‘Parmanu: The Story of Pokhran’, a fictional narrative on India’s second nuclear test conducted at Rajasthan’s Pokhran in 1998 which made the country become a full-fledged nuclear state, was released a few days ago and many of you might have watched the film already. But, how many of you have read or know the real story behind the Pokhran-II tests that made India find its place on the world nuclear map? If you haven’t or are not aware of it, we are here to tell you today. Indeed, it’s a historic and an interesting event for India on its journey towards becoming a nuclear-powered nation.
What’s all about Pokhran-II nuclear tests?
Pokhran-II was the series of five nuclear tests conducted by India at the Pokhran test range in Rajasthan in May 1998. It was the second Indian nuclear test; the first test was conducted in May 1974. The five tests included a fusion bomb and four fission bombs. On 11 May 1998, Pokhran-II was initiated with the detonation of one fusion and two fission bombs. Again, on 13 May 1998, two additional fission bombs were detonated.
There are many names attributed to these nuclear tests of India. Originally, they were called Operation Shakti–98, and the five nuclear bombs were designated Shakti-I to Shakti-V. However, more recently, the operation as a whole has come to be known as Pokhran-II, and the 1974 test explosion as Pokhran-I.
So when did India’s nuclear program started?
India’s efforts towards building the nuclear bomb, infrastructure, and research on related technologies have been started since World War II. To be precise, the origins of India’s nuclear program date back to 1944 when nuclear scientist Homi Bhabha began persuading the Indian Congress towards the harnessing of nuclear energy. Thus, preliminary studies were carried out in the 1950s and plans were developed to produce plutonium and other bomb components. India was further intimidated with Chinese nuclear test in 1964, just after two years of the two countries’ engagement in the disputed northern front. However, India’s efforts towards nuclear program got slowed down when Vikram Sarabhai became its head and show of little interest by then PM Lal Bahadur Shastri in 1965. But it was soon consolidated again after Indira Gandhi became Prime Minister in 1966 and when physicist Raja Ramanna joined the efforts. But it was another nuclear test by China that eventually India towards the decision of building nuclear weapons in 1967. India conducted its first nuclear test, code-named Smiling Buddha, in May 1974.
The aftermath of India’s first nuclear test, Smiling Buddha.
Responding to Smiling Buddha, the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) came heavily on India which severely affected its nuclear program. The world’s major nuclear powers imposed technological embargo on India and Pakistan. And as an aftermath of the state emergency in 1975 that resulted in the collapse of Indira Gandhi’s government, India’s nuclear program was left with a vacuum of political leadership and even basic management. What affected, even more, is, after Morarji Desai became the Prime Minister as India’s nuclear program received little attention from him.
Meanwhile, disturbing news came from Pakistan when the world discovered the country’s atomic bomb program. India realized that Pakistan was likely to succeed in its project in a matter of two years, as the Pakistani atomic bomb program was well funded and organized. India’s general elections in 1980 marked the return of Indira Gandhi and India’s nuclear program began to gain momentum again under Ramanna in 1981 and it continued to advance. Not just this, initiation towards hydrogen bomb as well as the launch of the missile program also began under late president Dr. Abdul Kalam, who was then an aerospace engineer.
India’s strain relation with Pakistan and its nuclear program.
In 1989, when V.P. Singh became the Prime Minister after the general elections, he downplayed the relations with Pakistani PM Benazir Bhutto whose party won the elections in 1988. Foreign relations between India and Pakistan began to severely worsen when India began charging Pakistan of supporting the militancy in Jammu and Kashmir. During this time, India’s missile program succeeded in the development of the Prithvi missiles. However, successive governments in India decided to observe this temporary moratorium for fear of inviting international criticism.
Interestingly, Indian public had been supportive towards the nuclear tests which ultimately led Prime Minister Narasimha Rao to decide in favour of conducting further tests in 1995. However, plans were halted after American spy satellites picked up signs of preparations for nuclear testing at Pokhran test range. Then US President Bill Clinton and his administration exerted enormous pressure on PM Rao to stop the preparations. Pakistani PM Benazir Bhutto also issued harsh statements against India on news channels. And the diplomatic tension escalated between the two countries when PM Bhutto raised the Kashmir issue in front of the United Nations.
