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Reevaluation of India’s Nuclear Program
by Mukesh Williams Bookmark and Share


The paper concerns the reasons for India going nuclear, the development of its nuclear program and its rationale for its not signing the NPT and CTBT in spite of advocating a non-violent foreign policy. The early stages of India's nuclear program were prompted by a perceived threat of China and later of Pakistan. The success of the program was a combination of three factors namely, a skilled organizational workforce, scientific leadership and political endorsement. In this the contributions of the IAEC, Homi Bhabha and the late Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru played a significant role.

India's accelerated nuclear development in the 1960s and 1970s was again prompted by the nuclear ascendancy of China and its unilateral support to Pakistan as a buffer zone. India took advantage of the positive connotations of nuclear technology in mid-twentieth century and developed a thermal reactor thereby initiating a nuclear program that would evolve into the nuclear explosive project. The explosion of a nuclear device by China in 1964 initiated a debate in the Indian media and political circles on the efficacy of developing a nuclear military technology and the negative impact on its fragile economy. While the Congress Party believed in international diplomacy to contain the hegemonic intentions of China, the BJP and the Praja Socialist Party argued for developing a military nuclear option. It was believed that the military nuclearization of India would not contradict the pacifist goals of Gandhian ideals that had infused its foreign policy. On the contrary the theory of deterrence would protect the sovereignty of India thereby making the ethical compromise pragmatic and viable.

The secretive development of the nuclear program under Indira Gandhi and Homi Sethna culminated in the explosion of PNE at Pokhran in 1974 and made Indian foreign policy more assertive. The changed geo-political reality of the 1980s in the wake of Soviet invasion of Afghanistan pushed the United States closer towards Pakistan making Pakistan an American ally to combat the threat of growing Soviet communism in the region. With a supportive America, Pakistan took the Chinese help in developing its own nuclear program aimed at containing India. Perceiving a new nexus between Pakistan and China, India began to develop its own missile technology. In 1996 the CTBT once again reiterated a time bound framework for universal nuclear disarmament placing yet a new pressure on India to contain its nuclear program. Sensing the closing of the nuclear window India conducted five nuclear explosions at Pokhran to bolster its image aboard and then place a moratorium on nuclear tests. In the wake of these explosions there were worldwide condemnations and the US, European powers and its allies like Japan placed economic sanctions on India. India however continued to develop both economically and technologically in subsequent decades and began to be perceived as a responsible nuclear nation and a western ally in its fight against terrorism. In 2006 the US signed a treaty with India initiating a civilian nuclear transfer of technology beneficial to both countries. Both the European and Japanese perceptions about India's nuclear program has changed from political belligerence to economic advantage. India has always argued that the development of dual-purpose nuclear technology would offer a cheap and effective resource to resolve economic and social problems but this is debatable.

In a world wrought by extremely divisive forces, nations with advanced nuclear and missile technologies act as deterrence to state-sponsored violence and keep a check on the hegemonic ambitions of non-nuclear nations. Today, it is not only enough to possess nuclear weapons but also a sophisticated delivery system in the form of intercontinental ballistic missiles to be taken seriously by other nations. In its February 14, 2009 issue The Times of India reported that India would test-fire ICBMs in 2010. By this date it would also acquire a submarine launched ballistic missile technology (SLBM), and develop a ballistic missile defense system (BMD) in order to offset its military disadvantage and come closer to the exclusive club of nuclear nations formed by America, Russia and China. In the light of these new developments it is important to analyze the causes and motives that forced India to go nuclear about four decades ago in spite of espousing a non-violent foreign policy.

Early Stages of India's Nuclear Program

India's nuclear program began in the late 1940s when India gained independence from Britain after over 150 years of protracted colonial rule. The memory of American bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was fresh in the minds of Indian leaders and the public, who felt the need to develop an indigenous nuclear technology and military superiority to prevent future colonization or hegemony by any other ambitious nation. India began to see the U. S. model of using nuclear technology for producing both domestic energy and providing military defense as an ideal for its geographical and political situation. At the same time India never lost sight of developing nuclear technology indigenously'whether it was related to the mining and enrichment of uranium and reprocessing spent fuel or the development of cryogenic engines and supercomputers.

