Indian Explodes First Nuclear Device - History

Indian Explodes First Nuclear Device - History

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On May 18th, the Indians detonated a nuclear bomb in an underground explosion. The bomb was small-- approximately 15 megatons. India thus became the sixth member of the nuclear club.

In August 1947, the partition of British India created the independent Republic of India and Dominion of Pakistan. Shortly afterwards, a group of Indian scientists led by physicist Homi Bhabha—sometimes called “the Indian Oppenheimer”—convinced Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to invest in the development of nuclear energy. The subsequent 1948 Atomic Energy Act created the Indian Atomic Energy Commission “to provide for the development and control of atomic energy and purposes connected therewith” (Bhatia 67).

A U.S. satellite photograph of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, 1966

In its early stages, the Indian nuclear program was primarily concerned with developing nuclear energy rather than weapons. Nehru, who called the bomb a “symbol of evil,” was adamant that India’s nuclear program pursue only peaceful applications (66). Nehru nonetheless left the door open to weapons development when he noted, “Of course, if we are compelled as a nation to use it for other purposes, possibly no pious sentiments of any of us will stop the nation from using it that way.” India also opposed the United States’ Baruch Plan, which proposed the international control of nuclear energy, on the grounds that it “sought to prohibit national research and development in atomic energy production” (67).

Serious development did not start until 1954, when construction began on the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) at Trombay. Essentially the Indian equivalent to Los Alamos, BARC served as the primary research facility for India’s nuclear program. This period also saw a massive increase in government spending on atomic research and heightened efforts for international scientific collaboration. In 1955, Canada agreed to provide India with a nuclear reactor based on the National Research Experimental Reactor (NRX) at Chalk River. The United States also agreed to provide heavy water for the reactor under the auspices of the “Atoms for Peace” program. The Canada India Reactor Utility Services—more commonly known by its acronym, CIRUS—went critical in July 1960. Although billed as peaceful, CIRUS produced most of the weapons grade plutonium used in India’s first nuclear test.

The first atomic bomb test is successfully exploded

On July 16, 1945, at 5:29:45 a.m., the Manhattan Project comes to an explosive end as the first atom bomb is successfully tested in Alamogordo, New Mexico.

Plans for the creation of a uranium bomb by the Allies were established as early as 1939, when Italian emigre physicist Enrico Fermi met with U.S. Navy department officials at Columbia University to discuss the use of fissionable materials for military purposes. That same year, Albert Einstein signed a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt supporting the theory that an uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction had great potential as a basis for a weapon of mass destruction. 

In February 1940, the federal government granted a total of $6,000 for research. But in early 1942, with the United States now at war with the Axis powers, and fear mounting that Germany was working on its own uranium bomb, the War Department took a more active interest, and limits on resources for the project were removed.

Brigadier-General Leslie R. Groves, himself an engineer, was now in complete charge of a project to assemble the greatest minds in science and discover how to harness the power of the atom as a means of bringing the war to a decisive end. The Manhattan Project (so-called because of where the research began) would wind its way through many locations during the early period of theoretical exploration, most importantly, the University of Chicago, where Enrico Fermi successfully set off the first fission chain reaction. But the Project took final form in the desert of New Mexico, where, in 1943, Robert J. Oppenheimer began directing Project Y at a laboratory at Los Alamos, along with such minds as Hans Bethe, Edward Teller, and Fermi. Here theory and practice came together, as the problems of achieving critical mass𠅊 nuclear explosion𠅊nd the construction of a deliverable bomb were worked out.

Rise of the BJP

1996 - Congress suffers worst ever electoral defeat as Hindu nationalist BJP emerges as largest single party.

1998 - BJP forms coalition government under Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.

1998 - India carries out nuclear tests, leading to widespread international condemnation.

1999 February - Mr Vajpayee makes historic bus trip to Pakistan to meet Premier Nawaz Sharif and signs bilateral Lahore peace declaration.

1999 May - Tension in Kashmir leads to brief war with Pakistan-backed forces in the icy heights around Kargil in Indian-held Kashmir.

Indian Explodes First Nuclear Device - History

October 16, 1964, China successfully exploded its first atomic bomb.

However, this brilliant success was achieved under extremely difficult conditions.

When the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949, the Soviet Union agreed to aid China technologically in the development of nuclear industry. However, in June 1959, the USSR refused to provide relevant information as it had previously promised. Moreover, the Soviet Union recalled all technicians and advisers from China.

In July 1960 Chairman Mao Zedong called on Chinese scientists to rely on their own efforts and develop China's atomic bomb within eight years.

On October 16, 1964, China successfully exploded its first atomic bomb. The Chinese people had finally developed their own nuclear technology.

