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May 19, 2019
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India’s Nuclear Journey: 1974 to 1998 and Now

By Mahendra Ved Published: June 2018

Atal Bihari Vajpayee with George Fernandes, APJ Abdul Kalam, R.Chidambaram and others, in Pokhran after the nuclear tests, May 1998

New Delhi. India’s nuclear journey that began in the 1950s, has matured, both in terms of its energy and weapons programmes. The passage of this quest has been unique for a developing, even poor, nation in that it has been essentially a national endeavour – planned and led by Indian scientists trained in India, using largely domestic resources developed on Indian soil.

This cannot be said about most others – even those who dominate the global nuclear scene. India’s nuclear quest has been for self-reliance and national security, but without resort to war-cries against any adversary, real or imaginary, and certainly, unlike some, without “eating grass.”

The other thing is its having worked in secrecy – something difficult in a diverse, democratic polity – escaping prying eyes of the Big Powers, through the Cold War era and thereafter, soberly rejecting threats, economic sanctions, denial of technology and temptations of compensation from those who want to keep nuclear knowhow confined to a few.

Mrs Indira Gandhi at the Pokhran nuclear test site

Pokhran I and Pokhran II

Switch to the two landmark achievements that took long to come: the ‘implosion’ on May 18, 1974 and five tests on May 13, 1998, both at Pokhran, Rajasthan, in underground tunnels in the heart of the Great Indian Desert.

Both invited global criticism, termination of contracts from those who were supplying nuclear fuel, economic sanctions, denial of the latest technology and much more. In contrast, it triggered pride in Indian hearts and minds and also recognition – grudging, though, in many world capitals.

This was particularly the case in 1974 when India all but gate-crashed into the nuclear club. One journalist who broke the news – the time, the location and what precisely had happened – India Strategic’s Editor and my former UNI colleague, Gulshan Luthra, recalls India’s raison d’ etre: “I had an occasion to personally ask Mrs Indira Gandhi the reason for conducting the first test. She had defined two: a. China is aggressive and we must not allow it to hurt us; and b. If this is the requirement for getting the UN Security Council membership, so be it.”

On May 13, 1998, India secretly conducted a series of underground nuclear tests with three bombs – two more were to follow – again at Pokhran. It was way beyond the first conducted under the codename “Smiling Buddha”.

Pokhran-II, or Operation Shakti-98, comprised one fusion bomb and four fission bombs. The announcement was dramatic.

Pokhran II
India’s second Nuclear Weapon testing took place in the Pokhran test range on May 11 1998

For the first time that day when the media gathered at 7, Race Course Road, the prime minister’s residence, the national flag was pitched behind the podium, “It’s like they do in White House in Washington,” this writer told Mr S. Narendra, the then Principal Information Officer (PIO) of the Government of India. He just smiled.

Little did any of us know that on that day India had actually cocked a snook at the White House. Indian scientists and the military had worked, avoiding the prying cameras of the CIA’s satellite to conduct three nuclear explosions.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee made the historic announcement, with the tricolor up for the camera grabs, and left abruptly. Journalists present were aghast and speechless. It took a few minutes for the media to rush for their telephones, cars and computers. All explaining was left mainly to late Brajesh Mishra, prime minister’s principal secretary and a confidante, later to become India’s first National Security Advisor.

India Becomes a Nuclear State

Mr Vajpayee declared India a full-fledged nuclear state, and a nuclear doctrine was soon promulgated envisaging self moratorium on further tests.

In doing so, the Vajyapee Government completed a mission begun by its predecessor, that of his predecessor P V Narasimha Rao, who had advised Mr Vajpayee to go ahead, as he himself could not do it due to US pressure. Pokhran II was all but ready in the mid-1990s, till the Americans got the wind of it and placed unbearable pressures to thwart it. This has been acknowledged by Vajpayee himself.

Pokhran II was achieved by hoodwinking the American CIA. Indian scientists worked out the ‘dark’ periods when the CIA satellite, particularly devoted to watch the Pokhran range would not be able to detect their activity.

They worked at night. As dawn approached, everything was placed just as it had been the previous day. When the analysts at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) downloaded images from the satellites the next day, it would seem as if not a single strand had been moved. Scientists and officers in the project, including Dr APJ Abdul Kalam and K Santhanam, moved in and out in military uniforms.

The third nuclear blast site in Pokhran
Nuclear Test site at Pokhran for Op Shakti 1998

US lawmakers accused the CIA of failure. What mattered was that India kept the secrets, and made the best of it. Indeed, besides the top army and nuclear brass, few, including Vajpayee’s ministers, knew it.

Today, it does not matter whether it was perceived as good or bad. It has achieved the capability.

The world community nonetheless came crashing down again with sanctions. India weathered them. It was less than two years before US President Bill Clinton visited India, beginning a forgive-but-not-forget process.

The tests did India and Indians proud.

So much so that the Congress party, then in the opposition, applauded the Vajpayee Government though reminding that it was a Congress government initiative, with the first test conducted on May 18, 1974.

Five years hence, by a quirk of political circumstances befalling a scientist, Dr Kalam, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) chief during the 1998 tests, was chosen as India’s President.

He was not a military officer but donned the uniform as Major General Prithvi Raj for the 1998 tests.

The Pakistan Factor

China had become a nuclear state in the 1960s, and Pakistani leader ZA Bhutto had declared his intent to go nuclear “even if we have to eat grass” well before the India’s 1974 test.

Pakistan stole n-tech from Holland, US and other countries, and demonstrated its n-capability immediately 11 days after India’s 1998 tests at Chagai in Balochistan., on May 28, South Asia’s geopolitical scenario began to alter from that day. The nuclear race in South Asia was out in the open.

Both India and Pakistan are nuclear weapons powers today, and Pakistan claims to have more warheads than India.
China, the main reason for India’s nuclear quest that began in 1974 with Pokhran-I under Indira Gandhi, has become many times more powerful today. It has helped Pakistan, as well as North Korea with both nuclear and missile technologies.

Appropriate to recall: Ironically, Bhutto was hanged and Dr Abdus Salam, his country’s equivalent of India’s Dr Homi Bhabha, was excommunicated for being an Ahmedi (non-Muslim). He died a broken man hated by his countrymen.

Does India Need

Another Test?

Debate persists on this.

Two decades hence whether India should conduct any more tests, and if it should, has it already missed the bus.
Santhanam, coordinator of the 1998 tests, believes so, while Dr S Christopher, who recently retired as the DRDO Chief, says the capability is there but they are not needed.

In any case, the decision rests with the political leadership, and as of now, the Government has stuck to Mr Vajpayee’s commitment.




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