India’s decision to build an atomic weapon was inspired, in part, by China’s success, and in part by fears that rival Pakistan would seek a device of its own and threaten India with it. Like Israel, India tried to mask its strategic intentions and nuclear capabilities, using ambiguity or opacity to leave its adversaries uncertain whether India could, if it wished, strike with atomic weapons. Nor was security India’s only cause. Like South Africa and others, India knew that there were strategic limitations on the use of nuclear weapons—what, for example, does one do with atomic bombs when the Pakistanis infiltrate the mountains on India’s northwest border? India also sought nuclear capability as a sign of status, especially in the light of a recent colonial past that lingered in the form of Western denigration of Indian science and the anxiety of Indian scientists that the scornful Westerners might be right. The Western sponsors of ‘nonproliferation’, according to George Perkovich, seemed to replicate the pattern of colonial domination in their insistence that only those who had already tested nuclear devices ought to possess such things. Third World latecomers, like India, were unwelcome in the nuclear club. Yet the Indians’ determination to prove themselves scientifically and technologically was complicated by the nation’s rhetorical claims to a moral high ground internationally, where conflict was to be shunned or forestalled by reason, discussion, mediation, and finally compromise. In the light of Mohandas Gandhi’s insistence on the pacific resolution of disputes, India’s avid pursuit of atomic weapons looked unseemly.
The men who made decisions about India’s nuclear program for roughly the first two decades of the nation’s independent existence were Jawaharlal Nehru, the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, and Homi Bhabha, who was named by Nehru in 1948 to head India’s newly established Atomic Energy Commission. Nehru had worked closely to achieve independence with both Gandhi and other, more coldly pragmatic leaders affiliated with the Congress Party, and, while he had in him some of the Mahatma’s moral distaste for war and its weapons—he called for ‘neutralism’ in the budding Cold War and came across, thought Eleanor Roosevelt, as ‘sensitive and gentle’—he could equally be toughminded, especially when he thought the security of his people might be at risk. Nehru also believed in the need for scientific progress, and in the sponsorship of science by the state, though he warned that science was Janus-faced, with a ‘destructive side and a constructive, creative side’. Homi Bhabha was a brilliant and enterprising man who came to Cambridge in 1927 to study engineering but switched to physics, working with Ernest Rutherford, James Chadwick, and P. M. S. Blackett and gaining his Ph.D. in 1935. He spent time in labs across Europe, including those of Enrico Fermi and Niels Bohr, returning to India in 1939, whence the war found and stranded him. He persuaded the well-endowed Sir Dorabji Tata trust to fund a school for nuclear research, with himself as its head. The Tata Institute of Fundamental Research was established in Bombay in 1945. It would become, Bhabha wrote, ‘the cradle of the Indian atomic energy programme’, its dynamism reflecting that of its cultured and worldly director.
During the parliamentary debate over the creation of India’s AEC in 1948, Nehru was candid about India’s purposes. While he emphasized the benefits of nuclear energy, he pointedly told critics that it was impossible to ‘distinguish between’ peaceful and military uses of the atom where basic research was concerned. He expressed ‘hope that our outlook in regard to this atomic energy is going to be a peaceful one’, but he did not categorically rule out weapons work. Nehru’s and Bhabha’s reputations were nevertheless such that other countries trusted them to stay away from bomb development, or at least from proclaiming that they were building bombs. During the 1950s India got help constructing and fueling reactors from Britain (the Apsara research reactor, Asia’s first, which went critical in 1956), and from Canada and the United States, which, respectively, built and supplied with heavy water the CIRUS reactor, online as of 1960. The Indians assured Ottawa and Washington that CIRUS products ‘would be used only for peaceful purposes’. In the meantime, however, Bhabha planned a complex nearby—all this activity took place in and around Bombay—that would extract weapons-grade plutonium from CIRUS’s fuel rods. Like the South Africans, Nehru and Bhabha spoke of producing Peaceful Nuclear Explosives, and in this they were never discouraged by the United States.
American fantasies about PNEs—using nuclear devices to ‘change the earth’s surface to suit us’, as Edward Teller proclaimed in 1957—help explain the willingness with which the United States provided both South Africa and India with nuclear equipment and information, and the apparent calm with which the Americans regarded India’s nuclear opacity. The Americans also, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, hoped to monopolize India’s monazite sands, a possible source of nuclear fuel. And the Americans understood, despite any number of policy differences with Nehru, India’s delicate strategic situation in South Asia. In September 1961 George McGhee, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, suggested to his boss, Dean Rusk, that the United States might assist India to develop an atomic bomb and thereby ‘beat Communist China to the punch’. Rusk rejected the idea, but less than five years later he advised President Lyndon Johnson to take ‘no dramatic steps to discourage the Indians from starting a nuclear weapons program’, and Johnson did not. Nor did other nations place obstacles in India’s way. Meanwhile, China attacked India following a border dispute in 1962 and detonated its device at Lop Nur in 1964, and India and Pakistan fought two limited but sharp wars, in 1965 and 1971. Yet India did not test a bomb until 1974.