On the same day, the Chinese government made a solemn promise to the world that it developed nuclear weapons only for the purpose of self-defense and safeguarding national security. China would never at any time or under any circumstances be the first to use nuclear weapons.

Essay: History of Nuclear Program of India:-

1967 beginning of Nuclear Program:
Late in 1967 the scientific leadership at BARC led by Homi Sethna and Raja Ramanna undertook a new effort to develop nuclear explosives one that was larger and more intense than any previous efforts. One that would lead to the successful design of a nuclear device, a device that India would successfully test.It is not completely clear why they decided to revive the effort and move forward at that time, but due to the convergence of a number of trends perhaps the time simply seemed ripe. China had just exploded a thermonuclear device in 1967, and had become very belligerent moving troops into disputed areas and making threats. And India’s supply of separated plutonium, necessary for anything beyond purely theoretical work, was slowly accumulating. Some researchers have concluded that the new effort was begun at the initiative of the scientists involved. Chengappa however states that Gandhi directly approved the new effort at the urging of her new secretary Parmeshwar Narain Haksar and that she specifically told Vikram Sarabhai, chairman of the IAEC, not to interfere. In any case Sarabhai did not try to stop this work when he became aware of it and appears by the spring of 1969 to have become at least a moderate supporter of the program
Ups and Downs in development of Nuclear Program:
Nuclear power for civil use is well established in India and has been a priority since independence in 1947. In 1948 the Atomic Energy Act was passed, and the Atomic energy Commission set up. Under it the Department of Atomic Energy was created in 1954 when the country’s 3-stage plan for establishing nuclear power was first outlined. This plan first employs Pressurised Heavy-Water Reactors fuelled by natural uranium to generate electricity and produce plutonium as a by-product. Stage 2 uses fast breeder reactors burning the plutonium to breed U-233 from thorium. Stage 3 is to develop this and produce a surplus of fissile material. India’s civil nuclear strategy has been directed towards complete independence in the nuclear fuel cycle, necessary because it is excluded from the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) due to it acquiring nuclear weapons capability after 1970. (Those five countries doing so before 1970 were accorded the status of Nuclear . In May 1974 when India exploded its first nuclear device only 94 states had signed the NPT and fewer had ratified it. This compares with 190 ratifying states now. After 1974 India was denied nuclear technology by the Western world. Post 1974 India has been considered a nuclear weapons capable state though its military nuclear program proceeded slowly in the ensuing years and only came fully out of the closet in 1998 when India conducted several nuclear explosive tests. The rationale for this isolation was largely coercive, to encourage signature of the NPT by India and the other eighty plus states that were non-signatories in 1974. However, political support within India for its nuclear weapons program has been strong across the political spectrum, due to distrust of its neighbours China and Pakistan in particular, and this precluded any move to sign the NPT as a Non-Nuclear Weapons State the only option open from NPT perspective.
1974 First Successful Nuclear Test:
Smiling Buddha (Pokhran-I) was the assigned code name of India’s first successful nuclear bomb test on 18 May 1974. The bomb was detonated on the army base, Pokhran Test Range (PTR), in Rajasthan by the Indian Army under the supervision of several key army officials. Pokhran-I was also the first confirmed nuclear weapons test by a nation outside the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. Officially, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs claimed this test was a “peaceful nuclear explosion”, but it was actually an accelerated nuclear program.
1998 second Successful Nuclear Test:
Pokhran-II was the series of five nuclear bomb test explosions conducted by India at the Indian Army’s Pokhran Test Range in May 1998. It was the second Indian nuclear test the first test, code-named Smiling Buddha was conducted in May 1974. Pokhran-II consisted of five detonations, of which the first was a fusion bomb and the remaining four were fission bombs. These nuclear tests resulted in a variety of sanctions against India by a number of major states, including Japan and the United States. On 11 May 1998, Operation Shakti (Pokhran-II) was initiated with the detonation of one fusion and two fission bombs the word “Shakti” (Devanagari) means “power” in Sanskrit. On 13 May 1998, two additional fission devices were detonated and the Indian government led by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee shortly convened a press conference to declare India a full fledged nuclear state. Many names are attributed to these tests originally they were called Operation Shaktiâ€󈮶 (Powerâ€󈮶), and the five nuclear bombs were designated Shakti-I through Shakti-V. More recently, the operation as a whole has come to be known as Pokhran II and the 1974 explosion as Pokhran-I.

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NEW DELHI, May 18—India conducted today her first successful test of a pdwerful nuclear device.

The surprise announcement means that India is the sixth nation to have exploded anuclear device. The others are theIlnited States, the Soviet Union, Britain, France and China,

A brief Government statement said that India's Atomic Energy Commission had crated out “a peaceful ‘nuclear explosion. experiment.” The underground blast took place “at a depth of more than 100 meters,” or about 330 feet, the statement said.

