India's Nuclear History: A Reading List

The 2017 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), an international advocacy group that helped bring about the landmark 2017 United Nations nuclear weapons ban treaty.

In a recent EPW article [out of paywall], ND Jayaprakash writes: 

“While congratulating ICAN for the recognition it has achieved for its efforts, it may be underlined that unless adequate steps are taken to plug the loopholes in the propounded ‘Prohibition’ Treaty on the lines of the suggestions made above, the task of prohibition/abolition of nuclear weapons would remain an unfulfilled dream.”

In an older article, he says that one of the biggest failures of the United Nations since its founding has been its inability to halt the nuclear arms race and take any significant step towards elimination of nuclear weapons. On the contrary, the UN—wittingly or unwittingly—became a victim of a series of con games played by the nuclear weapon states. On the face of it, the latest attempt of the UN to adopt a so-called Convention on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons appears to be no different. India’s decision to stay away from the proceedings is shocking since it has historically supported the cause of disarmament. 

Read a compilation of articles tracing India's position on nuclear power from the 1970s until the 2000s. 

 

 

 

1) In 1978, R Rama Rao wrote that the inadequacies and one sidedness of the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty had been recognised by the nuclear "haves", the nuclear aspirants and the nuclear "have nots". He claimed that unilateral renunciation of the nuclear option would mean acceptance of a position of permanent inferiority for the country in the comity of the nations. It would also affect the country's economic and technological growth, which in turn would further underscore the country's inferior status. Even as a bargaining tactic, the retention of the nuclear option has to be the only course open to the country. ”

2) In 1998, Achin Vanaik and Praful Bidwai wrote about how the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was the first ever nuclear arms-related treaty to be genuinely multilaterally negotiated. Had India signed the CTBT in 1996, Pokharan II and very likely the Pakistan tests would not have happened. They argued that for those Indians seriously committed to promoting global nuclear restraint and disarmament, who also oppose Indian nuclearisation, testing and weaponisation, the struggle must obviously take place at home, as well as against external culprits. 

 

 

3) Writing in 2004, Itty Abraham attempted to situate India’s nuclear history within a global nuclear history. India tested a "peaceful nuclear explosion" (PNE) in 1974. The PNE was officially termed a "demonstration", a word that recurs in Indian technological history. Once India had tested, based on the experience of every other country that had conducted a nuclear test since 1945, it could be considered a nuclear power. But was it? India "did nothing" for the next 24 years, or, in other words, didn’t test again or overtly weaponise until 1998. This "expected absence" came to be called a state of nuclear "ambiguity".

Volumes have been written about the 1998 tests, seeking above all to explain why India did what it did, when it did. To many, the still unresolved question is why, following the 1974 PNE, India did "nothing" until 1998, when it set off five more explosions and announced itself a nuclear power. But of course India didn’t "do nothing" for 24 years: under five different prime ministers a very high level and public debate went on for a generation about the larger purpose of the country’s nuclear programme, the costs of nuclear power versus other sources of energy, the threat to the world from nuclear weapons, the likelihood of global and limited disarmament, the significance and implications of the Non-Proliferation and Comprehensive Test Ban treaties, and, finally, whether or not to build a nuclear weapons arsenal.16 In 1998, the newly elected government, operating in great secrecy, and, as in 1974, ahead of a political consensus that this was necessary for India’s security, decided India should "go" nuclear.

 

 

4) In 1996, Vikram Raghavan wrote that a national consensus had emerged that the Indian stance should be one that strongly militates against any discrimination by allowing some nations to possess weapons and denying others the opportunity to do so and if this is not possible then India must not be a party to the CTBT. He stated at the time that, India had repeatedly urged that the only way out is rapid progress toward complete nuclear disarmament and elimination of nuclear weapons, which will resolve the thorny question of nuclear proliferation, by requiring all nations without distinction to head towards removing their nuclear capability. 

 

 

5) When the government of India discarded the policy of ‘nuclear ambiguity’ through a series of nuclear weapons tests in May 1998, the Indian public was compelled to give up the convenient position of taking the moral high ground without bothering about the country’s own nuclear capability. This 1999 paper by Gautam Navlakha suggested that the government of India should endeavour to bring nuclear disarmament back on the international agenda instead of going in for a nuclear weapons build-up. According to him nuclear restraint should be imposed  not by external pressure but by Indian public opinion. 

 

 

6) This 2002 paper by M V Ramana, R Rajaraman, and Zia Mian examines some of operational requirements and the dangers that come with the possibility that in the foreseeable future India and Pakistan may deploy their nuclear arsenals. The authors first describe the analytical basis for the inevitability of accidents in complex high-technology systems. Then they turn to potential failures of nuclear command and control and early warning systems as examples. They go on to discuss the possibility and consequences of accidental explosions involving nuclear weapons and their delivery systems. Finally some measures to reduce these risks are suggested.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Must Read

More importance should be given to recovering the stories of marginalised people who were involved in the struggle for independence.  
In India, the debates around prison reforms and rights of prisoners have been very limited. Through our three-part series we seek to initiate a debate towards prisoners’ civil and political rights....
Tagore's brand of nationalism is fundamentally rooted in the question of what it means to be human.
Back to Top