The reason for the delay, as Perkovich has it, is that residual moral doubts about producing a nuclear weapon, combined with a lack of official conviction that a bomb would enhance India’s security and (perhaps as a result of these two factors) a haphazard decisionmaking process concerning nuclear affairs, slowed momentum toward a decision to test. But official indecision never affected the determination of the nuclear scientific community to push forward. Like their counterparts elsewhere, Indian scientists wanted to test themselves, solve problems, and advance their status, nationally and in the world. Homi Bhabha had reminded delegates at the Geneva Conference on Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy in 1955 that scientists were a global community that ‘stood above history and politics’ and that they must never be ‘restrained by national boundaries’ and jealousies. (Bhabha died in a plane crash in early 1966.) Indian physicists, helped by the British, Canadians, and Americans, and increasingly sophisticated in their own techniques, were mostly ready by the early 1970s to test a PNE, and awaited only government permission to do so. This came, according to Perkovich, in September 1972, in the aftermath of American bullying during the previous year’s conflict with Pakistan (and the subsequent formation of Bangladesh), and with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Nehru’s daughter, under siege politically. If the nation would gain status from testing an atomic device, so, presumably, would its leader. Having worked through some problems concerning the test device’s initiator, the team was ready to go by the spring of 1974. Just after 8.00 a.m. on 18 May the Indians detonated a PNE at Pokhran, beneath the Rajasthan desert. Scientists estimated the blast at 12 kilotons, though much later revised the figure downwards; the Americans guessed the shot had produced between 4 and 6 kilotons.
It was ‘a peaceful nuclear explosion’, and Mrs Gandhi insisted that there was ‘nothing to get excited about’. Gandhi’s poll numbers spiked. A man delivering newspapers told a reporter for the Washington Post: ‘Now we’re the same as America and Russia and China. We have the atomic bomb.’ ‘I couldn’t escape the current of glee that streaked through me at the thought of what other nations would say,’ wrote the politician Raj Thapar, no friend of Mrs Gandhi. ‘They wouldn’t be able to kick us around as before.’ That was not quite the world’s reaction. Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, professed himself ‘determined not to be intimidated,’ and authorized a quickened pace for nuclear development by his country. China showed public restraint, while Canada made clear its anger over India’s evident militarization of its peaceful nuclear assistance. The American ambassador, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, scolded Mrs Gandhi: ‘India has made a huge mistake. Here you were the No. 1 hegemonic power in South Asia. Nobody was No. 2 and call Pakistan No. 3. Now in a decade’s time, some Pakistani general will call you up and say I have four nuclear weapons and I want Kashmir. If not, we will drop them on you and we will all meet in heaven. And then what will you do?’
The answer was to slip back, for the time being, into a period of nuclear quiescence, under governments less convinced than Indira Gandhi’s of the utility of nuclear testing or bomb building, or sufficiently convinced that India’s status had been at least temporarily assured by the 1974 blast. Moral doubt about nuclear weapons persisted in some quarters, including those of Moraji Desai, Prime Minister from 1977 to 1979, and Indira’s son Rajiv, who served in the office in 1984-9. Still, nuclear science and technology moved ahead. The Indians bought more heavy water (from China!), tested warhead-bearing Agni and Prithvi missiles, and refused, along with Pakistan, to sign on to a significant extension of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1995. And, with the rise of the Hindu nationalist BharatiyaJanata Party (BJP) in the 1990s, nuclear weapons became even more fully associated with nationalism, however crabbed and threatening to non-Hindus, and associated as well with continuing resentment of the West and a masculine swagger characteristic of BJP leaders. When the BJP won elections in early 1998 and Atul Behari Vajpayee became Prime Minister, the stage was set for a resumption of testing. As one commentator wrote, Indians bitterly recognized the West’s ‘unstated cultural assumptions: that the subcontinent is full of unstable people with deep historical resentments, incapable of acting rationally or managing a technologically sophisticated arsenal’. The BJP would prove them wrong. Three times on 11 May 1998 and twice more on the 13 th, India detonated nuclear devices—weapons, not PNEs. ‘We have a big bomb now,’ crowed Vajpayee, though the government soon withdrew that comment. India Todayannounced that the ‘tests and their aftermath have radically redefined India’s image of being a yogi in today’s world of realpolitik’—no one feared a gentle yogi—and a BJP official revealed a plan for party functionaries to collect ‘sacred soil’ from Pokhran and transport it in holy vessels across the country, thereby ‘spread[ing] the feeling of national self-confidence’ and radioactivity. The American columnist Mary McGrory scolded Vajpayee, ‘who wished to establish his machismo’ with the blasts; not Vajpayee but the virulent Hindu nationalist Bal Thackeray declared: ‘We have to prove we are not eunuchs.’ The Pakistanis, of course, felt the same way, firing off five tests on 28 May and two more on the 30th. ‘Today,’ said Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, ‘we have settled a score.’ The Indian Defence Minister dismissed the Pakistani explosions as ‘Ping Pong balls’, leaving Pakistanis, and others, to draw their own sexual conclusions.9