In exploding the device, India was entirely within :her rights in international law, Government officials said. India is a signatory of, the Moscow test‐ban treaty of 1963, forbidding explosions on land, in the air or underwater in the seas. In exploding the device beneath the ground, officials say, India adhered to the treaty.

Although India is a party to the nuclear test‐ban treaty, she did not sign the 1968 treaty to bar the ipreid of nuclear weapons. Shea dechned'to subscribe to it on the ground that it divided the world intocounltries with nuclear weapons and those without such weapons and, India said, imposed obligations on nonnuclear states without imposing similar obligations on nuclear states.

[In Geneva, sources at the disarmament conference viewed the Indian, explosion as a setback to efforts to restrict the spread of nuclear weapons. The Soviet press stressed that it had no military significance, while in Washington a State Departinent spokesman restated opposition to “nuclear proliferation.” Page 19.]

The Government announcement of the nuclear explosion gave few details but one Indian scientific analyst told a news agency here that “it can be inferred” that the explosion was as powerful as the atomic bomb dropped by the United States on ‘Nagasaki. in World War IT. That, bomb had a force equivalent to 20,000 tons of TNT.

This evening, however, Dr. H. N. Sethna, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, said the device had been in the range of 10 to 15 kilotons, indicating that it was smaller than the Nagasaki bomb.

Dr. Senna told a news conference: “It was a 100 per cent Indian effort and the plutonium required for the explosion was produced in India.” The disclosure today strengthens India's powerful military position on the subcontinent and provides firmer leverage over the nation's major rival, Pakistan. Government officials Insisted, however, that the nation's nuclear program was in tencled solely for peaceful purposes.

A Government statement emphasized that India's advancing nuclear. program was designed for “peaceful uses” such as mining and earth moving. India has “no intention of producing nuclear weapons and reiterated its strong opposition to military uses of nuclear devices,” the statement said.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi said that the nuclear breakthrough was “nothing to get excited about.” But Mrs. Gandhi called on the President, V. V. Giri, to convey the news, convened a Cabinet meeting and ordered the Foreign Secretary, Kewal Singh, to notify the diplomatic representatives of the United States, the Soviet Union Britain, France and other nations.

Mrs. Gandhi, who appeared cheerful, chatted briefly with newsmen this afternoon at New Delhi's Palam Airport where she had gone to receive the President of Senegal, Leopold Sedar Senghor.

Asked if the explosion would, raise India's prestige among developing nations, Mrs. Gandhi said: “I never bother about prestige. It is nothing to get excited about. We are firmly committed only to the peaceful uses of atomic energy.’'

Later in the day, Mrs. Gandhi publicly congratulated the scientists at a news conference with Dr. $ethna. “It is a significant achievement for them and the whole country,” Mrs. Gandhi said of the scientists. “We are proud of them. They worked hard and have done good, clean job.”

The Atomic Energy Commission said that it had carried out its “peaceful nuclear explosion experiment using an implosion device.” One Indian scientific analyst said that the implosion technique implied that India had perfected a technology more sophisticated than that used by the United States for the first atomic weapon dropped on Japan.

In the implosion method, according to the analyst, several pieces of the bomb material are kept apart within a spherical container. They are brought together by a chemical explosive charge to form the crucial mass necessary for an explosion of the nuclear device,

There was no mention in today's announcement about where. the nuclear device had been exploded, but speculation centered on the northwest state of Rajasthan, which has vast desert areas. An official spokesman said after the announcement that the explosion took place at about 8 A.M. today.

The blast immediately aroused discussion about the uses of nuclear energy here, There was some belief that it was likely to revolutionize mining operations, especially in regions containing large amounts of mineral resources, especially copper, that would take a long time for exploitation by conventional methods.

India's atomic energy program originated in the early years of the nation's independence when the first Prime Mininter, Jawaharlal Nehru, established a Department of Atomic Energy and then an Atomic Energy Commission designed to spur the long‐term industrialization of India. The nation's first nuclear reactor was inaugurated in January, 1957, to Trombay, a 1,200‐acre hillside site northeast of Bombay, which is the center of India's nuclear activity.

India spends about $40,mib lion a year on the development of atomic energy.

The Aftermath

“According to the author, Howard Kohn, there are two nuclear-powered monitoring devices — allegedly for the surveillance of Chinese atomic weapons testing — high in the Himalayas. The devices, containing plutonium, were placed on two mountains, one of which, Nanda Devi, is the source of India’s Ganges River…One of the monitoring stations is said to have been buried by an avalanche, and thus might be currently leaking plutonium into the Ganges…”

— Letter from Congressmen John Dingell and Richard Ottinger to the President April 12, 1978

In 1977, author Howard Kohn released a story about the Nanda Devi mission in Rolling Stone, an American magazine. The story sent shock waves through the diplomatic community. The letter above is part of the fallout.

