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

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 15th 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. 

Frank Wisner: Former US Ambassador to India | Wikimedia Commons

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. 

Participation in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty | Wikimedia Commons

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. 

Rao addressing the inaugural function at National Science Centre, New Delhi in 1992 | Wikimedia Commons

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. 

Former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi at the site of India’s first nuclear test in May 1974 | PIB

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.” 

 

Smiling Buddha test crater | nuclearweaponarchive.org

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 in Army Fatigues | http://nuclearweaponarchive.org

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.”  

Nuclear bomb (probably the Shakti I thermonuclear device) being lowered into test shaft | nuclearweaponarchive.org

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. 

Pakistan goes nuclear on May 28, 1998 | https://www.dawn.com/

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. 

From left, PM Vajpayee, Defense Minister George Fernandes, Abdul Kalam, and R. Chidambaram at the test site | http://nuclearweaponarchive.org

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.

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