What finally led to the Pokhran-II test and India becoming a full-fledged nuclear power country?
The BJP came to power in 1998 general elections with an exclusive mandate. Its political might have been growing steadily in strength over the past decade over several issues. During the campaign, Atal Bihari Vajpayee has said that his government would “take back that part of Kashmir that is under Pakistan’s control”. Even before this declaration, the BJP had clear intention to “exercise the option to induct nuclear weapons” and according to them, “India should become an openly nuclear power to garner the respect on the world stage that India deserved.”
By 18 March 1998, Vajpayee had publicly begun his lobbying for the nuclear explosion and declared that “there is no compromise on national security; all options, including the nuclear options, will be exercised to protect security and sovereignty”.
Thereafter, consultation began between PM Vajpayee, Dr. Abdul Kalam, who was the scientific adviser to the Prime Minister and also Head of the DRDO, Dr. Rajagopala Chidambaram, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission and the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), on nuclear options. And on 28 March 1998, PM Vajpayee asked the scientists to make preparations in the shortest time possible.
The 58th Engineer Regiment of Indian Army’s Corps was commissioned to prepare the test sites without being probed by the United States spy satellites.
Extensive planning was done by a very small group of scientists, senior military officers, and senior politicians to ensure that the test preparations would remain secret. It is said that even senior members of the Indian government didn’t know what was going on. While scientists and engineers of the BARC, the AMDER, and the DRDO were involved in the nuclear weapon assembly, layout, detonation and obtaining test data, only a very small group of senior scientists were involved in the detonation process. In all this process, all scientists and technical staff were required to wear army uniforms to preserve the secrecy of the tests.
Work was mostly done during the night, and equipment was returned to the original place to give the impression that it was never moved. Bomb shafts were dug under camouflage netting and the dug-out sand was shaped like naturally shaped dunes. Cables for sensors were covered with sand and concealed using native vegetation. Scientists would not depart for Pokhran in groups of two or three. They traveled to destinations other than Pokhran under pseudonyms and were then transported by the army.
Movements of nuclear bombs and detonations.
The bombs were flown in an Indian Air Force’s AN-32 plane from the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport to the Jaisalmer army base. They were then transported to Pokhran in four Indian Army trucks; all devices from BARC were relocated at 3 am on 1 May 1998. The test sites were organized into two government groups. The first group consisted of the thermonuclear device (Shakti I), the fission device (Shakti II), and a sub-kiloton device (Shakti III). The second group consisted of the remaining two sub-kiloton devices Shakti IV and V. It was decided that the first group would be tested on 11 May and the second group on 13 May.
On 11 May, at 3:43 pm IST; three nuclear bombs (Shakti I, II and III) were detonated simultaneously. And, on 13 May, at 12.21 pm IST, two sub-kiloton devices (Shakti IV and V) were detonated. On 13 May 1998, India declared the series of tests to be over after this. Following the tests, India became the sixth country to join the nuclear club. And shortly after this, the Indian government, led by then PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee, convened a press conference and declared India a full-fledged nuclear state.
Pokhran-II tests resulted in a variety of sanctions against India by a number of major states, including Japan and the United States.
The United States issued a strong statement condemning India and promised that sanctions would follow. The American intelligence community was embarrassed as there had been “a serious intelligence failure of the decade” in detecting the preparations for the test. The United States held series of bilateral talks with India over the issue of India becoming part of the CTBT and NPT. The US also made an unsuccessful attempt at holding talks regarding the rollback of India’s nuclear program.
Strong criticism was drawn from Canada and China on India’s actions. Sanctions were also imposed by Japan on India and consisted of freezing all new loans and grants except for humanitarian aid to India. And the most vehement and strong reaction to India’s nuclear explosion was from Pakistan. However, the United Kingdom, France, and Russia refrained from condemning India. The United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1172 condemning India’s test and that of Pakistan’s. While international sanctions were imposed, the effect on Indian economy was minimal and most of the sanctions were lifted within five years.
The Indian government has officially declared May 11 as National Technology Day to commemorate the first of the five nuclear tests that were carried out on 11 May 1998. Today, India is proud to be recognized and called as a full-fledged nuclear nation. Hats off to all those behind this tremendous success of our nation.