Despite the chaos, the event was effectively buried by the CIA and CBI until the article came out.

Currently, the whereabouts of the lost SNAP generator are still unknown. Despite some speculation the device was stolen, it’s believed to still be sitting somewhere enclosed in the mountain. No recovery efforts appear to be ongoing.

The story has gotten press, but it may heat up a bit in the near future. According to The India Times, Hollywood plans to make a movie about the event. If it does, you might see an actual effort to recover the device in the future.

India and Pakistan’s Nuclear Programs (short version)

For almost a century, India was ruled by the British Crown prior to its independence in 1947. The partition of India gave rise to two sovereign states – the Dominion of India and the Dominion of Pakistan. The partition process largely explains the reciprocal animosity, and can explain the development of their nuclear weapons programs.

During the partition of India, 10 to 12 million people became refugees, flooding across the border in each direction, while thousands met with sectarian violence, resulting in death. The division of the Indian subcontinent is recalled to have created perhaps one of worst exodus of human history, and a perennial dispute over the region of Kashmir, home to both Muslims and Indians, which is divided by the Line of Control.

In the aftermath of the partition, both India and Pakistan expressed the desire to invest resources in a nuclear program. India was the first to achieve it. In 1948, Indian Prime Minister Jawarhal Nehru created the Indian Atomic Energy Commission. Although this was aimed at the development of a nuclear program for peaceful purposes, Nehru declared: “I have no doubt India will develop her scientific researches and I hope Indian scientists will use the atomic force for constructive purposes. But if India is threatened she will inevitably try to defend herself by all means at her disposal.”[1]

India started its atomic energy production process in 1954, with the establishment of the Bhabba Atomic Research Centre (BARC) in Trombay. It also benefitted from the cooperation with the governments of Canada, France, Great Britain and the United States and was placed under the auspices of the U.S. Atoms for Peace program. The creation of the Bhabba Centre prompted Pakistan to establish, in 1956, the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC).

In the 1950s, concerned with India’s growing regional predominance, Pakistan advanced military and economic assistance requests to the United States, adding as a motivation that Pakistan’s geographical position could benefit the U.S. in its fight against communism. In addition to offering conventional support, the United States gave Pakistan its first nuclear reactor in 1962, the Pakistan Atomic Research Reactor (PARR-I), based in Nilore, Islamabad. The sympathy shown by the U.S. to Pakistan would exacerbate the tensions between both countries and India, and would induce India to align itself with the Soviet Union, thus extending Cold War dynamics to South Asia and motivating a long history of reprisals between the two Asian countries.

Despite initial declarations that denied military aims for its nuclear program, the 1965 Indo-Pakistani War, which ended in victory for India, prompted Pakistani Minister of Foreign Affairs, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, to declare: “If India builds the bomb, we will eat grass or leaves, even go hungry, but we will get one of our own.”[2]

The refusal by India to sign the 1968 Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), alongside inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), would be reason for alarm for the international community, and first and foremost, for Pakistan. Fears were confirmed on May 18, 1974, when India exploded its first nuclear device – ironically called ‘Smiling Buddha’ (with official name ‘Pokhran I’) – at its Pokhran test site, located in the Jaisalmer District of the Indian state of Rajasthan, very close to the Pakistani border. In 1996, India refused to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and two years later proceeded with testing five nuclear devices, emerging officially as a nuclear weapons state.

The perception of threat India represented had been the main factor that motivated Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. Being part of the IAEA safeguards agreement since the first instances of the development of its nuclear program, and being in a net position of inferiority compared to India, Pakistan was induced to seek nuclear technology by entering a clandestine trade network originating in Western Europe. Following pressure by the United States to abandon its nuclear program, Islamabad opened its ties with Libya, Iran, Iraq, Libya, and North Korea, motivated by anti-imperialistic sentiments. In July 1977, the military, led by Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq, ousted Bhutto, who had become Prime Minister, through a coup, and had him hung in April 1979. Many Pakistanis started fearing U.S. interference and Pakistan’s nuclear program became a symbol of national sovereignty and prestige.[3]

In 1997 Pakistan and India had a brief period of amicable relationship. This apparent harmony was disrupted by victory of the Bharativa Janata Party in India, whose stance was categorically against any compromise with Pakistan and in favor of an overt nuclear policy. After the rupture of their relationship Pakistan proceeded to its first testing of an atomic device on May 28 and 30, 1998, shortly after India conducted its second and third nuclear test, on May 11 and 13.

The 1998 testing of nuclear devices by India and Pakistan, and the regime of sanctions that was imposed by the United States not only increased the tension between them, but threw the whole world into a state of emergency, even though the economic pressure on Pakistan prevented the country from achieving full-scale nuclear weaponization and dramatically affected its civil society.

