of Punjab, Assam and Kashmir commenced only after 1984. Hindu-Muslim rioting remained sporadic, occurring mainly in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Gujerat, and Maharashtra.

By rank order, Indian policymakers during the period 1960-90 judged threats in Southern Asia from China and Pakistan to be of paramount concern, followed by the policies of the United States and the Soviet Union. The "nuclear option" continued to be an important part of the security debate among policymakers, analysts, and the attentive Indian public. While separatist movements in the northeast and Hindu-Muslim tensions were of concern, by Indian standards, at least, political life went on "as usual."

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