Pokhran-II and its fallout

Print edition : July 04, 1998

India has lost out heavily as a consequence of the BJP-led Government's misadventure; and in any case neither India nor Pakistan has, or can afford, what real nuclear weaponisation takes.

WHEN the country went to the polls in end-February 1998, a relatively peaceful security environment seemed to be emerging, with what had come to be known as the Gurjal doctrine. The economic scene was looking up and the rate of inflation had came down to an all-time low of about 4.5 per cent. To the credit of the Indian people, the elections ended relatively peacefully, but unfortunately no single political party emerged winner with a clear majority. The pot-pourri of yet another coalition of nearly 17 parties led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) formed the Government on March 19, 1998. There was still talk of the Cabinet being expanded when - on the afternoon of May 11, 'Buddha Purnima' day - the Government announced that it had exploded three nuclear devices in the now well-known test site of Pokhran in the Rann of Kutch. This was followed by two more sub-kiloton blasts on May 13. Despite the fact that the BJP-led coalition had mentioned the acquiring of the bomb in the National Agenda for Governance, no one had really believed that it would push this one single item with the indecent haste that it did.

The reason given for the timing of the test, national security needs, did not fool anyone. During the debate in the Lok Sabha, former Primer Minister I. K. Gujral categorically stated that there was absolutely no such perceived threats to national security at the time he vacated office as Prime Minister. During a television interview, he went on to say that this particular file proposing the tests had been in front of him for over two months and that his Government had decided against them. From this it appears that the scientists, among others, were the ones who were pushing for these tests. I believe that the symbiotic relationship between the BJP Government and the hungering nuclear scientists resulted in this tragedy.

How could a Government in less than three weeks in office make a total strategic defence review, take a decision of such significance and give the scientists the go-ahead on April 10. (This date was made public by Dr. R. Chidambaram, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, and A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, Scientific Advisor to the Defence Minister, during the their national TV appearance after the tests.)

I do not believe that any in-depth analysis was done to assess the likely fallout of this decision (except perhaps to forecast the predictable euphoria and josh that some countrymen may display immediately after the explosions). Just a few days before these tests, we had General Fu Quanyou, Chief of General Staff of the Chinese People's Liberation Army, as the guest of our Chief of the Army Staff in India. If our relations with the Chinese were so bad at the time, or the perceived national interest so threatened, such a visit would not have happened. Defence Minister George Fernandas was reported to have made certain statements about the Chinese just before these tests and people tried to link this as a planned manoeuvre. George Fernandes has denied these allegations and I for one am prepared to believe him because he became au fait with these tests barely 36 hours before the event.

What does all this show except that the decision was based purely on political expediency to shut out the so-called rabble-rousing in the ranks of the allies of the coalition, and to earn political mileage in any future elections? The nuclear edge over Pakistan, albeit very short-lived, was used rather clumsily by some senior Cabinet ministers to threaten Pakistan! One thing led to the other and events moved inexorably to the inevitable, when on May 28, the Chagai hills in Baluchistan burst into a whitish glow by the tremendous heat and gamma radiation of the Pakistani tests. The leadership on each side had outdone the other in its display of machismo and madness.

Nuclear weaponisation and its implications

The knowledge and the use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes has been the only nuclear strategy known, pronounced and practised by India since. Independence. Even Pokhran-I of 1974 was declared a Peaceful Nuclear Experiment (PNE). Despite tremendous pressure from the United States and others, India stood firm and did not sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). The last Parliament gave unanimous support to the Gujral Government for this stand. And for this, we were held in high esteem by many nations, especially in the Third World. There was regard and admiration for India for not weaponising despite its capability to do so. Morally we were on very strong ground and in a good position to continue to battle and get the nuclear haves to give up their nuclear arsenals.