Though India’s conventional military forces are far bigger that Pakistan’s, the two countries possess similar nuclear arsenals. India currently has between 130 and 140 warheads, while Pakistan possesses between 140 and 150 nuclear warheads. India is considered more powerful than Pakistan because it possesses a nuclear triad, namely the ability to launch nuclear strikes by air, land and sea, while Pakistan’s sea-launched cruise missile system is still incomplete. However, unlike Pakistan, India has a strict no-first use policy, although high-level officials have recently threatened pre-emptive strikes to eliminate Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities. Uncertainty, therefore, dominates the region, with both countries heavily relying on conventional attacks against each other and the threat of use of nuclear weapons. Their possession does nothing but increase the militarization of Indo-Pakistani relationship, suggesting that the only safe choice is their dismantling.


[1] Newman, Dorothy (1965) (1st ed.) Nehru. The First 60 Years, Vol. 2, New York: John Day Company, p. 264.

[2] “Eating Grass,” The Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists, Editor’s note, Vol. 49, no. 5, June 1993, p. 2.

[3] Ahmed, Samina, “Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program: turning points and nuclear choices”, International Security, Vol. 23, no. 4 (Spring 1999), p. 183.

India’s Nuclear Journey: Of Scientists, Spies and Statesmen

On 26th December 2004, seven months after he had completed his term as Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee made a sensational disclosure. At a small gathering of writers in Gwalior, his hometown, he said that it was not he who should be given credit for the May 1998 nuclear tests at Pokhran. Credit for India’s second round of nuclear tests should go to his predecessor, P V Narasimha Rao.

“Rao told me that the bomb was ready, I had to explode it.” Vajpayee said.

Rao had died three days earlier, on 23rd December 2004. Vajpayee’s decision to credit Rao for being the real architect of the bomb was a great tribute to the departed Congress leader, a fine act of bipartisanship in Indian politics – which is increasingly becoming rare.

What Vajpayee disclosed was known only to a few in the top echelons in political, scientific and strategic circles. So what exactly had Rao’s role been in the tests, the country’s second round since 1974?

Let’s go back 10 years in history, to December 1995, to answer these questions. On the morning of the 15 th of December that year, The New York Times ran a story quoting US intelligence officials who claimed that India was preparing for a nuclear test. The story, headlined ‘U.S. Suspects India Prepares to Conduct Nuclear Test’, reported that American spy satellites passing over the Thar Desert in Rajasthan had picked up photographs of suspicious activities at the Indian Army’s Pokhran Test Range.

The story was published when American Ambassador to India Frank Wisner was in transit from Washington, DC to New Delhi. After his arrival, Wisner sought a meeting with Rao’s Principal Secretary A N Varma. Vinay Sitapati, in his book, Half Lion: How P V Narasimha Rao Transformed India (2016), provides a dramatic account of the Wisner-Varma meeting.

“Wisner walked into the PMO carrying photographs taken from American satellites. Varma told Wisner he had no idea what he was talking about. He asked Wisner if he could keep the photographs and show them to the scientists. Wisner quickly hugged the photographs. ‘These are part of my body’, he is reported to have said, angrily. The only way you can take the photographs is if you take me along’,” Sitapati quotes Wisner as saying.

Strobe Talbott, then the US Deputy Secretary of State, says in his book Engaging India: Diplomacy, Democracy and the Bomb (2004), that Wisner had warned Varma that “a test would backfire against India, incurring a full dose of sanctions under the terms of the Glenn Amendment”. The Glenn Amendment refers to an amendment to the Arms Export Control Act, under which the US can impose certain sanctions if a non-nuclear weapons state detonates a nuclear explosive device.

The tests had been scheduled for 19th December 1995 and Rao asked Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee to make a statement denying The New York Times ’s story. Not satisfied with the denial, on 21st December, US President Bill Clinton called Rao. Sitapati narrates the Clinton-Rao conversation in his book:

Clinton: “We are happy to note a clear statement by your foreign minister that the government of India is not testing.”

Rao: “I saw the press clippings too. They are false.”

Clinton: “But, Mr Prime Minister, what is this that our cameras have picked up?

Rao: “This is only a routine maintenance of facilities.” Then Rao, in his typical unhurried style added, “There is right now no plan to explode. But, yes, we are ready. We have the capability.”

Rao had not given away any top-secret information. The Americans knew about India’s nuclear capability. Not many outside the close group of scientists and members of a committee headed by former bureaucrat Naresh Chandra knew about Rao’s decision to conduct nuclear tests. The scientists spearheading the nuclear club under Rao were A P J Abdul Kalam, Scientific Advisor to the Prime Minister and head of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), also popularly known as ‘Missile Man’ and R Chidambaram, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC).

