India-Pak exchange of 'nuclear facilities' lists has roots in an Army exercise

The 2 nations have exchanged lists of their nuclear installations for the past 29 yrs

kudankulam sanjoy Representational image | Sanjoy Ghosh

On January 1 every year, a seemingly routine news story involving India and Pakistan is published alongside items on New Year fireworks and revelry. This news is about the two countries exchanging a list of nuclear instillations. The exchange is in compliance with a treaty that bars them from attacking atomic facilities in each other's territory.

This year too, India and Pakistan exchanged the list of nuclear installations and facilities covered under the 'Agreement on the Prohibition of Attack against Nuclear Installations and Facilities between India and Pakistan', the external affairs ministry said. This exchange comes less than a year after the aerial skirmish over Kashmir in February 2018 and continued Pakistani criticism of the abrogation of Article 370.

Interestingly, the two countries have exchanged lists of their nuclear installations for the past 29 years without break despite outbreaks of tension such as the Kargil war and the attack on Parliament in 2001.

The Agreement on the Prohibition of Attack against Nuclear Installations and Facilities between India and Pakistan was signed on December 31, 1988, during the tenures of Rajiv Gandhi as prime minister in India and Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan. In Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy, and the West, the last book Benazir Bhutto wrote before her assassination, the slain leader referred to the nuclear non-aggression treaty.

Benazir wrote, “Rajiv and I negotiated a remarkable treaty committing our nations not to attack each other's nuclear facilities. This was the first nuclear confidence-building treaty between Pakistan and India.”

The agreement is considered to be one of the 'spin-offs' from hectic negotiations between India and Pakistan after tension over Exercise 'Brasstacks'. Brasstacks was a massive mobilisation of the Indian Army, along with Navy and Air Force units from late 1986 to early 1987, across the international border.

Brasstacks was described by The New York Times on March 6, 1987, as the "largest and most controversial peacetime military exercise in South Asia since World War II. Though no shots were fired, military analysts said the exercise was as large as those by the NATO allies in Europe". The Indian Army had stated Brasstacks was being conducted to test its new capabilities, which included electronic warfare systems and mechanised infantry units.

Pakistan claimed up to 250,000 Indian Army personnel and 1,300 tanks had been mobilised on the border and began a counter-mobilisation. Pakistan alleged India was attempting to provoke a confrontation with the aim of destroying its nuclear installations.

However, the Indian Army rejected the claims. The crisis over Operation Brasstacks subsided as the two countries initiated negotiations and Pakistan dictator general Zia-ul-Haq visited New Delhi in February 1987.

Strategic analysts Stephen P. Cohen and Sunil Dasgupta, in their book Arming without Aiming: India's Military Modernization, alluded to the Indian military having options during Brasstacks of moving across the Line of Control and capturing parts of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and attacking Pakistan's nuclear facilities, “which were by many accounts on the verge of producing fissile material".

In an essay in 2004, Stephen P. Cohen wrote Brasstacks led to an important confidence-building measure as Pakistan and India signed a treaty that prohibited attacks on each other's nuclear facilities. However, he argued the agreement has meant little since "important data are not shared" and it had not prevented conflict subsequently.

Cohen also argued Brasstacks led to Pakistan ramping up its nuclear weapons programme and providing support to militants in Kashmir.