India was one of the first countries to advocate for a global ban on nuclear weapons.
Gandhi said in 1947 that nuclear weapons were a sinful and diabolical use of science.
In the wake of the Japanese atomic bombings, India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru voiced concerns that the bomb would be a weapon only for killing Asians.
India wished for a world without nuclear weapons. Yet on May 18th, 1974 at 8:05 AM local time, India became the sixth declared nuclear power.
India’s journey to the atomic bomb is an interesting one. In this video, we are going to look at how India got the bomb.
Bhabha India’s nuclear weapons program – its entire atomic program,
in general – begins with Dr. Homi Bhabha. His life is very well documented on Wikipedia. He also briefly appears
in my India computer video. So I will just go over the basics. Bhabha was born to a prominent and wealthy Parsi family. His uncle by
marriage was Sir Dorabji Tata – the son of Tata Group founder Jamshedji Tata.
Growing up, Bhabha often visited his uncle, listening to conversations with members of the Indian independence movement.
Bhabha earned a PhD in physics from Cambridge – his thesis was on cosmic rays – and regularly rubbed shoulders with Western physics legends like Paul Dirac.
Then in the summer of 1939, he went to India for a holiday. While he was there,
World War II broke out in England and Dr. Bhabha found himself unable to return to Cambridge.
Creating TIFR At first, Bhabha considered this stay in India to be a temporary disruption in his career.
Bhabha’s letters showed a desire to return to the United Kingdom or the United States. In 1940,
he wrote to Wolfgang Pauli looking for a chance to go to Princeton or CalTech.
India was plunged in turbulence amidst its fight for independence. It was not exactly the place for doing leading edge science. Bhabha felt intellectually isolated, and
his letters spoke of not having a single person to talk to about fundamental physics problems.
But at around 1943 and 1944, it became increasingly clear that India would
receive its independence. Suddenly, Bhabha saw an opportunity to make a transformative
impact and help his new country overcome the disadvantages of its colonial past.
And the trustees of the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust – the philanthropic trust of the Tata
family – sensed an opportunity to keep an eminent scientist. So in March 1944, Bhabha wrote a letter to the trust, asking for funds for a “vigorous school
of research” to do world-class science in India. The school would be centered around an individual – himself – and be given autonomy to pursue its mission.
This followed the advice of Nobel laureate A.V. Hill, who said that the United Kingdom had created its own celebrated schools of physics and science the same way.
Thusly, the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research or TIFR was founded in 1945. Funded with a lavish budget that grew 15-30% a year
over its first two decades, it became the cradle of India’s atomic energy program.
And through TIFR and his other connections, Bhabha made his way to Prime Minster Nehru.
The Race for Ores India doesn’t have a lot of uranium, but they do have a whole lot of thorium.
Thorium is non-fissile, which means that it cannot sustain a nuclear chain reaction. But thorium can be converted into uranium-233, which is fissile.
One of the early challenges in India’s nuclear history was acquiring and controlling that
thorium. The Travancore principality was one of India’s princely states, which means that
it was directly ruled by a hereditary ruler but indirectly ruled by the United Kingdom.
The principality is blessed with a good amount of rare earth ores like monazite. Monazite contains trace amounts of thorium. It was then India’s
only known source of nuclear ore, though they did later find some uranium ores too.
Travancore’s government had long leveraged the monazite in support of its sovereignty.
In January 1947, Sir CP Ramaswami Aiyar, its Dewar – which is kind of
like a prime minister struck a three-year deal with the British for monazite access.
Whether Aiyar genuinely wanted Travancore to be independent, that is unclear. But the Indian government put a lot of pressure on the Travancore government to
join the union – Nehru even considered using air power in an April 1947 cabinet meeting.
Eventually, Travancore’s ruler overruled his Dewar and India had its nuclear ores.
Atomic Energy Commission of India In 1948, Nehru proposed to create the Atomic Energy Commission or
AEC of India with Bhabha as its chairman. The commission received substantial protection within the government. Formally,
the only person Bhabha had to answer to was the prime minister himself. The two often met privately. They had similar backgrounds – Cambridge
education and the like – and worked well together. Nehru was apparently most interested in nuclear science for its potential
to accelerate India’s development and prestige. The country was in desperate need of new sources of energy to power its industrialization and economic advancement.