Now, given how much the Americans suspected, Rao had no choice but to postpone the test. The bomb that had already been lowered into the shaft for the explosion, was ordered to be removed.

But time was running out for Rao. The elections to the Lok Sabha were due in April-May 1996. He had barely four months to decide whether or not to conduct the tests, while he was still Prime Minister. Having put India on a sound economic footing with liberalisation and painful structural reforms, Rao wanted India’s national security to be steeled by a nuclear weapons armour.

Even more importantly, India was faced with a Hobson’s choice on the nuclear question. It was under pressure from the US and other international quarters to join the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), whose objective was to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology. India was also under pressure to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which called for a complete ban on nuclear tests by non-nuclear weapons power nations.

The NPT had already been given an extension on 11th May 1995, which implied that non-nuclear weapons states were bound to not engage in nuclear commerce. Kalam and top scientists involved in preparations for the test were urging Rao to stop negotiations on the CTBT while they prepared for the test.

The negotiations on the CTBT were underway as it was to open for signatures in September 1996. The treaty meant that nations who signed and ratified it could not carry out any nuclear weapons test explosions, for civilian or military purposes. India wouldn’t have been able to conduct nuclear tests had it signed it. Later, ironically the CTBT became almost moribund as the Clinton administration failed to get it ratified by the Senate after having signed it.

With pressure on signing the NPT and CTBT mounting, India was on tenterhooks, given Pakistan’s accelerating missile plan and clandestine nuclear weapons programmes with ample assistance from China. That Pakistan had acquired an atomic bomb was an open secret and its missiles capable of delivering a nuclear bomb deep inside India was becoming a big concern.

This is why Rao had set about working on scheduling a test. Meanwhile, the Lok Sabha elections were announced and were to be completed by May 1996, and Rao got busy with the campaign. He was also painfully aware that the window to conduct the nuclear tests was fast closing. So, before the election results were announced, Rao asked Kalam to prepare for the tests. But a few days later, he called off the plan. On 10th May, the election results were announced. The Congress had lost, and with that, so was Rao’s opportunity to conduct the nuclear tests.

The elections had produced a hung parliament with no single party enjoying a clear majority. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) emerged as the single largest party, and on 16th May, Vajpayee was sworn in as Prime Minister. There was no time to lose. Rao along with Kalam and Chidambaram drove out to meet Vajpayee, to brief him on preparations for the test.

Vajpayee didn’t lose time ordering the test. But the Vajpayee government lasted just 13 days. Unable to enlist allies to join or support the government, Vajpayee resigned on 30th May. For the third time in under six months, plans for a nuclear test had to be called off.

Two coalition governments, headed by H D Deve Gowda and I K Gujral, both with Congress support from the outside, were in power from June 1996 to March 1998. Both Gowda and Gujral were unwilling to test a nuclear bomb wasn’t on the top of their agendas. The Gujral government collapsed in March 1998, which necessitated another general election.

The elections delivered a hung Parliament, again. But, this time, the BJP managed to rally allies behind Vajpayee, who took oath as Prime Minister on 19th March 1998.

Vajpayee set in motion the process for nuclear testing without losing time. This was an opportunity the BJP had been waiting for. The party’s election manifesto had called for India to test a nuclear bomb and promised that it would do so if it came to power.

The challenge, this time, was to avoid detection by the American satellites hovering over the Pokhran range that had ruined Rao’s chances of testing the bomb in December 1995.

The First Pokhran Test In 1974

In 1974, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had managed to keep the country’s first nuclear test, codenamed ‘Smiling Buddha’, a well-guarded secret until it was conducted on 18th May that year.

The evolution of India’s nuclear programme can be traced to the setting up of the Atomic Energy Research Committee in 1946, under the chairmanship of physicist Homi Bhabha. Atomic energy was emerging as the new frontier of science. The then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who had met Bhabha in 1937, believed that India had to master the latest developments in science and technology to modernise itself.

The committee led to the formation of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) on 10th August 1948, under the direct charge of Nehru. Ever since then, the AEC and nuclear matters have fallen directly under the charge of the Prime Minister of India. By the mid-to late-1950s, Bhabha had made giant strides in the nuclear programme with support from Nehru, who was generous with funds. For instance, between 1954 and 1956, the budgetary allocations to the AEC had risen 12 times.

As early as 1958, Nehru asserted that India had the technical know-how to manufacture a nuclear bomb and could make one in three to four years if it diverted sufficient financial resources to it. However, he added that India would not use the knowledge for the purposes of war.

The debate on whether or not India should go nuclear intensified after China exploded an atomic bomb in October 1964, two years after the India-China war. India’s humiliating defeat in the war, and the Chinese successfully testing their bomb, brought the Indian security establishment under intense pressure.

