Two years after handing over India a major defeat, the People’s Republic of China detonated a 16-kiloton bomb, its first nuclear test, on 16 October 1964 and became the fifth nation to enter the exclusive nuclear-armed State club. As other leaders pondered for a solution, one man knew what had to be done. “The answer to an atom bomb is an atom bomb, nothing else,” the then Rajya Sabha MP and Bharatiya Jana Sangh (later Bharatiya Janata Party) leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee said in the Parliament days after China had conducted the tests.
Even as others saw this as a vague statement, Vajpayee’s commitment to nuclear research was so immense that in 1969, economist and party member Subramanian Swamy published a comprehensive study on Indian nuclear strategy titled ‘Systems Analysis of Strategic Defence Needs’ in the Economic and Political Weekly.
The study mentioned that India may face a nuclear threat from China, other superpowers or nuclear nations who don’t want the nation to acquire this arsenal as it will diminish their power.
“We may be faced with a nuclear threat from China and be without help because a direct confrontation among the superpowers which have nuclear capability is impossible and has been made remote by mutual agreements among them. Also, it is in the superpowers’ interest to keep other countries like India from acquiring nuclear defence capability as it would reduce their own manoeuvrability and power,” Swamy had written in the report.
The initial attempts
India flirted with nuclear power for the first time in 1974 with Indira Gandhi as the Prime Minister. Gandhi conducted the Pokhran-I test in 1974 on Buddha Purnima. The test was called a “peaceful nuclear explosion” to pacify the western powers and avoid the threat of sanctions from them (it didn’t work).
However, this wasn’t enough to place India on the same page with other nuclear states. For the next two decades, many prime ministers tried to revive nuclear research – most notably PV Narasimha Rao – only to surrender to American surveillance satellites and the threat of sanctions.
In 1995, Rao approved a nuclear test but it was aborted after the CIA detected suspicious movement at Pokhran. A report in New York Times on December 15, 1995 forced the US Ambassador to New Delhi Frank Wisner to return to India with photographs of the hole being dug at the test site and caveats of impending sanctions if India went ahead with it.
A year later, Rao tried to conduct the tests again but it was put to on hold because of a call from CIA officials.
In 1996, Atal Bihari Vajpayee came to power and tried to fulfil his long-standing dream of converting India into a nuclear state. Vajpayee asked his private secretary Shakti Sinha to locate chief scientific adviser Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, who was also the secretary of the Defence Research Development Organisation (DRDO).
However, before the plans could have shaped, his government fell in just 13 days. The two leaders who followed Vajpayee – HD Deve Gowda and IK Gujral – did not bother with the nuclear programme, and the plans were put in cold storage.
Bhabha Atomic Research Centre director Anil Kakodar, who was involved in the 1974 and 1998 nuclear tests, later said in an interview that there was a need for these tests as post-1974, China had begun sharing technology and materials with Pakistan.
The beginning of Pokhran – II
The Bharatiya Janata Party came back to power in March 1998 and Atal Bihari Vajpayee once again became the Prime Minister of India. On April 8, Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) chief R Chidambaram and DRDO chief APJ Abdul Kalam were summoned and given thumbs up for the tests. Vajpayee and his principal secretary Brajesh Mishra controlled the entire operation from the Prime Minister’s Office. The operation was conducted in such high secrecy that nobody except the then Home minister LK Advani knew about it.
Even Defence minister George Fernandes was told about the tests on May 9 and the three service chiefs and foreign secretary were informed over the next three days. The information was shared by the Cabinet Committee on Security on May 11.
The success of Pokhran
The team which included director of test sites preparation Dr K Santhanam, some nuclear scientists and engineers started arriving in Pokhran in May 1998 along with Kalam and Chidambaram. The team operated at night to avoid the US spy satellites and drilled a tunnel only when these satellites turned the other way. They wore army uniforms to disguise themselves and bomb shafts were dug under camouflage. The nuclear devices were also flown from different parts of the country to avoid suspicion.
On May 11, 1998, at around 3:45 PM, India tested three devices – thermonuclear device (Shakti I), the fission device (Shakti II), and a sub-kiloton device (Shakti III).
“Measurements have confirmed that there was no release of radioactivity into the atmosphere. These were contained explosions like in the experiment conducted in May 1974. I warmly congratulate the scientists and engineers who have carried out the successful tests. Thank you very much indeed,” Vajpayee said on the same day while announcing that the tests were conducted successfully.
On May 13, India detonated tow more sub-kiloton devices – Shakti IV and V.
The tests were conducted so efficiently that US deputy secretary of state, Strobe Talbott found out about them only from CNN. The Clinton Clinton Administration was left furious. It condemned the tests and said it was “deeply disappointed” and subsequently slapped sanctions against India. Britain conveyed its “dismay” and Germany called it “a slap in the face” for the countries that ratified CTBT and the then-UN secretary general Kofi Annan issued a statement expressing his “deep regret”.
The US imposed economic sanctions, while some European nations and Japan halted aid. Pakistan responded with its own atomic blasts two weeks later, ignoring appeals from world leaders to show restraint.
Vajpayee wrote a letter to Clinton and without mentioning China said, “We have an overt nuclear weapon state on our borders, a state which committed armed aggression against India in 1962. Although our relations with that country have improved in the last decade or so, an atmosphere of distrust persists mainly due to the unresolved border problem.”
Glory at Home
The BJP government celebrated the win even as the opposition criticised the tests. Congress president Sonia Gandhi issued a statement 10 days after the test and said real strength lay in restraint and “not in the display of shakti”. The Left also accused the government of “trying to equate the bomb with patriotism and whip up a jingoistic fervour”.
However, Vajpayee had an answer for everyone and while addressing the Lok Sabha later, asked why the country shouldn’t be self-sufficient in matters of national security.
“I was in the House in 1974, when under Indira Gandhi’s leadership, nuclear tests were conducted. We had welcomed it, despite being the Opposition, because it was done for national security. What danger was there at that time? Should we begin to prepare ourselves only when we are posed with danger? If we are well-prepared, any danger in future can be taken care of,” he said in one of his best speeches.
Over the years, other countries have also acknowledged India’s success in conducting the tests.
“The nuclear tests in 1998 were a watershed moment in India’s history,” said Michael Kugelman, a senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. “They served as an early but resounding reminder of India’s status as a rising power. But the nuclear tests also set India and Pakistan on a new and escalatory collision course that they remain on today.”