Alas, all that went up in nuclear smoke and radiation on May 11. Thereafter we proceeded promptly to declare ourselves a nuclear weapon state. Calling oneself a nuclear weapon power without a nuclear doctrine or nuclear strategy is like an old saying in Tamil: Korangu kaiyila poo malai. It is like "giving a garland of flowers to a monkey" and expecting the garland to remain intact.

The destructive force of nuclear weapons

There are still many living Hibakushas. Recently we had Yasuhiko Taketa, a Hiroshima survivor, in India and Pakistan explaining the horrific effects of nuclear weapons (see separate story). The team from Japan also brought with it a mobile exhibition of photographs which made the point more forcefully. Some cold facts may not be out to place here. A one megaton explosion is all that is required to wipe out the largest city in the world. From the point of impact, or Ground Zero, to a radius of 18 kilometres, fatalities will be almost total. The potential burn-out areas could be as large as 1,000 square kilometres. Casualties from indirect effects such as radioactive fallout could occur over an area extending to 2,000 sq km downwind of the blast. I have visited Hiroshima and seen the way the Japanese have take pains to record and highlight the horrendous effects of a nuclear bomb. It was a moving sight to see tears in the eyes of a large number of school children being taken around the museum and the standing exhibition there. The movie of the actual bombing run of 'Little Boy' is also screened at regular intervals.

Admiral L. Ramdas, former Chief of the Naval Staff.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

The risks we run

Clearly our scientist would have realised all this. To believe that the monster weapon will never be used is placing too much faith in an enemy's compassionate attitude. Can we honestly visualise an enemy who has his back to the wall voluntarily eschewing the use of a nuclear weapon if he has one? A piece of paper with any form of agreement on no first use will not have any meaning in such situations. Hence the scene in the subcontinent has become extremely dangerous and explosive. As of now, I do not believe that either Pakistan or India has the technological competence and set-up to avoid an accidental launch of nuclear weapons. The United States came very close to deploying the nuclear weapons on a number of occasions during the Cold War era and interestingly in areas and against countries with and without nuclear weapons.

For example, the will of the Vietnamese people literally broke the back of the mighty war machine of the United States, forcing it to consider seriously deploying nuclear weapons. Weaponisa-tion also means certain duties and responsibilities. Let us now look at these.

Nuclear weapon state - duties and responsibilities

Exploding a nuclear device is a relatively simple affair. What it takes to call oneself a nuclear weapon state is something more complex and costly. First and foremost, we need to have a Nuclear Doctrine and a Nuclear Strategy. We do not have any such thing at present. Nor has it been articulated by anyone in authority. This should address the following questions: Who are our potential adversaries? Are they regional players or are they global threats? What are our national interests which must be protected at any cost? What do we understand by the word sovereignty? Under what set of circumstances or scenarios do we proposed to deploy nuclear weapons - if at all? Will there be a no-first-use offer for all? If not, to whom will this apply? And so on.

Foremost in our nuclear strategy must be the task of safeguarding the lives of our own people, whilst not killing innocent civilians on the enemy side. Besides being unethical, unnecessary and unforgivable, it is bad strategy. So what then? Do we restrict our weapons only to tactical battle scenarios? Will our potential enemy confine himself to such self-imposed rules? Will this not lead to a predictable nuclear holocaust? The Americans did not care a damn, despite the pleas of numerous scientists and others about using this weapon against innocent civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We hear a lot these days about Japan being made to apologise for some of its war crimes. Has there been even a semblance of an apology by the United States for its barbarous action in Hiroshima and Nagasaki? So we need to look at this weaponisation role and eagerness to be counted as a nuclear weapon state in some depth and evolve a clear-cut Nuclear Strategy.

Command, control, communications & intellgence

To facilitate the efficient and deliberate deployment or/and to prevent any accidental deployment of nuclear weapons, we need to have an extremely efficient Command, Control, Communication and Intelligence system. A corollary to this is: in no way must the system permit the use of these weapons by mistake, or deliberately by a group or individual officer or commander, a pilot or a submariner to demonstrate the power at his command or for any ulterior political ambitions!