Yet another factor that contributed to Indira Gandhi’s decision on the 1974 nuclear test was the conclusion of the NPT in 1968. The NPT’s stated objective was to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and promote disarmament. In reality, the NPT divided the world into two groups – the ‘nuclear haves’ and the ‘nuclear have-nots’. The first group consisted of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council – the US, the UK, France, Russia and China – which possessed nuclear weapons. India refused to sign the NPT, calling it discriminatory – an example of nuclear “apartheid.”

The 18th of May 1974 was, in fact, Buddha Purnima, the birth anniversary of the Buddha.

At 8.05 am, India conducted an underground nuclear test in the remote desert post of Pokhran- the country’s first. Dr Raja Ramanna, Director of t Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), called Indira Gandhi to deliver a cryptic message. He said: “The Buddha smiles.”

The test was successful. India called it a Peaceful Nuclear Explosion (PNE), asserting that the atomic tests were conducted for use for peaceful purposes and that India would not weaponise its knowledge for war.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi told a press conference after the test, “There is nothing to get excited about. It is the result of normal research and study. We are committed to only peaceful use of atomic energy.”

Leaving aside the irony of the Buddha, an apostle of peace and non-violence, being associated with a nuclear bomb, India and the world did know that the line dividing the capability to test a nuclear device and weaponising it for war, was thin and superfluous.

The test brought about a temporary reprieve to Indira Gandhi, who was facing popular student unrest in Bihar and Gujarat and a crippling railway strike. It enhanced her prestige as a strong and decisive leader. Her bitter Opposition critic, the Jana Sangh, described it as a “red-letter day”.

Like it happened in 1998, Indira Gandhi kept the decision on detonating a bomb close to her chest. The only others privy to the development were Chairman of the AEC Homi Sethna BARC Director Dr Raja Ramanna Scientific Advisor to the Defence Minister B D Nag Chaudhuri former Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister P N Haksar and D P Dhar Principal Secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office.

From 1974 to 1998, India avoided conducting further tests even as scientists worked to refine the technology and capability. Indira Gandhi is reported to have come close to conducting a second test in 1982-83 but she postponed it at the last moment.

Operation Shakti – Pokhran II

The story of how Indian scientists with the help of the Indian Army dodged the Americans to conduct the second round of nuclear tests in 1998 is the stuff spy thrillers are made of. Raj Chengappa of India Today in his remarkable book Weapons of Peace: The Secret Story of India’s Quest to be a Nuclear Power (2000) gives a graphic account of the Indian operation that led to the Shakti tests.

In a cloak-and-dagger operation, the 58th Engineer Regiment of the Indian Army carried out a number of dummy exercises intended to be noticed by satellites and human intelligence, if any. The exercises were shoutouts to satellites to pick up the pictures and lull America’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) into believing that those were routine activities, and that nothing secretive was about to take place.

Heavy earthmovers, bulldozers, shovels and other equipment were parked at the sites. Tents were erected and deep wells were dug. They were covered with sand, and huge mounds were built around the wells. Smoke canisters were placed under the pile of sand. These were lit, sending huge columns of smoke and sand high into the air.

“Catch us if you can,” shouted the army engineers and soldiers, looking up at the sky, with big grins on their faces. Many such deceptive tactics were used to dodge the CIA.

Kalam and Chidambaram wore military fatigues whenever they visited Pokhran. They were given code names and the army officers at the site too used code language to communicate. The subterfuge was considered successful when the CIA failed to report any suspicious activity at Pokhran.

On 27th April The New York Times had carried a front-page story about India’s plan to build a missile that could be launched from the sea. Clearly, the Americans had no clue about the preparations at Pokhran the NYT was snooping around for missiles while preparations for underground explosions were on in full swing!

Around 8-10 April, Vajpayee is reported to have given the order for the tests. It seems Vajpayee, like Narasimha Rao in 1995 and Indira Gandhi in 1974, kept the secret close to his chest.

At 3.45 pm on 11th May, the desert in Pokhran reverberated to the shock waves of India’s second round of nuclear explosions. Three nuclear devices were detonated on the first day. Two days later, on 13th May, two more devices were tested in underground explosions.

In the words of George Perkovich, author of India’s Nuclear Bomb: The Impact of Global Proliferation (2000), “Shock waves rippled through the test area, cracking walls in a nearby village and shaking the edifice of the international non-proliferation regime.”

Shakti Sinha, Private Secretary to Vajpayee in 1996-99, describes the historic moment in his book Vajpayee: The Years That Changed India (2020). He writes: A few days before the tests, the chiefs of army, navy and air force were briefed, followed by another briefing for the key members of the government, who constituted the cabinet committee on security. The morning of the test, 11 May, was pregnant with possibilities. Vajpayee had just shifted to 3 Race Course Road from 7 Safdarjung Road. Army units had installed special, direct lines from the Pokhran site, to avoid tapping, delays in communications or the non-availability of lines.”

