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When the Buddha first smiled

The story behind Indira Gandhi’s Pokhran-I decision

Written by Inder Malhotra |
May 15, 2009 12:23:31 am

BY the start of May 1974,India was in the grip of a scorching summer of discontent though worse was to follow a year hence. The afterglow of Indira Gandhi’s tremendous triumph in the 1971 general election and the country’s brilliant victory in the Bangladesh war the same year had vanished. Monsoons had failed again. The economy was in a shambles. However,it was the corruption and arrogance of her inner circle that had fed popular anger. Gujarat’s Nav Nirman,followed by the more formidable J.P. movement (so named after its sponsor,the highly respected Gandhian,Jayaprakash Narayan),was climaxed by a nationwide railway strike with the avowed objective — in the words of its leader,maverick Socialist George Fernandes — of “starving the country”. Indira Gandhi decided to crush it ruthlessly.

It was in this sombre atmosphere that in the city of Bombay (now Mumbai) on May 18 something startling happened. A huge,restive crowd at a bus stop,vainly waiting for transport of any kind,suddenly burst into cheers. News had just come in that India had conducted an underground nuclear test that morning at a place called Pokhran in distant Rajasthan. This reaction was symptomatic of the ecstatic welcome most Indians gave their country’s entry into the Nuclear Club.

The sensational news was a complete surprise to everyone,including the peeved nuclear powers that had failed to detect the underground explosion. India insisted that the event at Pokhran was a peaceful nuclear explosion (PNE) — both the United States and the Soviet Union had been conducting several of these — although there is no difference in the PNE technology and that for exploding a nuclear weapon.

Two separate and interconnected reasons led to Indira Gandhi’s resolve to conduct the test although its roots really went back to her father,Jawaharlal Nehru’s time. It is difficult to think of another person so thoroughly opposed to nuclear weapons as he. Yet all through his life — since 1946 indeed — he also held steadfastly to the policy that India must develop the technology to build these weapons,should the need arise,especially if others refused to abjure them. (With the solitary exception of Morarji Desai in 1977,all Nehru’s successors have broadly shared this approach.).

Against this backdrop,the first reason for Pokhran-I burst into the open within five months of Nehru’s death. On October 16,1964 China’s first nuclear bomb went up at Lop Nor. Coincidentally,Nikita Khrushchev,who had denied China a nuclear weapon design,went down in Moscow on the same day. In New Delhi,K. Subrahmanyam,the country’s premier security analyst,then a deputy secretary in the defence ministry,sent a top-secret note to the defence secretary suggesting that a committee,headed by the legendary Homi Bhabha,should devise India’s response to the Chinese challenge. In the ministry of external affairs,K. R. Narayanan,then director,China (later President) also advised the government to “exercise the nuclear option”. If a personal note is permissible,a week ahead of them,in The Statesman (October 9) I had pleaded for an Indian nuclear weapons programme because the “mushroom cloud was about to appear on the Himalayas.”

For his part,Bhabha made no secret of his conviction that India could produce a nuclear bomb in 18 months at no more than Rs. 30 lakhs each. Nehru’s successor,Lal Bahadur Shastri,and other political leaders were not yet prepared to go that far even though pressure within the Congress party to go nuclear was on the increase. K. C. Pant,later defence minister,and Krishan Kant,later vice-president,were principal advocates of nuclear weapons.

What Shastri did authorise,however,was a Subterranean Nuclear Exploration Project (SNEP). It did not make headway because of deaths in quick succession of both Shastri and Bhabha. Like Shastri,Indira Gandhi also wasted some time in the meaningless search for a “nuclear security umbrella” by the two superpowers.

Profound foreign policy and security developments during 1971 — Henry Kissinger’s secret visit to China and his subsequent warning that in case China became involved in the crisis in Bangladesh,India should not expect American support; the signing of the Indo-Soviet treaty Indira Gandhi wasn’t enthusiastic about until then; and above all,America’s dispatch of the Enterprise-led nuclear task force to the Bay of Bengal during the Bangladesh War — became the second and clinching reason for taking the plunge. Indira Gandhi’s numerous critics have roundly blamed her for conducting the test for purely political reasons. Nothing cam be farther from the truth. At the time of Pokhran-I she was doubtless beleaguered. But she had authorised the test in September 1972 when her popularity was at its peak.

As the news of detonation spread,in distant Washington,Denis Kux,officer in change of the India desk at the state department,prepared a scathing draft criticising the “Indian test”. But Kissinger,then in the Middle East,toned it down,arguing that the Indian explosion was an “accomplished fact” and “public scolding” would only “add to US-India bilateral problems”. However,this did not prevent the US from imposing the harshest sanctions on this country.

Details of the long and secret decision-making process cannot be discussed in available space. But a crucial meeting just before the PNE deserves a mention. The issue was whether to go ahead and “push the button”. According to an account by Raja Ramanna,the mastermind of the venture,two of Indira Gandhi’s top advisers,P. N. Haksar and P. N. Dhar,were opposed to it,and wanted it postponed. Homi Sethna,chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission,offered no opinion. D. Nag Chaudhuri,Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister started weighing pros and cons but was cut short by the prime minister. “Dr. Ramanna,” she said. turning to him,“please go ahead. It would be good for the country”. The next morning “the Buddha smiled”.

Her critics have a point when they say that,faced with furious international reaction,especially from the US and Canada (the latter had provided the Cirus reactor at Trombay),she “developed cold feet” and did not follow up on Pokhran-I. Consequently,there was a gap of 24 years between Pokhran-I and Pokhran-II. But that’s a different story.

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator

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