As for weapons. Publicly, Nehru was a fierce opponent of them. But he also knew the reality of the world, and wanted to leave the option open. Thus Bhabha had the
autonomy to produce the infrastructure for such a thing if the time were to ever come. ## Finding Partners
In its early years, India sought to leverage its supply of thorium and other strategic minerals to its advantage.
For instance, a series of agreements struck with France in 1948 and then 1950 for a monazite
processing plant as well as to do joint research on beryllium-moderated reactors.
The latter is the first bilateral international nuclear project after World War II. Unfortunately,
its actual benefits to India’s atomic program turned out to be quite small.
In 1952, Bhabha writes a letter to Gordon Dean – chairman of the American AEC – proposing a trade. He asks for:
“All declassified information on reactor theory, design and technology … we should
be glad to have the detailed designs of such reactors that have been completely declassified, together with all operational data that may have been obtained concerning them”
The letter also asks for 10 tons of heavy water. And in return, India would make available the same amount of thorium ore or uranium ore. Maybe some extra
beryllium too. A straightforward trade – knowledge for thorium.
India’s resources inevitably brought the Americans to the table. Relations back then weren’t particularly friendly, with the Americans chafing at India’s stated policy of non-alignment.
But the global rush for strategic nuclear-relevant ores was too important. Whatever uranium, thorium,
or beryllium the Americans can get their hands on meant that they were denying those very same resources to the Communists.
And the Americans were always afraid of the Indians deepening their ties to the Soviets. Much more so after Chiang Kai-shek and the KMT lost the Chinese Civil War in 1949.
There were certainly some learning moments in the Indian-American relationship. In July 1953 as the
Korean War staggered to a halt, the US Embassy learned that an Indian state-owned enterprise was shipping 2 tons of thorium nitrate over to the port city of Tianjin in China.
The Eisenhower Administration scrambled. America’s Mutual Defense Act required the
US to automatically terminate all forms of aid to a recipient country if that
country was found to be trading in certain embargoed items with Communist countries.
So this caused a big problem. Nehru bristled at the notion that America could dictate who the Indians could trade with. And it took substantial
behind-the-scenes work to arrange a deal where the Americans would buy the thorium at a price that America’s atomic energy division considered to be way too high.
And then there was Pakistan. A year later, the Pakistanis began courting the Americans – emphasizing their strong anti-Communist sympathies. The Americans
were receptive, and the partnership only deepened India’s antipathy towards the US.
Criticism The AEC’s power was not unlimited. Critics disliked
Bhabha’s control over India’s atomic institutes. The Indian astrophysicist Meghnad Saha was particularly strident.
He didn’t seem to like the way India went about its atomic development from the very beginning. Yet who cares about what a random scientist thinks, right?
But what if he became a politician? In 1952, Saha won a seat in the lower house
of the Parliament. He used his position to criticize the AEC’s lack of results,
lack of transparency, and its close ties to private enterprises like the Tata Group.
That last criticism makes a lot more sense with the context that Saha was a Communist aligned with the Soviet Union. In 1954, he said:
India has got an Atomic Energy Commission and five years ago  it had announced that we were going to set up a nuclear reactor within five years. This is 1954
and the nuclear reactor has not been set up … I do not know how long it will take us to make good this proposal. It may take us years to set up a nuclear reactor.
Saha went on to argue that there was nothing special about the atomic scientist. And that India was wasting its immense human resource advantage by pretending so:
There is a common prejudice that atomic scientists are a special class by themselves.
It is a great fallacy, it is an illusion. There have been no atomic scientists to start with. The
atomic scientists have been ordinary chemists, ordinary physicists, biologists and others.
Saha was a lonely voice, but more than a few Indians shared the belief that this pursuit of atomic energy would end up being an expensive
boondoggle at a time when money was desperately needed for other things. In its early years, the AEC had gotten itself a bit too caught up in theory. Insulated,
they had paid little attention to industry. A real reactor was far beyond their domestic capability. Indeed, maybe decades away.
Nehru still believed in the AEC but the public scrutiny pushed the AEC to show results. They
needed to find someone to teach them how to build their nuclear reactor or sell them one.
But throughout the late 1940s and the early 1950s, America’s secretive actions had enforced
a sort of global silence on nuclear technology. The guys who had it were unwilling to share it.
Atoms for Peace Then suddenly in December 1953, Dwight Eisenhower gave his “Atoms for Peace” speech at the UN.