On the day of the tests, Sinha recalls, “Besides Vajpayee, other key figures present during those crucial hours were L K Advani, George Fernandes, Jaswant Singh and Yashwant Sinha. The team of officials was led by Brajesh Mishra (Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister), supported by Prabhat Kumar (Cabinet Secretary), K Raghunath (Foreign Secretary) and me. All of them sat at the dining table. They were very quiet. It was a long wait.”

Finally, when the phone rang, Brajesh Mishra received the call and informed Vajpayee. At a hurriedly convened press conference, Vajpayee made a brief statement: “Today, at 3.45 hours, India conducted three nuclear tests in Pokhran range. The tests conducted today were a fission device, a low-yield device and a thermonuclear device.”

India had crossed the Rubicon, the bombs had come out of the closet. The strong international reaction that followed, including from the US, was expected and India was prepared for it. On 11th May itself, Vajpayee wrote a letter to US President Bill Clinton, pointing to the nuclear environment in India’s neighbourhood. Without mincing words, he identified China and Pakistan as primary and secondary threats, which necessitated the country to attain nuclear capability and arm itself with credible nuclear deterrence.

All hell broke loose in Washington. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Shelby called it a “colossal failure” of the CIA. George Tenet, CIA Director, said that India chose a period of frequent sandstorms as the time to conduct the underground blasts. US intelligence officials also said Indian engineers were able to track the movement of American satellites and they had halted their operations in Pokhran when the satellites passed over the desert.

As expected, the Clinton administration imposed economic and military sanctions on India and on Pakistan, after the latter conducted its retaliatory six tests on 28th and 30th May, against India’s five. The sanctions choked India’s access to funds from international monetary and development organisations besides putting a lid on the transfer of military and dual-use technologies.

However, the strategic calculations that the presence of nuclear weapons in the subcontinent would deter Pakistan from infiltrating terrorists into Kashmir were belied. Less than a year after the Pokhran explosions, India and Pakistan fought a limited war in Kargil, in May-July 1999, alarming the global community of a possible nuclear flare-up.

Soon after, on 11th September 2001, the Al-Qaeda shocked the world by attacking the World Trade Centre in New York.

The US was suddenly catapulted into the global fight against terrorism. It began to appreciate India’s decades-old war against terror and realised the importance of forging a strategic partnership with India.

During the Clinton administration, even as the sanctions took effect, the US began a diplomatic engagement with India to find ways to overcome the impasse in bilateral relations. After a series one-on-one talks, eight rounds in total, between Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh, the groundwork for rapprochement between the US and India was firmly laid. Most of the economic sanctions were lifted after intense diplomacy by the end of 1999.

Following the limited lifting of sanctions, US President George W Bush and Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh signed the Indo-US Civil Nuclear Agreement in 2008. The deal opened the window for India to engage in nuclear commerce, the first non-NPT country to do so. India had gained recognition as a nuclear weapons power and emerged as a strategic partner in Asia.

India’s calculated risk in conducting the Shakti tests opened windows for nuclear cooperation with nuclear-armed states such as the US, the UK, Russia and France but not China. This nuclear-weapons status opened doors for entry to major export control regimes such as the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and the Wassenaar Arrangement. India would have by now entered the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) but for stubborn opposition from China.

There is an argument advanced by peaceniks and proponents of nuclear disarmament that India lost more than it gained by declaring itself as a nuclear weapons power in 1998. They argue that India lost its moral position to lead a campaign for nuclear disarmament by joining the club of ‘nuclear haves’. Others argue that working on nuclear weapons capability while calling for nuclear disarmament was a position that was morally untenable.

India’s nuclear story evolved in fits and starts. But there was a remarkable continuity in the manner in which prime ministers, from Nehru to Vajpayee, barring Morarji Desai, kept the country’s interests in focus on nuclearisation. Scientists, from Bhabha to V Arunachalam, Kalam, Chidambaram, Sethna, Krishnamurhty Santhanam and Anil Kakodkar played stellar roles in this journey.

Narasimha Rao entrusting Vajpayee with the momentous decision to conduct the 1998 Shakti tests, and Vajpayee’s subsequent statement giving full credit to Rao, represent the best of bipartisanship in Indian politics.

This article is part of our special series the ‘Making of Modern India’ through which we are focussing on the period between 1900-2000. This century saw the birth and transformation of India. This series aims to chronicle India’s exciting journey and is a special feature brought to you by LHI Foundation.

Watch the video: Σαν σήμερα η ατομική βόμβα εξαφανίζει την Χιροσίμα- Πρίν από 73 χρόνια


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