Global Affairs Desk

Tue Jun 18 2024

The Atomic History of India: from Smiling Buddha to Shakti (Part-2)

~ By Samidha Jain on 7/11/2023

The Atomic History of India: from Smiling Buddha to Shakti (Part-2)

The 1971 war solidified India’s ambitions to go nuclear. In 1971, war broke out between India and West Pakistan after India decided to support East Pakistan’s (now, Bangladesh) liberation movement. China and the United States sided with Pakistan, and President Richard Nixon even ordered the US Navy’s Seventh Fleet into the Bay of Bengal. The vigorous war ended in Indian victory. What was Bhabha’s ambition a few years ago, was now an immediate need for India. We needed a bomb, badly, to sustain ourselves in the contemporary world.

Operation Smiling Budha (Pokhran-1)

After Indira Gandhi visited BARC in 1972, Ramanna and his team of 75 scientists including Kalam started building the plutonium implosion device. Pokhran in Rajasthan, which literally translates to a land of five mirages was chosen as the nuclear test site. Test preparations and details were kept confidential and Indian Army assisted Ramanna’s team. Army was charged to prepare, dig, commute the bombs and also protect the site from the eyes of civilians and spies.

On May 18th, 1974, a 1360 kg device exploded with a force of 8 kilometers TNT. This explosion echoed India’s scientific and military capabilities. It was loud and clear that India will now not be on the behest of any superior power. It expressed India’s ambitions of one day becoming a responsible great power. Ramanna informed the Prime Minister with the code message, “the Buddha has smiled.” The operation was coded as Smiling Budha since it was a peaceful nuclear explosion, and it took place on the occasion of Buddha Purnima.
Ramanna later admitted that Pokhran-1 was not entirely peaceful and was in fact a bomb. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger affirmed, “The Indian nuclear explosion…raises a new the specter of an era of plentiful nuclear weapons in which any local conflict risks exploding into a nuclear holocaust.” Both Canada and USA thereafter pulled back their support.

Weaponization: Towards Operation Shakti

After Pokhran-1, it became intensively challenging for us to develop our nuclear arsenal and procure materials from the hostile international community. Besides all the difficulties, in 1977 BARC managed to construct its 5th and biggest nuclear plant till date, DHRUVA at Trombay. It gained criticality on August 8th, 1985. It would produce most of the plutonium for India’s nuclear weapons program but did not reach full power until 1988. In 1983 government also commissioned anti-ballistic missiles. Prithvi and Agni were equipped with nuclear warheads.

In 1990, The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) renewed international pressure on arms control and ban. This US treaty sought to put an end towards all nuclear implosions. India did not ratify the treaty and ironically, even USA has never signed CTBT. PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee believed in the “no first use (offence) “policy and briefly explained India’s motivation to develop nuclear weapons at a UN meeting in 1997: “I told President Clinton that when my third eye [an old Indian proverb] looks at the door of the Security Council chamber it sees a little sign that says, ‘only those with economic power or nuclear weapons allowed.’ I said to him, ‘it is very difficult to achieve economic wealth.’”

Operation Shakti (Pokhran- 2)

Rajagopala Chidambaram headed BARC in its new mission. Again, army and scientists worked together, this time mostly during night to use up the blank spots and conceal everything from American satellites.

Operation Shakti was meant to make India powerful and on May 11th, 1998, another echo of capability, resilience and power announced the world that now India is capable to walk on her own shadow. This new dawn of fearlessness and courage still fills every Indian’s heart with pride and joy. On that day, we tested 5 underground devices, though not all fully detonated. “India is now a nuclear weapons state,” declared PM Vajpayee days after the tests. “We have the capacity for a big bomb now. Ours will never be weapons of aggression.”

Aftermath and Current Scenario

India’s bold move received worldwide condemnation. The west used sanctions and international criticism. Germany called it a slap on the faces of those who signed the CTBT. After three weeks, Pakistan responded by testing a nuclear bomb in Chagai Hills. The 1999 Kargil War thus became a closely watched and critical event. But India respected its first use policy and emerged victorious without using any nuclear weapons.

India is one of the only four countries who have never signed NPT. We are currently lobbying for the membership of Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). NSG supports use of nuclear energy for developmental and civil purposes. But due to our past moves and China and Pakistan’s discouragement of our membership, we still have not been able to become the member of NSG. Though USA and India relations deteriorated due to our nuclear tests, we share warm and cordial relations now. West is not forgiving but forgetful and in contemporary politics, the strong is respected.

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