The beginning and success of India's nuclear program was a rich combination of perceived military threats and able political and scientific leadership to address these threats. India's nuclear program, beginning in the 1960s and developing in the 1970s, was a direct outcome of perceived security threats from China and Pakistan. The success of the program owes in large measure to the dedicated efforts of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission, its chairman Homi Jehangir Bhabha and the late Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Together they provided the impetus for a skilled workforce, a sophisticated infrastructure and nuclear R&D to create a formidable nuclear defense plan for India that would become the envy of many nations. The first one-megawatt thermal reactor in India named Apsara went critical on August 4, 1956 paving the way for the development of its dual-purpose nuclear technology.

In the early 1950s atomic R&D was viewed in the world as a positive contribution by nations towards resolving their economic and social problems. The development of atomic energy did not have the negative connotations of 'nuclear proliferation,' 'mass destruction' or 'global threat' as it has today. India took advantage of this favorable international climate and used the expertise of nuclear nations like France, United Kingdom, Canada and the United States to build its own nuclear technology. Of all these nations, Canada was instrumental in helping India construct its nuclear program in the initial stages. Briefly, the initial two decades, that is the 1950s and 1960s, were basically developmental in nature as they provided India with the nuclear expertise to expand its infrastructure and nuclear agenda into what Lal Bahadur Shastri termed 'the nuclear explosive' project.

The Nuclear Debate

From 1947 to 1964 India continued to develop its civilian nuclear infrastructure keeping the military option open. But when in 1964 China exploded a nuclear device, the act initiated a grand debate about the security needs of India based on its nuclear threat perception of China and Russia. India always saw communist China as a friend and often raised the highly emotional slogan Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai, or Indians-Chinese Brothers, Brothers. India never anticipated that a border dispute with China would soon turn into a full blown conflict. In 1962 India fought a contentious border war with China and lost about 50,000 square miles of territory to it. The Sino-Indian conflict revealed the abysmally poor defense system India possessed. The conflict shattered the belief that a communist country would never threaten the sovereignty of India. However, this perceived and real threat from China did not push India into a nuclear arms race with China. India still feared the debilitating effect of a costly nuclear development on its fragile economy.

The Congress government wisely realized that, at the present moment, to pursue international diplomacy in order to contain the hegemonic intentions of China would be more suited to India's needs. The opposition parties did not share the government's view. Both the Hindu nationalist party, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh and the socialist party, The Praja Socialist Party, demanded the nation to develop a nuclear military option to combat the growing hegemonic intentions of both China and Russia. The intellectual elites, the media and the political parties in India began to debate the pros and cons of a robust nuclear policy.

The Indian newspapers saw the Chinese nuclear policy as a 'new menace' to the world that directly affected India, its next door neighbor. Some pacifists argued that India must not develop its own nuclear weapon technology but instead seek nuclear protection from the US. Though the United States president assured India of American help in the eventuality of a nuclear attack, the US government was unwilling to make a firm commitment. The lack of a clear assurance from the US made Indian leaders feel that in case of an emergency, or a scenario where Russia and China joined hands against India, American help may not be forthcoming. India always considered verbal assurances somewhat unreliable in international diplomacy, and rightly so. The US government on the other hand was unwilling to make a firm commitment to India or sign a treaty. Given the state of affairs it was felt that an independent nuclear program would not only free India from depending on the US or Russia, but also bestow prestige on the country for its scientific prowess.

The Ethical Imperative

The Indian debate on 'going nuclear' was fervently discussed under many sub-themes including necessity and cost, but the most significant sub-theme was the ethical imperative. It was felt that the nuclear program would run contrary to the general non-violent ideals propounded by Mahatma Gandhi and the pacifist principles of Panchsheel enshrined in the Indian foreign policy. Obviously the pragmatists disagreed. They argued that the threat posed by five nuclear nations to the security of India was far greater than the ethical compromise. They further argued that the theory of deterrence need not contradict the moral basis of nonviolence, but in fact lend credence to it. Since China posed a long-term threat to the security of India, China continued to shape Indian foreign policy vis-'-vis nuclear disarmament and sanctions. It was felt that even if China did not use the bomb on India, it would threaten to use the nuclear option to blackmail and coerce India. Therefore many intellectual elites felt that strengthening nuclear security at high cost was a far greater priority for the government than just worrying about fiscal development.