This was a momentous speech in nuclear history and I am not going to be able to give it the proper effort that it deserves. But basically put,
Eisenhower wanted to present a more favorable face of atomic energy to the people of the world.
He saw that the Soviets were getting to a point where they can start sharing nuclear technologies with their allies. This could potentially create a very profitable export
industry for them. The Americans and their allies cannot compete until they lifted their own norms of secrecy surrounding nuclear technologies.
Eisenhower also wanted to dispel a growing taboo around these weapons – as well as atomic energy in particular. He had embarked on an effort
to restructure the US Armed Forces – something called the “New Look”. The philosophy behind the “New Look” leaned heavily on nuclear weapons – tactical bombs
in particular – to save money. Dwight believed that all countries would eventually obtain them,
and so we should mentally prepare ourselves to start using them on the battlefield.
His speech kicked off an “Atoms for Peace” initiative that sought to supply atomic equipment and information to other countries in the world.
The goal was to promote atomic energy for peaceful rather than war uses.
Atoms for Peace abruptly reversed years of prior policy and opened the doors to
commercial competition in atomic energy development. Now suddenly it would be far easier for other countries to gain access to atomic energy technology.
One can argue the many benefits of this technology transfer and expansion. Yet
they must also admit that the dangers of non-proliferation were downplayed. Additionally, the development of nuclear power and weapons
are two sides of the same coin. There is little stopping a country from switching.
India’s atomic energy – and subsequently weapons – program directly and greatly benefitted from this duality.
A Three Step Plan In response to public criticisms like that of Saha’s, Nehru asked AEC to hold a national conference in November 1954.
The Conference on the Development of Atomic Energy for Peaceful Purposes, held in New Delhi.
There, Bhabha laid out a three-step plan. In the first step, India would build atomic reactors fueled with natural uranium. They would
do this with the help of foreign countries. These reactors would produce plutonium as a byproduct.
Second, India would build a new set of atomic reactors fueled by a mix of thorium and the plutonium generated from the first set of natural uranium-fueled
reactors. These second-stage nuclear reactors would then produce uranium-233 as a byproduct.
So in the third and final stage, the AEC would mix this uranium-233
with more of India’s thorium to feed what are called “breeder” reactors.
These breeder reactors make more U-233 fuel than they consume. So the idea would
be to combine this growing amount of U-233 with India’s abundant thorium to create an
essentially unlimited supply of nuclear fuel for reactors across the country. Bhabha’s plan was designed for national independence and strategic optionality.
It took advantage of India’s thorium reserves. And producing plutonium – the second stage and centerpiece of Bhabha’s plan – gave
India the option to eventually build nuclear weapons if they ever needed it. The conference solidified Bhabha’s control over the sprawling Indian
atomic apparatus. And Nehru gave it his foremost support – increasing the program’s
budget twelve-times over the next two years by 1956. Now we just have to get the reactor.
The Swimming Pool Bhabha regularly wrote to his contacts around the world for aid in building a nuclear reactor.
In June 1954, Dr. Bhabha wrote to Sir John Cockcroft – a friend, Nobel Prize
winner and head of the UK’s Atomic Energy Authority. He asked for 5 tons of heavy water.
At this time, the talk around nuclear was changing, thanks to Atoms for Peace. People considered India to be the Third World’s most developed nuclear power,
and thus a likely customer for a nuclear export industry. The British were keen to win them over. In his reply, Cockcroft said that he could not offer the
heavy water as their supply was already committed. But he did offer something else in his letter:
Have you considered the possibility of building a research reactor of the “swimming pool” type? These have been described fairly
exhaustively in Nucleonics and other publications. They require, of course, enriched uranium but it is possible that this could be made available to you from the UK
After some negotiation, the UK sent over 6 kilograms of enriched fuel rods,
technical drawings, and data. In return, India promised to give the UK special consideration when it came time to buy a real reactor.
Bhabha made a friendly bet with Cockcroft that India would finish this 1-megawatt reactor – named
“Apsara” – in a year. Bhabha lost the bet by just a few days and ended up owing his friend a dinner.
Nevertheless everyone was ecstatic. Apsara first went live on a typical rainy August monsoon day in 1956. It was Asia’s first nuclear reactor outside of
the Soviet Union. Nehru gave a speech at the reactor’s inauguration in January 1957, saying:
We are not reluctant in the slightest degree to take advice and help from other countries. We are grateful to them for the help which they have given – and which we hope to get in
future – because of their long experience. But it is to be remembered that the Swimming Pool reactor
in front of you is the work, almost entirely, of our young Indian scientists and builders
Apsara was decommissioned in 2009 after over half a century of operation. They are turning it into a museum now I think.
