‘People should construct basements where the whole family can stay for a fortnight.” So read an advisory issued recently by Indian civil defense officials, who recommend that residents of Kashmir prepare for nuclear war by building bomb shelters, stocked with food, water, “and ample candles and battery lights.” Recent border tensions between India and Pakistan — the death toll included a decapitated Indian soldier — have once more heightened the prospect of war over the disputed territory. The nuclear advisory continued, “Expect some initial disorientation as the blast wave may blow down and carry away many prominent and familiar features.” But a consoling note was struck: “If the blast wave does not arrive within five seconds of the flash, you were far enough from the ground zero.”
Some in Indian-administered Kashmir criticized the advisory for ginning up fear and provoking Pakistan. It was unclear whether the warning represented low-level local anxiety or official concerns of the Indian government. But that ambiguity underscores the danger, since Pakistan, too, was no doubt left wondering what bomb shelters beyond the border portend. Pakistan is a first-strike nuclear power, whose overt policy allows for a pre-emptive attack on an enemy. Signals that India is seriously moving to protect its citizens ahead of a nuclear exchange can, in arms-control jargon, only add hair to Islamabad’s hair trigger.