A month ago, as required by the 1998 Agreement on the Prohibition of Attack on Nuclear Installations, Pakistan and India exchanged lists of their nuclear installations and facilities. One facility which did not make the Indian list was the secretive installation in Challakere, which was described in 2015 by Foreign Policy magazine as a “nuclear city”. At his weekly press briefing, Foreign Office Spokesperson Nafees Zakaria brought up this secret nuclear city and said that India was stockpiling nuclear weapons and upsetting the balance of power in the region. India immediately denied the claims about the nuclear city, calling it a figment of Pakistan’s imagination. But, to the extent that we have any information about Challakere, it seems as if the facility there will give India enriched uranium fuel that can increase the force and destructive capability of its nuclear arsenal. That arsenal, believed to stand at about 100 weapons, could be significantly expanded by the work being done in Challakere. This would put India on par with China, and give it a thermonuclear weapons programme. That the facility was not on the list exchanged with Pakistan is probably on the technicality that there is no nuclear material present there yet but that India is continuing this work in secret is a provocation not just to Pakistan but also to China, which too is worried about India’s nuclear ambitions.
The renewed focus on India’s nuclear responsibilities should have the immediate effect of ensuring that China continues to block the Indian bid for membership to the Nuclear Supplier’s Group. India has never been considered a particularly responsible steward of its nuclear arsenal, with the NGO Nuclear Threat Initiative ranking it 23 out of 25 countries in security practices in relation to weapons-usable nuclear materials. That India is even denying the existence of the nuclear city only shows that it will continue to be opaque in its handling of nuclear safety issues. India has allowed only minimal international monitoring of its nuclear programme and the nuclear city in particular has confounded much of the international community, which can only make guesses about what is being done there. But the problem goes beyond just nuclear weapons. In his press briefing, Zakaria claimed India is working on an intercontinental ballistic missile system, which would also upend the balance of power in the region and spark an arms race with Pakistan and China. The Modi government has been even more vehement than previous governments in blaming all its security problems on Pakistan and it is likely to be more bullish on the need for a conventional and nuclear arms build-up. This threatens the stability of the entire region and makes it even more imperative that the international community take a lead diplomatic role in tamping down tensions. That would start with taking action against India’s brutal and illegal occupation of Kashmir and its habit of blaming Pakistan of being behind the genuine liberation movement. Only once these core issues are sorted will there be a chance of moving ahead on matters like nuclear de-escalation.