In the Indian television dramatization Rocket Boys, Bhabha celebrates the achievement
by drinking a glass of champagne before jumping fully clothed into the reactor pool.
I … I don’t think that happened. It is pretty funny that they put all this work and effort into perfectly recreating the old Apsara reactor and control
room. And then their script has Dr. Bhabha jumping into reactor water. ## Canada
In August 1955, the UN held its first Atoms for Peace conference in Geneva.
The event attracted 25,000 scientists from countries like Canada, the UK, the Soviet Union and the United States. Many nuclear secrets were exchanged.
In light of political sensitivities, the conference chose Dr. Bhabha to serve as its
president. It was an immense honor that cemented Bhabha as the country’s leading nuclear scientist.
During the conference, the Canadians approached India with a proposal to transfer one of their research reactors. Like the British, they wanted to build a
thriving export industry and gain favor with the leading potential customer. After negotiations, the final arrangement was for Canada to build a 40-megawatt heavy
water reactor in India – called the Canadian-Indian Reactor, US or CIRUS.
Canada covered all the foreign exchange costs – about $14 million. The United States provided 21
tons of heavy water for the facility – ergo why the “US” appears at the end of the name.
Canada did at first ask that the fuel be held in international custody. However,
Bhabha fiercely rejected it, declaring that India had the inalienable right to hold its own fuel. He
never believed that international safeguards could ever stop a country’s progress towards a bomb and morally criticized those who tried to create a world of atomic “haves” and “have-nots”.
So in the end, Canada did not attach any strict restrictions on the technology other than
a pinky-swear promise to only use the reactor for peaceful purposes. No inspections allowed.
Work on CIRUS began in 1956. It went critical in July 1960 and hit full capacity in 1963.
CIRUS As it turns out, CIRUS’s design encouraged the production of large amounts of weapons-grade plutonium.
Uranium fuel rods in the reactor are bombarded with neutrons, creating plutonium-239. But if the rods are left in there too long then
the neutrons will create another plutonium isotope – 240 and 242.
Plutonium 240 and 242 are not useful for weapons. 242 is not as radioactive
and not fissile. And 240 is apt to something called “spontaneous fission”, which causes a premature release of energy when we do not want it.
So if we want that sweet 239 then we need to take out and replace the rods
before they get “overcooked”. CIRUS’s design allowed us to do that while the reactor is still operational – an obvious benefit.
Canada supplied similar reactors to other countries. Many years later, their “peaceful” nuclear program suffered a titanic loss of face when it was discovered
that their reactors helped contribute to nuclear weapons proliferation. Though, I don’t want to blame Canada here. They weren’t alone in their optimistic
thinking. In the same time period, the United States was funding and building a nuclear power plant in Tarapur, north of Bombay. Different design that was less
apt for producing plutonium but also with very few safeguards. ## Phoenix
At the same time, India embarked on building a plutonium reprocessing plant in Trombay called Phoenix.
The plant can extract plutonium from spent uranium nuclear fuel like that from CIRUS.
The plant was indigenously built with the help of an American company called Vitro International – which worked on the Manhattan Project.
Vitro transferred over the plans for their reprocessing plant legitimately and without issue.
Such a transfer would not be possible today but at the time, regulators didn’t know its significance.
Thanks to these two facilities, India now had their pathway to a nuclear weapon,
technically. By 1962 – maybe even 1961 – they knew that they could eventually
scrape together enough weapons-grade plutonium for a bomb within a few years.
This probably explains the timing of the 1962 Atomic Energy Act, which Nehru very hastily passed in September 1962 over the complaints of Parliament members.
The bill locked down all information about the Indian nuclear program. It also granted
the government the legal rights to mine and seize whatever land it needed for nuclear development.
And when the reprocessing plant Phoenix went live sometime in June 1964, the Indian government knew they were about a year away from having
the 5-10 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium necessary for a test bomb.
Hesitancy So if India had the materials for a bomb by 1965,
why did it take so many more years to actually produce it? Essentially because Nehru and other influential groups of the Indian people
were against it. They certainly made the efforts to keep their options open, but hesitated in actually pursuing the weapon.
