The Making of a Nuclear India

Team Udayavani, Apr 4, 2024, 6:50 PM IST

On May 11, 1998, India successfully detonated three nuclear bombs at their military testing site in Pokhran. Following this, on May 13, they set off two more.

These tests were called Operation Shakti, which means “power” or “strength”, showing the world that India could make powerful nuclear weapons, some as strong as 200,000 tons (200 Kilo Tons) of TNT. This event marked India’s entry into an exclusive group of nations that have nuclear weapons.

These tests, known as Pokhran-II, were the peak of a very challenging journey that started way back in the 1940s and 1950s. It was a path full of obstacles and the risk of failure was always present.

Homi J. Bhabha Establishes the Foundations

India’s journey into nuclear research began thanks to a scientist named Homi J Bhaba. In 1945, after convincing one of India’s top business families to support his vision, he helped create the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in Bombay (now Mumbai). This was the first place in India set up specifically to explore the mysteries of nuclear physics.

■ Homi J. Bhabha did have a very significant professional relationship with them. Bhabha, a pioneering physicist in India, approached the Tata family, one of the most prominent industrial families in India, for financial support to establish a scientific research institution. The Tata family, particularly Sir Dorabji Tata Trust, provided the backing needed to set up the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in Bombay (now Mumbai), thus playing a crucial role in aiding Bhabha in his vision to advance India’s scientific and nuclear capabilities.

After India became independent, a scientist named Homi J. Bhabha had several discussions with India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. He explained to Nehru how important nuclear energy could be for the country and why India should invest in it. As a result of these conversations, in 1954, the government set up the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), and Bhabha was put in charge.

Even though Nehru openly said he was against nuclear weapons, in private, he allowed Bhabha to develop nuclear technology that could be used for both everyday purposes and, if needed, for defense. Bhabha’s department, the DAE, operated independently and wasn’t closely watched by the public or the media.

The Challenge Posed by China and Pakistan

A key turning point for India’s nuclear program happened after two big events. First, India faced a tough loss in a war with China in 1962. Then, two years later, China tested its own nuclear bomb. These events made India’s leaders worry about the country’s safety and the growing power of China, which wasn’t on friendly terms with India. Because of this, the people in charge started to think more seriously about having nuclear weapons of their own.

After becoming the Prime Minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri initially sought promises of protection from countries that already had nuclear weapons. He wanted them to assure that they would help India if it faced nuclear threats. However, when these assurances weren’t given, India had to think of another plan. This meant that if India wanted to ensure its own security, it might have to develop its own nuclear weapons since it couldn’t rely on other countries to protect it in case of a nuclear confrontation.

Things really picked up pace when India entered another conflict with Pakistan in 1965, and China was supporting Pakistan. Faced with the challenge of having two non-friendly neighbors, India was driven to focus on its own ability to defend itself.

Yet, the journey to develop nuclear weapons was going to be complex and challenging.

The “Biased” Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

During the 1960s, as the United States and the Soviet Union built up huge numbers of nuclear weapons during the Cold War, people around the world started talking more about the need to stop the spread of these weapons and to get rid of them altogether. When China tested its own nuclear bomb, the big countries agreed even more that it was time to create a rulebook to prevent more countries from getting nuclear weapons. This was the beginning of the idea for a treaty to stop nuclear weapons from spreading.

In 1968, a big international agreement called the Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT for short, was made. This treaty said that the only countries allowed to have nuclear weapons were the ones that had already made and tested them before January 1, 1967. These countries were the United States, Russia (which was part of the Soviet Union back then), the United Kingdom, France, and China. The treaty’s goal was to stop any new countries from getting their own nuclear weapons. Almost every country in the world agreed to this treaty, but India decided not to sign it.

According to Sumit Ganguly, who studies international relations, India chose not to sign the nuclear treaty because it didn’t take India’s concerns into account. India was particularly worried that the treaty didn’t clearly require the countries with nuclear weapons to take specific steps in exchange for the promise from other countries not to pursue nuclear weapons. This point was reported by the Indian Express.

