Twenty years after Pokhran-IIIndia’s Rise as a Nuclear Power
The start point for the advent of India into the realm of nuclear technology is the founding of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in 1944 under Dr Homi J Bhabha.
Post Indian Independence, Prime Minster Jawaharlal Nehru sanctioned the development of a nuclear programme to be headed by Home Bhabha. The two aspects to India’s approach to nuclear energy at that time were that it would be for peaceful purposes but Nehru also left the window for ‘other uses’ of Nuclear power open when he stated that “We must develop this atomic energy quite apart from war – indeed I think we must develop it for the purpose of using it for peaceful purposes. ... Of course, if we are compelled as a nation to use it for other purposes, possibly no pious sentiments of any of us will stop the nation from using it that way”.
India’s nuclear programme saw incremental progress thereafter. An Atomic Energy Commission under the Chairmanship of the Prime Minster was set up on 3rd August 1948. In January 1954, theTrombay Atomic Energy Establishment (now known as the Bhabha Atomic Research centre) was established as also a Department of Atomic Energy of the Government of India commenced functioning at Mumbai of which Homi Bhabha was the first Secretary. Bhabha’s foresight in ensuring that India’s nuclear programme was self- reliant is evident in the setting up of a Training School to cater to the manpower needs of the expanding requirements of the energy research and development programmes. In Bhabha’s words “When nuclear energy has been successfully applied for power production in, say a couple of decades from now, India will not have to look abroad for its experts and will find them ready at hand”.
The next decade saw several technological initiatives commence and fructify in areas such as uranium extraction and purification, fuel fabrication, reactor control and instrumentation, research reactor construction, radioisotope separation, radiation medicine and vacuum technology. India’s first nuclear reactor Apsara, which was designed by BARC with assistance from the United Kingdom went critical on 4 August 1956. CIRUS (Canadian-Indian Reactor Uranium System) was supplied by Canada in 1954 and was the second nuclear reactor in India. In July 1958, ‘Project Phoenix’, a programme to build a reprocessing plant with a capacity of 20 tons of fuel a year was sanctioned which was commissioned in 1964. The Atomic Energy Act came into effect on 15th September 1962.
While Bhabha’s view was that “nuclear weapons are remarkably cheap” and a weaponisation programme should be pursued, his successor, Vikram Sarabhai shifted focus of the nuclear programme towards peaceful purposes. The programme for development of weapons re-commenced under the Premiership of Smt. Indira Gandhi who directed the construction of a secret plutonium plant ‘Purnima’. The work on this began at Trombay in March 1969 for production of weapons grade plutonium.
On 7 September 1972, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi authorised the BARC to manufacture a nuclear device and prepare it for a test culminating in the detonation of the ‘Smiling Buddha’ on, 18th May 1974 the ‘Buddha Jayanti’ Day that year.
There was predictable adverse global reaction to India’s ‘peaceful nuclear explosion’ that led to the formation of a Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to check international nuclear proliferation. In 1992, the NSG mandated full-scope IAEA safeguards for any new nuclear export deals, which effectively ruled out any nuclear supplies to India.
A proposal to conduct further nuclear tests was considered, particularly in 1995, under Prime Minister Narasimha Rao, but was shelved at that time due to immense international pressure. However, subsequently India successfully conducted five nuclear tests in Pokhran, Rajasthan between 11th and 13th May 1998,without the world getting a wind about them. On conclusion of the tests the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee declared India a nuclear state. The Indian government has officially declared 11 May as National Technology Day in India to commemorate the first of the five nuclear tests, the twentieth anniversary of which is being commemorated this year.
In a swift response to the Indian tests, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif authorised the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) to conduct nuclear tests, which were done on 28th and 30th May 1998, Codenamed Chagai-I and Chagai-II, these involved six nuclear explosions bringing to fore the maturing of that country’s nuclear programme.