In Pakistan, more than in India, this is a real possibility since that country has a track record of military coups and counter-coups. The system in place must also spell out clearly who will be in the chain (remembering that there is always safety in numbers) to operate the Nuclear Trigger. By that is meant: who all know, and are authorised to actuate, the code assigned to the weapon concerned. Unless all the individuals in the loop perform this function, the weapon will not be actuated.

Realising this very possibility, the Americans designed Permissive Action Links (PAL) technologies to safeguard against the accidental or wanton deployment of nuclear weapons. These are special computer-based chip devices used as safety measures. Now that nuclear weapons are a reality in both India and Pakistan, it is imperative that both countries get the best available technologies from the advanced nuclear weapons states to avoid an accidental nuclear war. In addition to the PAL systems, we need a reliable and continuous 'hot line' between our two chief executives to keep the dialogue going and to avoid any nuclear exchange either by accident or design. Finally, to enable all this to happen before being evaporated or reduced to cinders, the entire command team needs to be located in hardened sites from where it can function even after taking the first strike. This automatically poses special communication problems, but these can be overcome. The bottom line: all this means more money for defence.


No one is just going to rely on what your adversary tells you. You would like to know yourself. This means establishing early warning systems through satellite reconnaissance, air borne early warning, preferably round the clock, interception with sophisticated electronic systems, agents, etc. All this has a price tag which can be estimated as something at least five times the cost of current systems. Weaponisation without proper intelligence systems is a highly dangerous business. There will also be a need to install foolproof IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) systems in all aircraft, ships and missiles. All these measures mean money and time. There is always the military instinct to have a slightly better system than your adversary's, which means more money. The action-reaction cycle is set in motion, which leads to an arms race.

Air defence and anti-missile/ missile systems

There is yet another special requirement which needs to be met. We need to have extremely sensitive radar systems to cover all the anticipated approach sectors from which we expect a threat to develop. This has to be integrated with the C3I systems to give real time information to facilitate decision-making. Some of this exists already, but needs to be augmented in the context of nuclear weapons. This means more costs. This system must be capable of releasing an anti-missile missile to knock out the incoming missile before it reaches its target. In the subcontinent, an incoming missile has a flight time of barely a few minutes. Therefore, this will be that much more difficult - almost impossible to destroy.

Civil defence measures

If the strategy is to safeguard our own people from a possible nuclear attack, we need to provide nuclear shelters in our likely prime target areas: Mumbai, New Delhi, and the other nuclear target zones. In most nuclear weapon countries the underground railway systems are a natural and readily available shelter option. In India excepting for some areas in Calcutta, we have no such system. We are all aware of the huge cost of underground railway systems today; just tunnelling will cost the nation a fortune.

From this discussion, we can see that there are many hidden costs to this weaponisation exercise, unless the strategy is one of benign neglect of our people's safety, in which case it will cost nothing under this head! Just let the people fend for themselves!

Civil defence training and protective clothing, etc. are areas which will require our attention. Even for natural disasters like an earthquake or a cyclone, the civil authorities are found wanting. We have had any number of other special disasters, like the infamous Union Carbide gas leak in Bhopal which killed many thousands and maimed or disfigured many others for life. What rescue systems or training did our people have? Nothing. That was merely unrestricted chemical warfare caused by negligence and callousness. Can we even comprehend the aftermath of a nuclear attack? While we wish to be counted because of our almost billion-sized population, we are the ones who show the least interest in human life. How else is it possible that we figure in the Human Development Index with a rank of 138 in a total of 175 countries listed in the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report of 1997? Even countries like Lesotho, Ghana, Namibia and Sri Lanka feature way above us. Our neighbour Pakistan is in hot pursuit at slot 139!

Awareness and training

We will have to train our armed forces for surviving and fighting through a nuclear fallout zone. In addition, we need to educate our people on all matters pertaining to nuclear attacks, the dangers, the hazards, the first aid, etc. We also need to supply specialised protective clothing to our armed forces to survive in this nuclear environment. All in all, an avoidable contingency. But it is now with us, so we need to address it.