Soon the pragmatists were able to win over the moralists and the idealists in their campaign to develop a nuclear option. Both the ruling and opposition parties began to feel the need for developing military nuclear infrastructure. Even from within the Congress Party pressure began to mount on the government to produce its own 'atom bomb.' The New Delhi Pradesh Congress President Mustaq Ahmed voiced this concern by suggesting that the time was right for India to develop its own nuclear infrastructure. In November 1964 the Jana Sangh tabled a motion in the Lok Sabha urging the Indian government to produce nuclear weapons. Mr. Lal Bahadur Shastri who until now was opposed to the idea of a nuclear program, began to be convinced that India should go nuclear. He modified Jana Sangh's motion by suggesting that India should develop 'peaceful nuclear explosives' in the near future. This paved the way for an underground nuclear test called the Subterranean Nuclear Explosion Project.

Response to Pakistan and China

The conflict with Pakistan also helped India to think more positively about its nuclear program. In 1965 India and Pakistan fought a bloody war to resolve the territorial dispute in Kashmir. In this conflict China supported Pakistan creating a sense of crisis in India. China threatened India with grave consequences if it proceeded with military action against Pakistan. It is during this period that India's nonviolent idealism gave way to a pragmatic defense policy that included the nuclear option. The political history of the 1960s in India amply demonstrates this conclusion.

Though initially Indira Gandhi pursued a non-nuclear policy, the thermonuclear test by China on May 9, 1966 and the nuclear missile test on October 27, 1966 convinced her in favor of developing a nuclear explosive technology. Also the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty was increasingly considered detrimental to the security interests of India, as it did not attempt to contain the Chinese problem. On the contrary it went on to legalize China's nuclear status. India therefore refused to sign the NPT in 1968. A survey in 1972 demonstrated that 68.9 percent of Indians were not in favor of the NPT.

India always perceived China's nuclear and rocket technology as a threat to its security. On April 24, 1970 China tested a rocket carrying a satellite in orbit. This once again raised India's anxiety to a new level. In response to the Chinese threat, IAEC chairman, Vikram Sarabhai initiated a 10-year nuclear space program called the Sarabhai Profile that would develop a missile delivery system for both civilian and military purposes.

The Difficult 1970s and Pokhran I

In the midst of political and technological impasse, India began to inch forward towards a nuclear option. Though the political crisis in the 1970s was obvious, the technological crisis was less obtrusive. The Americans had refused to transfer the technology of super computers and the Russians were coerced by Americans to deny cryogenic engines to India. Denied help from both the superpowers India turned swadeshi. In less than four years it was able to produce the supercomputer named Param and develop its own brand of cryogenic engine. In 1974 India conducted its first peaceful nuclear explosion or PNE at Pokhran, nicknamed 'Buddha Smile,' under the leadership of Indira Gandhi and Homi Sethna, a test that was conceived much earlier by Dr. Raja Ramanna. Though India vehemently denied that the test was a precursor to the development of a formidable nuclear arsenal, the test did two things: firstly it strengthened India's nuclear option and secondly it opened the way for the development of nuclear weapons. It can be argued that India's increasing assertiveness in foreign policy ran at tandem with its nuclear strength. The nuclear testing at Pokhran created a quick reaction and condemnation from countries like Pakistan, United States and Canada for various reasons. Pakistan felt threatened. The United States became concerned of a regional instability in the subcontinent and Canada felt betrayed as the plutonium came from the Canadian CIRUS reactor. However, most Indians were fully supportive of the nuclear development.

The New Political Reality of the 1980s

The early 1980s saw a new realignment of superpower interests in the South Asian subcontinent. We must remember that this is the period of a Cold War between the two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. The American reaction to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 pushed US interests closer towards Pakistan. The US needed Pakistan to prevent Soviet hegemony in the region and expansion in the west. It also needed Pakistan to buttress anti-Soviet resistance in Afghanistan. The US tilt towards Pakistan reopened American military aid in the form of financial assistance and supply of F16s to Pakistan. India began to see a new threat from the growing alliance between the US and Pakistan and between Pakistan and China. Furthermore India became deeply concerned when it saw that China was directly helping Pakistan at Kahuta and PINSTECH in Rawalpindi to build its nuclear and missile technology. At one point India even contemplated surgical and preemptive strikes at these two locations.