Both India and Pakistan, though nuclear powers are not signatories of the NPT. Though not a signatory of NPT, India looks to be viewed as a responsible nuclear power. An initial Draft Nuclear Doctrine was drawn up by the National Security Advisory Board in 1999. India issued its formal Nuclear Doctrine in January 2003. This Doctrine rests on two cardinal planks – the principle of ‘no first use’ (NFU) and that of maintaining ‘a credible minimum deterrence’ to obviate any unbridled build-up of nuclear stockpiles. Its avowed adherence to both these principles has earned it a guarded global acceptance and enabled it to secure crucial international deals, including the Indo-US Nuclear deal in 2008 with a Nuclear Supplier Group (NSG) waiver and a nuclear cooperation agreement with Japan. India now aspires for permanent membership of the NSG. Both the premises on which the Nuclear Doctrine is based have been subjects of considerable debate.
On the aspect of NFU, India’s position is that it would retaliate with a massive attack in the event of a nuclear strike being launched against it. However, perhaps with strategic deliberation, ambiguity has been left in the articulation of how the principle would be applied. The then NSA, in 2010 stated that ‘the NFU does not apply to nuclear armed states’. There are also doubts on whether the NFU principle covers only nuclear strikes or even extends to strikes by Chemical and Biological Weapons. The ambiguity surfaced again in 2016, when the former Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar asked, “Why should I bind myself (to no first use)”?
The aspect of ‘credible minimum deterrence’ is equally well deliberated. At the outset, a reconciliation is necessary with the ‘massive retaliation’ aspect, the sharp question is - how large a stockpile is intended to be built up and maintained. It is axiomatic that a first strike would in itself be massive, seeking to debilitate not just the military and communications infrastructure but also the nuclear arsenal itself. A retaliatory strike would have to be very large to be ‘unacceptable’ and inherently implies the possession of a very large number of nuclear weapons. The costs of building up and maintaining a nuclear arsenal are exceptionally high and it is a moot point if it is a zero sum game between allocations for the nuclear programme and for procurement of conventional arms and ammunition. Seen in this context, the deposition of the Vice Chief of the Army Staff before the parliamentary panel on Defence in March 2018 becomes pertinent.
Another determinant of the numbers of weapons planned to be developed is the issue of accuracy. Nuclear weapons as such are ‘fire for effect’ and a failed nuclear strike would bear unimaginable consequences. It is the nuclear establishment’s responsibility to realistically assess the accuracy aspect and determine numbers accordingly. At a recent function held at the IDSA to commemorate twenty years of Pokhran , Dr K Santhanam, former DRDO scientist expressed the view that thermonuclear tests needed further scientific validation and physical tests to ensure a credible minimum deterrence. It is a moot point that if India conducts any further tests, its standing as a ‘responsible’ nuclear power would be badly damaged. As expressed by Col Vivek Chadha of the IDSA, the edifice of the India-US relations is “based on a degree of transparency that India agreed to and in return, India was for all practical purposes, given the benefits of a nuclear state. Here, the only factor that comes in is that India voluntarily accepted a nuclear moratorium that gave it benefits at the cost of not being able to further enhance the technological capacity through physical testing of nuclear devices now limited to experimental or lab-based analysis,”
There is little dispute on India’s Nuclear Doctrine being dynamic and kept attuned to the changing realities of the time. Several emergent issues, such as the deployment of Tactical Nuclear Weapons, not much known at the stage the Doctrine was developed, would need to be factored in. Undoubtedly, India’s Nuclear Doctrine is restrained, given a direction by strategic planning and thought and hence has served its purpose well.
As we look back at the momentous days of Pokhran II, a practical beacon light for the way the future evolution of India’s Nuclear Policy will flow is implicit in the words of Raja Ramanna, doyen of the Smiling Buddha, who said in an interview to the PTI in 1997 that “The Pokhran test was a bomb, I can tell you now.... An explosion is an explosion, a gun is a gun, whether you shoot at someone or shoot at the ground.... I just want to make clear that the test was not all that peaceful”.