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Operation Smiling Buddha: The story of India’s first nuclear test at Pokhran in 1974

Announcing to the world that India had entered an elite group of nations whose members possessed nuclear capabilities, India conducted its first nuclear tests on May 18, 1974, in Pokhran, Rajasthan, as part of the ‘Smiling Buddha’ operation.

Then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi termed the event a “peaceful nuclear explosion”, perhaps to assuage the rest of the world and particularly the members of the United Nations Security Council’s permanent five (or P-5) members: the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China and Russia.

Under what circumstances did India choose to conduct nuclear tests?

The end of World War II in 1945 did not mean an end to the possibility of a large-scale war breaking out. The US and the USSR continued engaging in proxy wars in other countries, for ideological and economic superiority, in what was dubbed the Cold War.

With the US dropping two nuclear bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki towards the end of the war in August 1945, and the Soviet Union carrying out its own nuclear test in 1949, it was decided that certain regulations were required to prevent massive devastation.

To maintain a kind of minimal peace, one such treaty was signed in 1968, called the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Nuclear-weapon States parties under the NPT are defined as those that manufactured and exploded a nuclear weapon or other nuclear explosive devices before January 1, 1967, effectively meaning the P-5 countries.

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Firstly, its signatories agreed not to transfer either nuclear weapons or nuclear weapons technology to any other state. Second, the non-nuclear states agreed that they would not receive, develop or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons.

All of the signatories agreed to submit to the safeguards against proliferation established by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Parties to the treaty also agreed to help end the nuclear arms race and limit the spread of the technology.

However, India objected to this treaty on the grounds that it was discriminatory to countries except the P-5. As per foreign policy researcher Sumit Ganguly, “The government of India refused to accede to the terms of the treaty because it failed to address India’s misgivings”, specifically, the fact that non-nuclear states’ pledge to not develop such weapons was not linked to any such definite obligation on part of the states already possessing nuclear weapons.

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Domestically, Indian scientists Homi J Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai had laid the groundwork earlier for nuclear energy to be tested in India. In 1954, the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) was founded, with Bhabha as director.

An early proponent of nuclear energy, Bhabha once wrote, “Moreover, when nuclear energy has been successfully applied for power production in say a couple of decades from now, India will not have to look abroad for its experts but will find them ready at hand.” But then Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru continued being skeptical of nuclear weapons and expanding arms’ acquisition in general.

A change of leadership in the 1960s (with the death of PM Nehru and his successor Morarji Desai), a war with China in 1962 that India lost, and wars with Pakistan in 1965 and 1971, both won by India, changed the direction of India’s plans. China also conducted its tests in 1964.

How did Pokhran-I happen?

Unlike Nehru, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi did not hold a negative view of nuclear tests. But given the treaties that the P-5 had in place, India decided to conduct its tests without any prior information being released to the world.

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There was uncertainty even till the end, according to an account detailed by political commentator Inder Malhotra. “Raja Ramanna, the mastermind of the venture [Atomic Energy Commission Chairman], two of Indira Gandhi’s top advisers, PN Haksar and PN 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,” he wrote.

A nuclear device was detonated, with a yield of 12-13 kiloton of TNT, on May 18, 1974. Pokhran, an army test range located in the desert of western Rajasthan, was chosen. A team of around 75 researchers and scientists were involved. Its code name came from the test’s date being on the same day as Buddha Jayanti, the birth date of Gautam Buddha.

And what happened after the tests?

India demonstrated to the world that it could defend itself in an extreme situation and chose not to immediately weaponise the nuclear device it tested at Pokhran. This was to happen only after 1998’s Pokhran-II tests.

Explained | 25th anniversary of Pokhran-II: India’s journey to become a nuclear power

But before that, it would face significant criticism from many countries.

In 1978, US President Jimmy Carter signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act, following which the US ceased exporting nuclear assistance to India. The US view on India testing such technologies would only shift on July 18, 2005, when US President George W Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh first announced their intention to enter into a nuclear agreement in Washington.

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The US also pushed for setting up a club of nuclear equipment and fissile material suppliers. The 48-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) would go on to implement agreed rules for exporting nuclear equipment, with a view to controlling the spread of nuclear weapons and where members would be admitted only by consensus.

India has been trying, since 2008, to join the group, which would give it a place at the high table where the rules of nuclear commerce are decided — and, eventually, the ability to sell equipment. Many countries that initially opposed its entry, like Australia, have changed stance; Mexico and Switzerland are the latest to voice support. India’s effort has been to chip away at the resistance, leaving only one holdout — China.

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This was one reason as to why India did not immediately go for the next step, that of the testing a nuclear bomb, doing so only in 1998. Then too, the international reaction was criticical, but over the years India has projected itself as a “responsible” owner of these weapons, allowing acceptance among countries and into groups like the NSG.

© The Indian Express Pvt Ltd

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