Operation Shakti: Two years after handing over India a major defeat, the People’s Republic of China detonated a 16-kiloton bomb, its first nuclear test, on 16 October 1964 and became the fifth nation to enter the exclusive nuclear-armed State club. As other leaders pondered for a solution, one man knew what had to be done. “The answer to an atom bomb is an atom bomb, nothing else,” the then Rajya Sabha MP and Bharatiya Jana Sangh, leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee said in the Parliament days after China had conducted the tests.
It was quite clear that India could face a severe threat from china, and without help. So our leaders were determined to nuclear research
Operation Shakti: All you need to know
India flirted with nuclear power for the first time in 1974 with Indira Gandhi as the Prime Minister. Gandhi conducted the Pokhran-I test in 1974 on Buddha Purnima. The test was called a “peaceful nuclear explosion” to pacify the western powers and avoid the threat of sanctions from them (it didn’t work).
PV Narsimha Rao also tried, but he surrendered to american surveillance satellites and threats of sanction.
Two more attempts were curtailed by the CIA.
In 1996, Atal Bihari Vajpayee came to power and tried to fulfil his long-standing dream of converting India into a nuclear state. Vajpayee asked his private secretary to locate chief scientific adviser Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, who was also the secretary of the Defence Research Development Organisation (DRDO).
But since his government failed, the mission was again aborted and the plan was again put into cold storage.
The beginning of Pokhran II
The Bharatiya Janata Party came back to power in March 1998 and Atal Bihari Vajpayee once again became the Prime Minister of India. On April 8, Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) chief R Chidambaram and DRDO chief APJ Abdul Kalam were summoned and gave thumbs up for the tests. Vajpayee and his principal secretary Brajesh Mishra controlled the entire operation from the PMO. The operation was conducted in such high secrecy that nobody except the PM and the then Home minister LK Advani knew about it.
Even Defence minister George Fernandes was told about the tests on May 9 and the three service chiefs and foreign secretary were informed over the next three days. The information was shared by the Cabinet Committee on Security on May 11.
The team operated at night to avoid the US spy satellites and drilled a tunnel only when these satellites turned the other way. They wore army uniforms to disguise themselves and bomb shafts were dug under camouflage. The nuclear devices were also flown from different parts of the country to avoid suspicion.
On May 11, 1998, at around 3:45 PM, India tested three devices – thermonuclear device (Shakti I), the fission device (Shakti II), and a sub-kiloton device (Shakti III).
Measurements have confirmed that there was no release of radioactivity into the atmosphere. These were contained explosions like in the experiment conducted in May 1974
On May 13, India detonated two more sub-kiloton devices – Shakti IV and V.
The tests were conducted so efficiently that the US found out about them only from CNN. The Clinton Administration was left furious. It condemned the tests and said it was “deeply disappointed” and subsequently slapped sanctions against India. Britain conveyed its dismay and Germany called it “a slap in the face” for the countries that ratified CTBT and the then-UN secretary general Kofi Annan issued a statement expressing his “deep regret”.
The US imposed economic sanctions, while some European nations and Japan halted aid. Pakistan responded with its own atomic blasts two weeks later, ignoring appeals from world leaders to show restraint.
Vajpayee wrote a letter to Clinton and without mentioning China said, “We have an overt nuclear weapon state on our borders, a state which committed armed aggression against India in 1962. Although our relations with that country have improved in the last decade or so, an atmosphere of distrust persists mainly due to the unresolved border problem.”
The nuclear tests in 1998 were a watershed moment in India’s history. They served as an early but resounding reminder of India’s status as a rising power. But the nuclear tests also set India and Pakistan on a new and escalatory collision course that they remain on today.