Doomsday Clock is Closest-Ever to the Midnight: Rising Nuclear Tensions in South Asia Figure again in its Statement


Kumar Sundaram

Besides the irresponsible and belligerent nuclear weapons posture of the Trump administration, especially the “hyperbolic rhetoric and provocative actions” of the US and North Korea, the famed Doomsday Clock statement this year also mentions nuclear escalation in South Asia as a reason behind shifting the clock closest-ever to the midnight. The official statement by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists expresses serious concern about India and Pakistan who “continued to build ever-larger arsenals of nuclear weapons”.

The Doomsday Clock and Its History

If midnight is the end of the world as we know it, in 2018, the world is 2 just minutes away from the hour. The Science and Security Board of the prestigious journal The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, in consultation with its board of sponsors that includes 15 Nobel laureates, decides annually whether to move the hands of their symbolic “Doomsday Clock” or leave them as is. This year, the clock has been reset and is now at 11 hours and 58 minutes, the closest it has been to midnight since 1953.

The Doomsday Clock was introduced exactly 70 years ago, in 1947, as a serious warning that the world may be building up to a global nuclear war, by a group of concerned scientists who ironically participated in the making of the world’s first-ever nuclear weapons under the Manhattan Project. Over the past seven decades, while the clock continues to be a universally recognised indicator of the world’s vulnerability to nuclear Armageddon, other human-induced catastrophes such as climate change during the past decade, have also been included as factors pushing us towards the end of civilisation.

This year’s Doomsday Clock Statement also mentions rising tension in the South China Sea and Middle-East as perilous concerns. In recent years, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has also started including anthropogenic Climate Change as a serious threat endangering human civilisation.

Growing and legitimate concerns about nuclear brinkmanship in South Asia

This is second the consecutive year when India and Pakistan found mention in the Doomsday Clock statement since 1998 when they conducted nuclear tests. Last year, the Doomsday Clock Statement mentioned the “simmering tensions between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan”. It refers to the “threats of nuclear warfare” hanging in the background “as Pakistan and India faced each other warily across the Line of Control in Kashmir”, a reference to the surgical strikes by the Indian military across the LoC on September 29. Last year’s statement also mentioned the militant attacks on two Indian army bases in 2016 – the September 18 Uri attack that killed 20 soldiers and the Nagrota attack on November 29, in which seven soldiers died – that led to the exchange of not-so-veiled nuclear threats in South Asia.

In 2017, India missed the opportunity of being on the right side of the history when the landmark treaty banning nuclear weapons was adopted in the United Nations. Completely shredding the country’s long-standing foreign policy of supporting nuclear disarmament, the Modi government abstained from the UN voting and stood with the nuclear weapons states. When the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons(ICAN) was awarded Nobel Peace Prize last year, the Indian Ambassador to Oslo had to make embarrassing excuse to avoid the award ceremony.

The Bulletin recognised the Nuclear Ban Treaty, adopted by a significant majority of UN members in July 2017. Responding to the latest Doomsday Clock Announcement, Beatrice Fihn of ICAN has said: “The Treaty is the only rational way to avoid slipping towards Doomsday. It is a beacon of hope in a dark time, and a way for serious countries to state firmly their opposition to the recent erosion of norms against nuclear weapons. On this occasion, ICAN has also expressed disappointment on no real progress by India towards nuclear disarmament, despite it moral rhetorics. Most recently, the test-firing of Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile(ICBM) by India has also raised global concerns.

Today, South Asia is the only region that hosts two adjacent nuclear-armed states with a history of conventional wars and decades-long border disputes and conflicts. The military stability that the proponents of nuclear weapons claimed the region would be bestowed with after the 1998 tests has remained elusive. The military budgets of India as well as Pakistan have grown exponentially and India has been among the top five weapons importers in the world for the past several years.

The nuclear arsenals of both the countries have been expanding rapidly – both quantitatively and qualitatively. Pakistan has been investing heavily in tactical nuclear weapons, to be used at battlefields to offset India’s conventional military superiority and has been producing more nuclear weapons annually. Meanwhile, India’s fissile material stockpile has been rising steadily thanks to the larger number of nuclear power reactors.

On average, India and Pakistan have flight-tested one nuclear-capable missile every year since 1998. A 2012 report by the Nobel-winning International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear Weapons warned of a severe nuclear war-induced famine in South Asia that would kill a staggering two billion people in its hypothetical study on the consequences of a nuclear exchange in the region.

Furthermore, it concluded that even a middle-scale nuclear war in South Asia would unleash irreversible climatic effect, impacts of which will be felt far beyond the region.

The ruling BJP’s election manifesto in 2014 raised concerns internationally, as it indicated the ruling party’s intent to revise the doctrines of ‘no-first-use’ and ‘minimum credible deterrence’. Frivolous statements made by senior BJP leaders, particularly the utterings of the former Defence Minister, Manohar Parrikar and the former party president, Nitin Gadkari, have trivialised the nuclear weapons discourse at a time when the world is more concerned about them than ever before.

The frivolous language in which these inhuman weapons get talked about in the region is simply frightening. The politics of war-mongering by the ruling party in India has vitiated the atmosphere and made introducing new nuclear confidence- building measures politically unpalatable for the current government. In these circumstances, we would ignore the warning reflected by the latest Doomsday Clock announcement only at our own grave peril.

Kumar Sundaram is the Editor of and has been an ICAN campaigner in South Asia.

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