Two Decades of Nuclear in India


It has been two decades since Pokhran, the moment when India surprised the world. Pokhran marked India’s emergence as the sixth nuclear power in the world. While this move wasn’t looked upon favourably by the international community initially, India made its way into the world order. This development served as an immense diplomatic strength.

India’s nuclear journey has an interesting history. The first nuclear test was Operation Smiling Buddha in 18th May 1974 while Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister. The subsequent prime ministers secretly planned and undertook the weaponing of India. After Prime Minister Narsimha Rao gave the nod to go ahead with the program in 1995, CIA satellites picked up activity and the US threatened sanctions. This repeated in 1996 with officials from the US visiting India and warning us of facing severe repercussions for our actions. In order to avoid detection, the scientists, in collaboration with the army started operating at night. On 11th May, 1998, we tested three nukes at Pokhran. Following the announcement by Prime Minister Vajpayee, there was celebration in the country. On 13th May 1998, two more tests were carried out.

Despite all the risks, the development of a nuclear weapon was critical given the sensitive position India was, and still is, in. With multiple wars and skirmishes with its two neighbours – China and Pakistan, national security was an important factor. China had already conducted its nuclear test in 1964. National leaders in India responded to this development saying that the “answer to an atom bomb is an atom bomb”. On the other side, Pakistan was also making progress in developing nuclear weapons. Shortly after India conducted its tests, Pakistan carried out 5 tests on 28th May 1998.

Given India’s approach to international relations, we were able to convince the world that our intentions are peaceful and our actions were to protect our national interest.

While we have developed the nuclear triad- land, air and sea, our policies make clear our peaceful intentions- credible minimum deterrent, no first strike policy, etc. The nuclear doctrine released in 2003 emphasized on no first use, massive retaliation and credible minimum deterrent, while also reaffirming India’s commitment to a nuclear weapon free world. It shows that these were developed to counter any threat in the region. The decline of the Soviet Union required India to look out for itself in a nuclear neighbourhood and world. These weapons allowed India to independently pursue its national interest.

This also marked a shift in the way India conducted foreign policy and dealt with other countries. India aligned itself with global non-proliferation players.

One of the biggest events that showed international confidence in a nuclear India was the US nuclear deal in 2005. In Washington on 18 July, 2005, the then prime minister, Manmohan Singh and former President George W Bush announced the agreement in a joint statement. The deal brought in much needed technology and raw material which gave a boost to the civilian nuclear program. Over time, India has made its way into many of the international platforms that discuss and control nuclear related issues – Australia Group, Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), Wassenaar Arrangement and so on. Access to one critical platform – Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) seems to be blocked by China.

India’s nuclear doctrine was in the news a few years ago as the then Defence Minister questioned the no first use doctrine, a statement he later clarified as his personal opinion rather than an official position. The BJP’s manifesto had stated a revision was perhaps required in the nuclear doctrine. Views have been expressed suggesting that India must review its doctrine every 5 years. There has been no development on this front since the BJP came to power in 2014. A large part of this thinking comes in response to developments in Pakistan’s arsenal such as the acquisition of Tactical Nuclear Weapons, ballistic missiles and other weapons coupled with their persistent use of state and non-state actors to carry out attacks in India. Pakistan also has a nuclear arsenal larger than that of India’s.

The future lies in India becoming a member of various international nuclear forums and groups. Becoming a part of the NSG has been particularly difficult with China blocking the way. While India continues to build consensus for its membership, it is a tough road ahead.


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