Throughout the summer of 1962, various clashes on the disputed Sino-Indian border escalated. Those
clashes finally blew up on October 20th 1962 – a month after the new Atomic Energy Act was passed.
The People’s Liberation Army launched a series of attacks, overrunning India’s weakly held positions. The “war” went on for about a month until
Zhou Enlai unilaterally announced a cease-fire and the fighting stopped.
The Sino-Indian War of 1962 was a humiliating national loss for India. It motivated them to reflect and greatly work to improve their defense
capacity – doubling the military budget in 1963 with additional increases thereafter.
For the first time, a party in the Parliament – the right-wing Jana Sangh Party which was
an ancestor of today’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party – publicly asked that India build the Bomb.
Yet Nehru did not move forward with the bomb. He increased state support for the atomic programs – raising the 1963 budget 76% – which kept
their options open. But he stood firm on not actually going there, saying: > On the one hand, we are asking the nuclear powers to give up their tests. How can we,
without showing the utter insincerity of what we have always said, go in for doing the very thing which we have repeatedly asked the other powers not to do?
Nehru’s health had started to decline in 1962. He never recovered and passed away two years later in May 1964. Nehru until his death always believed that making atomic
bombs would not help India’s growth. Though he knew that it might someday become necessary,
he disagreed with Dr. Bhabha on what that day might look like. A new administration led by Lal Bahadur Shastri took over in June.
Shastri immediately faced a new duo of threats – Pakistan … and China.
China and Pakistan India and Pakistan have long been at odds with each other. I will omit their shared history.
The US gave military aid to Pakistan, which irked India. But the 1962 Sino-Indian war
brought India and the United States much closer together, which alarmed Pakistan. So they counterbalanced by cozying up to China.
In December 1962, Pakistan and China publicly delineated their border. A few months later in February 1963, their foreign minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto went to
Beijing to sign the agreement. Chinese-Pakistani friendship only agitated the Indians yet more.
On September 29th 1964, the Americans began to tell the public that a Chinese nuclear weapons
test was imminent. The Chinese had been clear about working on a bomb since 1958,
and once the Soviets started helping them it became inevitable. So the Indians had plenty of forewarning. But now that the test was actually happening, it
deeply impacted the Indian political class and the ruling Congress Party split over how to respond.
The Debate Dr. Bhabha led a faction of people agitating that India go build the bomb.
On October 4th – 12 days before the Chinese test – he visited London and told journalists there that India was just 18 months away from a nuclear weapon,
adding that “but I do not think such a decision will be taken”. Not so subtly, the doctor was pushing to make the bomb.
On October 16th, the People’s Republic of China fired their bomb. US President Lyndon Johnson tried to play down the issue,
saying that it was a “crude device” – which it was not – and tried to reassure India – without solid guarantees – from pursuing a weapon of their own.
Debate raged on inside India itself. In the October 26th issue of their magazine,
Jana Sangh party escalated their rhetoric for a bomb: > The eunuch Government decided years ago in its ahimsic [non-violent] idiocy
to spend crores on nuclear power but not to use the same crores on developing the nuclear
bomb. We had the chance to do it before China did it … In our criminal folly we missed it
In late October, 2 weeks after the Chinese bomb test, the Indian Express did a survey of Indian elites.
Responders believed Bhabha’s assertion that India was about 18 months away from a bomb – which was
likely an exaggeration – but urged responsible thinking not to rush into such a thing.
Many cited the huge costs of pursuing a nuclear weapons program amidst rising inflation and
food shortages. India had budgeted 28% of its total national spend in 1964 on
defense – $1.8 billion. The atomic program by itself, about $63 million or 1% and rising.
Though Bhabha had anticipated this. In a speech on October 24th at the UN, he publicly said that 50 atomic bombs would cost just 10 crores or $21 million.
50 H-bombs would cost 15 crores or $31 million. Evidently less than a single commercial plane.
The number wasn’t dead wrong but it was misleading as it excluded the costs of reactors and other infrastructure.
And unless India wanted to try delivering that bomb on wheelbarrows, they needed a capable nuclear bomber fleet too.
The elites in the Indian Express survey also disputed the claim that China’s nuclear weapons were even relevant to India. R. K. Khadilkar of the ruling Congress Party said:
This bomb is not directed towards India … It is directed at the world powers, the superpowers
… It is directed against the nuclear monopoly of the western powers and not towards India
A reasonable analysis echoed by many others in his party, who noted China’s restraint during the 1962 war and cited Mao’s own quote that the nuclear bomb was a “paper tiger”.