As a reaction to the new political realignment in the subcontinent in 1983 India initiated the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP) under the direct supervision of the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO). The IGMDP allowed India to integrate its anti-tank, surface-to-air and surface-to-surface technologies in the development of its nuclear missile program. In 1984 Pakistan's Abdul Qadeer Khan's comment that his country possessed the capability to produce weapon-grade uranium, accelerated India's own nuclear program. When in 1985 Pakistan tested a triggering device for a nuclear explosion India's threat perception of its neighbor was raised to a new height. Rajiv Gandhi was well aware of Pakistan's nuclear ambition and its threat to India. Though he campaigned for global disarmament he did not abandon the nuclear option or the use of nuclear technology for civil use. By the early 1990s India had developed about two-dozen nuclear devices to be deployed at short notice.

Retreat of the Soviet Union

The end of the Cold War in 1991 restructured the global strategic balance. Apart from other geopolitical changes it also saw the breakup of the Soviet Union. The restructuring weakened the diplomatic support of the Soviet Union and supply of arms to India. From 1993-1995 China threatened India by deploying nuclear warheads in Tibet. China also assured Pakistan of helping it develop its nuclear and ballistic missile technologies. It is in this background that the Kashmir issue flared up. Pakistan began supporting insurgency in Muslim-dominated Kashmir and threatened India with the use of nuclear device if forced into a tight corner.

Besieged by China and Pakistan, depending on a weakened friend like the Soviet Union for support, and criticized by western powers for pursuing a nuclear program, India felt increasingly beleaguered. We must see some of the subsequent developments in the light of this situation. Though in October 1963 India had decided to join the Partial Test Ban Treaty it consistently refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) or the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) on moral grounds. As late as 1996, India voted against the UN General Assembly resolution endorsing CTBT on the grounds that the resolution lacked a 'time-bound' framework for universal nuclear disarmament and a ban on laboratory simulations. However though India rejected the terms and conditions of the CTBT, major powers began using the provisions of the CTBT to put pressure on India to either join it or curtail its nuclear ambition. Since India had become a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) four of its nuclear reactors had to comply with the IAEA security safeguard standards. It became increasingly difficult for India to pursue a policy of nuclear ambiguity. India began to realize that like China, sooner or later, it had to accept the NPT and the CTBT. The rising power of China and its unequivocal support of Pakistan further exacerbated India's anxieties. It is within these parameters that we must understand India's movement towards Pokhran II.

Pokhran II

In early 1998 when the Hindu BJP came to power, it wanted to realize its election pledge of advancing India's nuclear capability. In May 1998 it conducted five nuclear tests under the leadership of Atal Behari Vajpayee. It is argued that these tests were part of the party's strategy to bolster its image both at home and abroad. Subsequent events revealed that this argument was not completely sustainable. Within a few months of Pokhran II the BJP lost elections in three major states of India, namely Haryana, Rajasthan and Delhi. However it must be remembered that in 1995 the Congress Party under Narshima Rao also wanted to test a nuclear devise but backed out under US pressure. It can be said that the pressure of the CTBT became a diplomatic barrier that India had to either break or succumb to. India chose to take a bold stand and conduct its nuclear tests.

Over the years US sanctions against India have been lifted and European and Japanese acrimony has also evaporated. In 2006 India and the US signed a civilian nuclear transfer of technology which was considered mutually beneficial. This has to do with a growing recognition in the west that India is not only a responsible nation using nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, but also a strong international ally in fighting terrorism.


Though the development of the nuclear program has directly addressed India's anxieties regarding its neighbors, it is debatable whether nuclear technology for civilian use is beneficial in the long run. It is widely believed that nuclear energy would provide sustainable and cheap electricity to India in the coming years. However many scientists argue that this hope may be belied as it has been in other countries pursuing the same goal. Nuclear technology has never proved to be a major generator of electricity. On the contrary the dangers it poses to the environment are far greater than its benefits. Though the deployment of nuclear weapons is directly under the control and command of the prime minister of India, the threat of nuclear weapons from countries like China and Pakistan to the people of the Indian subcontinent cannot be ignored. Even though India's nuclear deterrence is enormous in the region it still calls for a serious discussion on the ways nuclear technology is utilized in future and the need for nuclear disarmament in the subcontinent. 

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