Nature of battle had changed by then. The nucleus of warfare had shifted its gravity – from the use of swords to nuclear bombs ; from gushing wounds of men to obliterating the very existence of it.
Post independence, India commenced its own nuclear program in 1948 under the leadership of Homi Jehangir Bhabha, an Indian nuclear physicist trained in Great Britain who returned to India just prior to the start of World War II. Dr. Bhabha, widely considered to be the founding father of India’s nuclear program, held the chair of Indian Atomic Commission from 1948 to 1966, more-or-less coinciding with the tenure of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. In 1954, India established the Atomic Energy Establishment, Trombay (AEET), later renamed the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) after its founding director. The organization was primarily established as a research center, with research intentions demarcated within nuclear power generation. In a speech to India’s lower house of Parliament in 1957, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru is quoted as saying, “We have declared quite clearly that we are not interested in and we will not make these bombs, even if we have the capacity to do so.”
Within the year of PM’s speech, Bhabha presented his plan for India’s nuclear future at the Conference on the Development of Atomic Energy for Peaceful Purposes in which, among other things, he outlined his interest in the use of plutonium as an alternative to uranium fuel moving forward. India lacked a large supply of natural uranium, and would therefore need an alternative fuel to ensure its independence in the long-term. The first step towards realizing Bhabha’s plan was the construction of the Apsara research reactor with assistance from the United Kingdom in the sharing of schematics and the supply of the required enriched uranium fuel. The Apsara reactor went critical in 1956.
Before the completion of the Apsara reactor, plans were put in motion to construct the CIRUS reactor. As part of the Colombo Plan, an initiative through which more developed countries could support the development of countries in Asia and the Pacific, Canada offered to assist in the construction of the CIRUS reactor in 1955. The U.S.’s involvement came in the supply of the heavy water for the reactor. As part of the agreement, Canada and the U.S. stipulated that the fissile materials resulting from reactor operation were only to be used for peaceful purposes. They did not, however, outline any specific plan for inspection to determine how the plutonium was being used.
Even though there was cooperation between the U.S. and India in the beginning stages of their nuclear program, tensions began to rise when India faced war with Pakistan in the midst of the Cold War. The U.S. was reluctant to provide military aid against Pakistan, likely because of Pakistan’s alliance with China, a potential powerhouse that could have shifted the balance of the power in the Cold War if they were to have aligned with the Soviet Union. This was not the first time that India’s best interests were not shared with those of the major powers at the time. India already had disputes against the attempted safeguards against their freedom to use their plutonium how they saw fit.
However the Chinese nuclear tests after 1962 debacle sent tremors down the spines of the Indian defence establishment. After China’s first nuclear test, New Delhi’s first reaction was to rush to the US and seek a security guarantee. It did get an implicit one. On 18 October, 1964, US president Lyndon Johnson tried to pacify non-nuclear countries against China’s nuclear blackmail. He said, “The nations that do not seek national nuclear weapons can be sure that if they need our strong support against some threat of nuclear blackmail, then they will have it.”
What India was not apprised of was that Johnson’s statement included India in this informal security umbrella. The US did not want to give an explicit commitment and India could not be assured by anything less than a formal assurance.
Indian leaders from Lal Bahadur Shastri to Indira Gandhi trooped to Washington constantly seeking assurance against China but failed in enticing any concrete assurance. Within six years of Johnson’s statement, India landed in Russian arms. On 9 August, 1971, India and the Soviet Union signed a treaty of peace, friendship and cooperation. Why did India leave the US for Russian comfort? 1971 was a year of tectonic shifts in geopolitics. That year, the US took the first steps that split the Soviet Union in 1991. It befriended China. It also marked an end to the informal guarantee the US had given to India. All this happened within a single month. When he left secretly for Beijing in July, US national security adviser Henry Kissinger told Indian leaders that better Sino-US relations would not come at the cost of security guarantees to India. When he returned, he disavowed US’ commitments to India. Within a month, India signed the treaty with the Soviet Union. The treaty had an explicit guarantee that assured India against an attack by a third party. It was this assurance (Article 9 of the treaty) that allowed India to proceed with the dismemberment of Pakistan.
India’s growing unrest was too conspicuous to go unnoticed by others. An internal report in the U.S. government from February 1972, just after the resolution of the Indo-Pak War of 1971, outlines the possibility of an Indian nuclear test. The document acknowledges that the wording of the original agreement does not specifically prohibit “peaceful nuclear explosives”. In addition, the document states that because of the lack of provisions for inspection in the original document, the U.S. would be unable to intervene unless the Indian government enunciate their intention to test an explosive.
The dealings with the U.S. during the Indo-Pak War may have played a large role in India’s tests. Although the Soviet Union had attempted to form an alliance with India during the conflict with Pakistan, the interplay between the U.S., China, and the Soviet Union may have conveyed a message to India that they were not thought of as even. This left India uneasy, which decided to take matters in its own hands.
The Director of the China Division in the Ministry of External Affairs, K.R. Narayanan, who went on to become President of India, linked the Chinese nuclear test with India’s options relating to the border dispute. He warned that the test, coming after 1962 war, would further weaken India’s position on border claims. Beijing believed that it had delivered a “head-on blow” and sent shock waves through India after its first-ever nuclear test conducted on October 16, 1964 — two years after the border war fought by the two countries. In Mr. Narayanan’s view, diplomacy could only embroider on the fact of power but not act as a substitute for it. “Therefore, whatever policy we may choose to follow, it seems that without a nuclear bomb of our own, India cannot answer the challenge posed by China.” He argued that India acquiring the bomb might make Chinese leaders sit up and reconcile with Delhi, just like the U.S. and other nuclear powers were coming to grips with the reality of China. According to a memo by China division, China’s ultimate aim was to drive the U.S. out of Asia and “establish herself” as a nuclear power equal to the U.S. and the USSR. A second nuclear test conducted by the Chinese in May 1965 drew great praise from over 100 Pakistani officials gathered in Chinese Embassy,Karachi.
In an interview Dr. Bhabha is quoted saying, “there were earlier attempts but serious work started in 1968”. The same year, in which according to economist Ashok Mitra’s private papers, funds were allocated by the Planning Commission for Purnima-I (zero research reactor) that became the basis for the 1974 test. As explained in an interview by nuclear scientist Dr Anil Kakodkar, one channel of weaponisation was through the 1974 device, which was deliverable one.
To be continued …