But ten years after the Pakistani tests on May 28, even Asif Zardari of the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party is talking about visa-free travel between the two countries. As one defence analyst put it, if possible, the Nobel Peace Prize should be given to nuclear weapons. What role did nuclear weapons play in this process of normalisation? Ten years on, it would be worth our while to take a stock of the first nuclear decade in the subcontinent.
In 1998 though, the situation was indeed far from rosy. Western analysts claimed that unlike the Russians and Americans during the Cold War, India and Pakistan could not be trusted to be rational and South Asia was declared to be a nuclear flashpoint. The initial reactions in India seemed to justify their claims. Some top Bharatiya Janata Party leaders, then in power in Delhi, made outrageous statements.
When Pakistan conducted one test more than India, the public there went berserk and claimed superiority of its 'Islamic' bomb. In an otherwise iconoclast Islamic State, monuments to 'celebrate' nuclear weapons sprung up on many street corners.
The Indian test in May 1974 had no connection with Pakistan that was then still reeling from the 1971 disaster. The 'Buddha is smiling' test was in defiance of the just concluded Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that excluded India. Similarly, the 1998 tests were against the pressure of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty where the US and China sought to freeze India's capacity to have nuclear weapons and deny it the testing of thermonuclear weapons. Interestingly, one of the test shafts for the 1998 tests was named 'White House'.
Many defence analysts in India were realistic enough to expect that India's overt nuclearisation would be followed by Pakistan going nuclear. From the evidence over the years, it is clear that the Pakistani drive for nuclear weapons had US backing in the 1980s. It made sense in then prevalent Cold War situation where India was clearly seen to be in the Soviet camp.
But an overt nuclear posture by both countries was far preferable to 'ambiguity' that prevailed in the 1980s. The greatest danger in the nuclear game is that of 'miscalculation'. Only an overt and open posture can avert that danger.
In India, some economists predicted economic doom for India. The leftists, deafeningly silent on China's nuclear weapons, raised the cry of 'chauvinism' and 'fascism' against the BJP. On the other hand, the Sangh Parivar went overboard and wanted to construct a 'temple' at Pokhran, the test site.
The doomsday economic scenario never came about and India actually gathered more foreign exchange through the Resurgent India Bonds in which NRIs (non resident Indians) contributed generously. The Opposition Congress party's reaction was that 'grapes are sour' as the BJP (wrongly) hogged all the credit forgetting that this capacity was built up during the long Congress stint in power.
Economically weaker Pakistan suffered as aid was cut off and sanctions imposed. In a sagacious move, then Indian prime minister A B Vajpayee bailed out Pakistan by importing sugar worth $200 million. Nuclear weapons are not weapons of war but political weapons of last resort. The leadership in India and Pakistan understood this fact since war was no longer an option and peace a compulsion.
In the words of Vajpayee, 'We can't change our neighbours and war is not an option, so why not live in peace?' He found a ready response in Pakistan and this led to the 'Bus Diplomacy' of February 1999. However, the nuclear tests did not mean that problems between the two countries ended. The Kashmir issue loomed large and had a potential to flare up.
This writer along with retired Lieutenant General Eric Vas and Pakistani peace activist Professor A H Nayyar were invited to a peace congress organised by a worldwide doctors' organisation in Melbourne in December 1998. There we put forward a formulation that the Kashmir issue defies solution as it is an ideological one.
Both countries are in a no win situation. Pakistan cannot acquire Kashmir by force and India will continue to bleed retaining it.
Ideologically, neither can give up their claim as that would affect their very existence.
In this the people of Kashmir are the greatest sufferers.
The solution proposed was that both accept the 'legitimacy' of each other's case and take pragmatic measures to reduce the misery of people of Kashmir. Making the borders soft was a first step in that direction. Alongside with this improvement in Indo-Pak relations was envisaged (trade, people to people contact and sports) so that eventually like in the European Union, borders will cease to matter. One is glad that the present peace process in proceeding on these very lines.
But all was not smooth sailing. It was a bad omen when Pervez Musharraf, then the Pakistani army chief, absented himself from the Attari border function and later childishly refused to salute Vajpayee (he was paid back in the same coin when on a visit to India, the Indian air chief similarly did not salute him). The Pakistani army then miscalculated and launched the Kargil adventure in May 1999, bringing the region close to nuclear war. It was Indian restraint and timely Pakistani withdrawal that saved the day.
The Pakistani army must now have learnt that nuclear weapons are meant only as a threat of last resort to save the nation. They cannot be used to 'acquire' territory like Kashmir. But Kargil was seen as a success in Pakistan, that was only lost due to then prime minister Nawaz Sharif bowing to US pressure. So in October 1999 when Musharraf overthrew him, there was not even a murmur of protest.
Luckily for Pakistan, once in power, Musharraf realised the need to have peace with India and continued on the path of the Lahore peace process.
The second major crisis in the first nuclear decade was when terrorists launched an attack on Parliament on December 13, 2001. The region was lucky that due to brave action of a few policemen, the terrorists could not get into Parliament. It is very likely that if had they done so and killed say 100 odd MPs, India would have launched an all out attack on Pakistan that could have turned into a nuclear exchange.
The attack on Parliament was the handiwork of freelance jihadis and the Pakistan government was apparently taken by surprise. The fact that there was no mobilisation of forces before this attack shows this. But it also showed how its policy of nurturing the jihadis to attack India 'with a thousand cuts' could prove risky.
In the aftermath of this event and Indian mobilisation for war, Pakistan apparently ended its support to this activity. There is reason to believe this since today Pakistan itself is a victim of jihadi violence.
Ten years after the nuclear tests of 1998, jihadi violence and irrational Kashmiri demands for independence pose a threat to peace. But it should be noted that on both these issues there is a tacit agreement between India and Pakistan.
India's spectacular economic progress and Pakistan's desire to share in it has created an added incentive for the peace process. Contrary to the expectation of doomsday scenarios, nuclear South Asia today is more stable than earlier. The basic reason for that is that having nuclear weapons has given Pakistan a sense of security from external threats. In any case, the threat from India was a myth, not because Indians are saints but because there is a consensus across the political divide that the capture of Pakistan (even if it was possible) does not serve India's national interest.
The 'myth' was used by the Pakistani military to create a bloated military establishment that is in turn a threat to its civil society. Logically, under the umbrella of nuclear weapons, Pakistan ought to downsize its conventional forces and thereby make democracy safe and secure. Nuclear weapons in Pakistan could then play a positive role.
Much would depend upon how civil society finally asserts itself in Pakistan. Along with democracy and aspirations of economic development, nuclear weapons would cease to be a threat and become a factor of regional stability.
Colonel Dr Anil Athale (retd) is the coordinator of the Pune-based think-tank Initiative for Peace and Disarmament. He is a former joint director, war studies, ministry of defence.