Ultimately for Shastri, the more important issue for a democracy like India was solving
the ongoing food shortage crisis. Most Indians don’t necessarily care about bombs.
But they most definitely care about food. So Shastri continued to advocate
for a non-bomb policy and perhaps a nuclear umbrella from the West. But he made sure to mention a program of using nuclear weapons
for “peaceful purposes” kind of like the US’s Operation Plowshare – using
nukes for making harbors and stuff. The Soviets had a program of their own too. ## The Indo-Pakistani War of 1965
Over 17 weeks in 1965, India and Pakistan fought an intense war.
It caused thousands of casualties and had wide-ranging political implications in all of Asia. And it brought the threat of Pakistan back to the forefront in India.
During the fighting, the Chinese – who backed the Pakistanis – demanded that the Indians halt their progress or risk nuclear retaliation. Shastri denied their
ultimatum and China blinked, drawing back on their threat. The UN mediated a ceasefire and the Soviets mediated a peace. The Johnson administration
halted military exports to both India and Pakistan, which pissed both of them off.
It also obliterated trust that the West would grant a nuclear umbrella.
Indians at home seized the war as another impetus to build a bomb. China’s threats – though parried – were perceived as bullying. And with the West
philosophically turning away from India, India could only depend on themselves.
These questions came in the midst of political turmoil. In January 1966,
Shastri died suddenly of what we presume to be a heart attack. Indira Gandhi – Nehru’s daughter – took over as Prime Minister.
On the day Gandhi was sworn in as Prime Minister, Bhabha passed away in a tragic plane crash at the age of 56. He never lived to see India become a nuclear weapons power.
The two deaths left a massive void in India’s nuclear policy. ## Dual Policy Gandhi appointed another Cambridge-educated elite
Vikram Sarabhai to take over several of Bhabha’s posts – including secretary of the Department of Atomic Energy,
which now managed the sprawling atomic energy and weapons programs including the AEC of India.
He is perhaps best known as the founder of the Indian space program.
By this time, the rest of the world presumed that an Indian nuclear weapon was imminent. US Secretary of State Dean Rusk conducted a study in March 1966 which
concluded that India would detonate a bomb of their own within a few years. Indeed, it is likely that Shastri and Bhabha initiated a peaceful nuclear explosion program
in 1964 after the Chinese detonation. But Bhabha’s death stalled the effort for a while.
Then in 1968, scientists at the Bhabha Atomic Research Center or BARC – one of the research
centers within the AEC – started work on a practical implosion-type plutonium bomb design.
This project was initiated by the AEC’s new chairperson Homi Sethna – who had
led work on Project Phoenix, the plutonium reprocessing plant. Over the next few years, a team of 50-70 scientists led by R. Chidambaram worked
on the design and sourced the chemical components for a bomb. Chidambaram would play a major role in India’s nuclear weapons efforts many years later.
Sarabhai – nominally Sethna’s boss – fundamentally did not like nuclear weapons and doubted their practical benefit to Indian society and national security. He instead
advocated for a large nuclear reactor expansion program for the benefit of ordinary people.
On the other hand Sethna saw no problems with a peaceful nuclear detonation. He wanted to do it.
Sarabhai must have found out about the effort eventually, but for whatever reason he did not stop it. Perhaps because he shied away from conflict.
When he too passed away from a heart attack in late December 1971 at the age of 52,
it took away the last large political obstacle to at least a nuclear explosion test.
The Explosion The nuclear bomb’s basic design was completed at the end of 1971.
Then in January 1972, momentum began towards a real detonation. That month,
the technical teams at BARC begin preliminary work on putting the device together. Vital component work began a few months later in the spring.
In September 1972, Homi Sethna said that he received the formal go-ahead
from Indira Gandhi to finalize the device and find a test detonation site for a potential underground peaceful nuclear explosion.
Technical work consumed the organization over the next few months. In March 1973, they fired the
detonation system to confirm whether an implosion was indeed possible. It worked, a big milestone.
The chosen test site was the Thar desert in the northwestern state of Rajasthan. Dr. Sethna recalls having to clear the desert of deer, which I appreciate.
In May 1973, the 61 Engineer Regiment of the Indian Army was ordered to dig
an underground shaft for a “seismic experiment”.