India-Pakistan relations

Now that both India and Pakistan have reached a situation of nuclear belligerence with its catastrophic consequences, something needs to be done quickly to restore stability and cool down the rising temperatures. Recent utterances by the leadership on both sides of the border do not seem to help, nor indeed do the continued acts of violence by militants in Kashmir.

The only solution appears to be to raise people's voices on both sides of the border to pressure the leadership to arrest this action/reaction syndrome at once. While an accidental or a miscalculated launch is an awesome possibility, both India and Pakistan must pledge themselves to deal with all their problems only through a dialogue. Threats or attempts at oneupmanship will prove disastrous for both countries. We have to behave in a mature fashion lest we vindicate the nuclear haves theory of irresponsible behaviour by the 'Natives'!

Both India and Pakistan must therefore implement the following measures:

(a) Cap all their present nuclear programmes and join hands to put pressure on the nuclear haves to run down their arsenals and finally eradicate nuclear weapons completely, in accordance with an agreed time table.

(b) Initiate Confidence Building Measures (CBMs).

(c) Solemnly affirm not to use force directly or by proxy through militants and aliens to settle issues.

(d) Stop making provocative statements against each other.

(e) Demonstrate a fresh approach in settling the Kashmir issue.

(f) Get started with bilateral talks at the earliest. Let us talk to - not at - each other.

India-China relations

The painstaking and carefully established friendly relationship with China since 1988 has received a serious setback, thanks to the nuclear blasts and avoidable utterances by our Defence Minister. Needless to say, this has attracted a fairly strong retort from the Chinese.

We have had no incidents on that flank for a very long time and it is indeed a great pity that we have to start all over again the exercise of confidence building. Having dropped the brick, we now need to pick it up quickly. There is an urgent need to reassure the Chinese that we intend nothing but peaceful and friendly relations in accordance with the well established principles of peaceful co-existence or 'Panch Sheel'. India can ill afford a two-flank conflagration.

We should also explore the possibilities of setting up an India-China-Pakistan security arrangement as a long-term 'safety net' and confidence building measure.


The present BJP-led Government may have thought it had it all sewn up when it decided to go nuclear. It hoped to gain political and other mileage from this exercise, but that was not to be. Politically and internationally, we have lost out. From a towering presence based on our moral standing, we have crashed to join the murderers, hypocrites and warmongers - namely the 'nuclear haves'. In addition, the relative status and power, however notional, enjoyed by India vis-a-vis Pakistan before May 11, has been totally neutralised. We have again unwittingly gone down a slippery slope. In the domestic scene, the BJP has not done that well in the recent by-elections. The Government has rolled back its swadeshi stand to appease foreign investment lobbies. In the international arena, we have agreed to join the fissile materials cutoff talks. We will no doubt ride the impact of economic sanctions but it will be at some cost and considerable compromise in various socio-economic programmes, and other international dealings. Our economy will have to face many more hurdles.

As usual, the area affected will be the social sector. We have the largest number of illiterates in the world - not to mention almost 500 million people living below the poverty line. We have heard the usual cliches like Health for All by year 2000, Food for All, Education for All, Drinking Water for All etc., etc. On the whole, we look quite silly wanting to be counted as the world's Number Six, when in all other areas of human development we almost bring up the rear!

Real power and strength will come only when we can give all our people their basic needs like food, drinking water, health, education, clothing and housing. Two square meals a day in the stomach of one billion people is far more potent than any number of nuclear weapons. The collapse of the former Soviet Union despite its vast nuclear arsenal is testimony to the impotence of nuclear power without economic strength. We should learn the right lessons from this experience. The need of the hour is to restructure the national agenda to meet this new challenge. Hopefully, saner counsels will prevail in the subcontinent during the crucial period ahead.

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