The Consequences Following Pokhran-I

During the 1970s, India had developed the ability to test a nuclear bomb. Following in Bhaba’s footsteps, Vikram Sarabhai, who took over the leadership at the Department of Atomic Energy, expanded India’s nuclear capabilities. The decision to conduct a nuclear test had become a matter of political decision-making, particularly at a time when the international community was very cautious about the spread of nuclear weapons.

After Lal Bahadur Shastri passed away unexpectedly in 1966, Indira Gandhi became the Prime Minister of India. At first, people thought she was just a figurehead or a puppet controlled by the older leaders of the Congress party. However, she proved herself to be a strong leader. She guided India during a tough war with Pakistan in 1971 and then secured a huge victory in the elections that followed.

On May 18, 1974, under Indira Gandhi’s leadership, India conducted its first nuclear test at the Pokhran testing grounds. This test, named Operation Smiling Buddha, was described as a “peaceful nuclear explosion,” suggesting it wasn’t intended for warlike use.

But other countries didn’t believe that India’s nuclear test was just for peaceful purposes. Most of the world criticized India for it, and countries like the US and Canada punished India by putting tough restrictions on it. These penalties slowed down India’s progress in developing nuclear technology quite a bit.

The Interval Between the Two Nuclear Tests

India’s nuclear ambitions faced internal challenges too, not just from global pressures. The Emergency in 1975, a time of severe government control, and Prime Minister Morarji Desai’s strong stance against nuclear weapons later on, both served to pause India’s nuclear program. However, as the 1980s rolled in with Indira Gandhi back in power, India’s interest in building nuclear weapons was reignited, particularly due to concerns over Pakistan’s swiftly advancing nuclear program.

In 1983, when Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister of India, the government boosted the budget for the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). They appointed Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam to lead India’s missile development efforts. During the same year, India also gained the ability to upgrade plutonium to a quality that could be used in weapons. Plus, over the course of the 1980s, India significantly increased the amount of plutonium it had stored up.

In the early 1990s, India felt a strong push to advance its nuclear weapons program. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, India found itself without a key military supporter; this was a big change from when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had secured a 20-year defense agreement with the USSR back in 1971. At the same time, the United States kept supplying military help to Pakistan, even though there were concerns about Pakistan’s own nuclear ambitions. To add to the pressure, the United Nations was in the middle of talks about the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which aimed to ban all nuclear tests and would be completed in 1996 (India chose not to join this treaty). During this period, Vishwanath Pratap Singh was the Prime Minister of India in 1990.

India sensed that time was running out to conduct a nuclear test. So, in 1995, the Prime Minister at the time, P.V. Narasimha Rao, gave the go-ahead for planning a nuclear test in December of that year. But due to various practical and political issues, the test had to be postponed.

Pokhran-II: Demonstrating India’s Power

After a period of political instability when there wasn’t much desire to test nuclear weapons, the situation changed in 1998. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA), led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, took charge of India’s government. A major point in their campaign plan ( or election manifesto) was to add nuclear weapons to India’s military capabilities.

In March 1998, Pakistan tested the Ghauri missile, which was developed with help from China. In May of the same year, India hit back with Operation Shakti. Unlike the 1974 nuclear tests that India claimed were for peaceful reasons, the tests in 1998 were clearly about turning India into a nuclear-armed country. After these tests, known as Pokhran-II, the Indian government announced to the world that it now had nuclear weapons.

The nuclear tests India carried out in 1998 led to some countries, including the United States, punishing India with sanctions. However, the disapproval wasn’t as widespread as it was after India’s first nuclear test in 1974. With its quickly expanding economy and the lure of its massive market, India was able to hold its own against the criticism. This helped India establish itself as a powerful country.

Girish Linganna
Aerospace & Defence Analyst

( The author Girish Linganna of this article is a Defence, Aerospace & Political Analyst based in Bengaluru. He is also Director of ADD Engineering Components, India, Pvt. Ltd, a subsidiary of ADD Engineering GmbH, Germany. You can reach him at: [email protected] )

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