At first they refused. They were used to digging bunkers, not weird L-shaped shafts for mysterious
experiments. They held out until October 1973, when the Chief of Army staff G. G. Bewoor
personally told the regiment that Prime Minister Gandhi herself was ordering them to dig the shaft.
In January 1974, the regiment accidentally hit an aquifer which filled the shaft with water.
A new site had to be found, delaying the test by a few months. The shaft was finally completed in early May. Around then, a meeting was held to make a final
decision. The discussion was heated, but the Prime Minister ultimately decided to go forward with it.
So on May 18th 1974, they fired it. The explosion had originally been scheduled
for 8 AM but was delayed 5 minutes due to a faulty Jeep engine. Dr. Sethna – who was
there at the time – recalls, “It was a sense of relief … it was all over”. ## Gandhi
Prime Ministers Nehru and Shastri brought India to the brink of the bomb. But it was their successor Indira Gandhi who took the final step to
its detonation. She was also a proponent of nuclear energy but in 1966 seemed firmly against a weapon. So why did she give them the green light?
We are not sure. She was a generally inscrutable person. Raja Ramanna, who worked under Dr. Bhabha and led the technical team at BARC, recalled:
“She didn’t speak in the meetings. She listened and then decided – that’s all … Mrs. Gandhi was
a somewhat impenetrable mind. It’s possible she thought she would gain political benefits, but it’s difficult to say what was on her mind. She said, “Let’s have it.”
Later on, she tells the writer Rodney Jones in an interview: > The Peaceful Nuclear Explosion was simply done when we were ready … we
did it to show to ourselves we could do it … we did it when the scientists were ready .. How could it have been political? There were no elections
coming up … it would have been useful for elections. But we did not have any. So the way she put it, the scientists finished the bomb. They wanted to see
if it works. So let’s go see if it works. Simple as that. Perhaps we take her word for it. India did not do another detonation
after that first one. They didn’t make strident efforts to turn the device into a real weapon nor did they build bombers and missiles thereafter.
Peaceful Nuclear Explosions were in vogue at the time. The US and the Soviets had their own campaign going as well – firing at least 70 detonations combined before India’s.
We can probably call it a Peaceful Nuclear Explosion – especially considering that the Indian Army was largely uninvolved. But the
lack of official information has triggered some speculation. ## Circumstances It was a time of rough relations between the US and India.
In 1971, India and Pakistan fought another war over East Pakistan. India
won the war in late December 1971 which created the new country of Bangladesh.
As the war played out, on December 10th 1971, President Nixon ordered the Seventh Fleet led
by the nuclear powered aircraft carrier USS Enterprise to enter the Bay of Bengal.
The Enterprise was presumed to be armed with nuclear weapons. Various people then speculated on Nixon’s intentions. Maybe the Americans were going to intervene on behalf of Pakistan?
We now know that Nixon did it because he thought that the Chinese were going to intervene on the side of the Pakistanis. Nixon thought that Chinese intervention would
then have brought the Soviets into the fray too and he wanted to dissuade that. Of course, that was not going to happen. The Chinese stayed out of the matter this time. But
members of the Indian government – Gandhi perhaps one of them – saw the carrier’s presence as a form
of nuclear intimidation. So one can speculate the test was a sign of India’s refusal to be bullied.
The timing certainly works. Like I said earlier, real government momentum towards the detonation began in early 1972 after the American aircraft carrier’s arrival.
And then there were Nixon’s groundbreaking, world-changing overtures to China, culminating in a visit to the Mainland in 1972.
India must not have felt good seeing the United States and China improving their relations.
And then there was the domestic politics. Despite what Gandhi said about elections, the detonation had been quite popular in India as a source of national pride. It consolidated
her political power at a time when opposition had started to build against her government. ## Conclusion
Regardless of the reasoning, the 1974 Indian nuclear explosion had far-ranging effects on non-proliferation.
India was the first country in the world to use civilian nuclear energy technology to make a bomb. New efforts in controlling nuclear technology were
thereafter implemented to try and make India the last such country to do so.
There was immense international backlash from countries like Canada, which surprised both the Indian scientists and the government.
So India did not fire a second peaceful nuclear explosion. It would be two decades before they started producing actual nuclear weapons.
Nevertheless, India as a Great Power asserted its right to the Bomb. Throughout
all the twists and turns of the program’s long history, that part never wavered.