Libmonster ID: IN-1281
Author(s) of the publication: By RAJ CHENGAPPA (INDIA)

In May 1998, India, which refused to sign the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, carried out a series of underground nuclear explosions and de facto became a member of the States possessing this type of weapons of mass destruction. Pakistan responded with an almost identical series of tests.

These developments took the rest of the world by surprise. The entire nonproliferation regime seemed to be collapsing. Washington has imposed economic sanctions on both countries. However, after the terrorist attack on the United States on September 11, 2001, the sanctions were lifted. The rest, the so-called threshold countries, were in no hurry to follow the example of India and Pakistan.

In India itself, the overwhelming majority of the population supported the country's entry into the nuclear club. Although the nuclear option has shattered almost all of India's founding principles as a State, it reflects India's increased economic and political weight on the world stage and its desire to take its rightful place among the Powers with global interests.

Amazingly, India managed to mislead one of the most powerful intelligence agencies in the world - the American CIA-while preparing for the tests. How did this become possible?

An attempt to open the veil of secrecy that shrouded everything related to India's atomic weapons, as well as to penetrate the thoughts, feelings and opinions of those involved in the bomb-making process, was made by Indian journalist Raj Chengappa in his book "Weapons of the World. The secret history of India's path to becoming a Nuclear Power " 1 . The book is the first comprehensive study on this topic.

With the kind consent of the author, the magazine offers excerpts from it to its readers.

Before this book was published, many who heard its title "Weapons of Peace" asked: "Are you for the bomb?" This question should be answered by the book itself.

In the summer of 1994, while writing an article about the creator of Indian military rockets, A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, I asked him: "You, more than anyone else, had the unique choice of building peaceful rockets in the space department or making weapons of war for defense. Why did you choose a weapon when you knew it could cause so much destruction and bloodshed?"

Kalam replied: "I didn't have any doubts. By creating such weapons, I actually ensure peace for my country. Now, no state will dare to attack us. It is truly a weapon of peace."

The paradoxical phrase "weapons of peace" struck me.

I was trying to understand why a State born on the principle of nonviolence decided to create such a terrifying weapon of mass destruction. India's nuclear drama was played out under an ultra-thick cloak of secrecy. Those who were involved in the bomb-making process, whether politicians, scientists, military officers, or government officials, swore under oath not to divulge the truth.

I soon discovered the enormous difficulties involved in solving the mystery. For the nuclear issue has shaken almost everything that is fundamental to India as a State. After all, the creation of a bomb has not only a scientific and technical, but also a military dimension, and more importantly-a political, ideological and even economic background.

Much of India's true nuclear history was not recorded on paper, and I was forced to rely more on extensive personal conversations. By the end, I had about two hundred conversations with key people involved in the bomb-making process, including former prime ministers, presidents, ministers, generals, government secretaries, diplomats, strategists, and a host of scientists.

For too long, the nuclear issue has remained the domain of a narrow circle of strategic experts. After the 1998 trials, there was an urgent need for all Indians to be included in the "must know" category. There is a saying that war is too important to be left to the generals. The decision to use an atomic bomb with terrible consequences should also not be left to a few leaders, no matter how competent they may be.

This book aims to provide a wealth of information that will help Indian citizens decide what to do with their lives.-

page 47

is the development of such weapons the best way to eliminate conflict between States and bring peace to the world?


For a chatty nation, the nuclear weapons program is the only secret India keeps surprisingly well. Full access to information about this program has always been restricted to a select group.

Only the Prime Minister is authorized to push the "nuclear button". Until the mid-1990s, every new head of government, except for oral explanations from one of the few initiates, received a handwritten note containing simple instructions on how and to whom the order should be given if India had to do the unthinkable.

Since then, the country has moved to a more reliable and secure system of placing the "nuclear button" in a tiny suitcase that follows the Prime Minister everywhere. To protect against any unauthorized use, the briefcase is equipped with a series of security locks. They include a set of thumbprint, image and voice identification devices, not to mention the secret electronic codes that are necessary to activate the trigger mechanism.

The Prime Minister also ensures that strict secrecy rules are followed by all who have access to it. It classifies those involved in the nuclear decision-making chain into four categories: : "must know", "need to know", "may know", "no need to know". And it decides who should know what and to what extent about the nuclear program. Then they are instructed only to the extent necessary to complete the task assigned to them, warning them not to disclose the information received.

The veil of secrecy is both a blessing and a curse.

Fortunately, on the morning of May 11, 1998, when Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was waiting for the results of the Pokharan nuclear test site, secrecy paid off. The world and much of India were caught off guard. A curse, because when deciding on the most important issue affecting the state security of the world's largest democratic country with a population of billions, you had to rely on a handful of people who determine its fate. Without knowing whether they are acting in the national interest. That leaves a frightening gap.


Those gathered at Prime Minister Vajpayee's house on the morning of May 11, 1998, rarely saw the Chief Secretary to the Head of Government, Brajesh Mishra, so tense. Mishra paced restlessly around the room, and whenever the phone rang, as it did at 11 o'clock in the morning, he would rush to pick it up. This time Mishra, after listening to the caller for a minute, barked out a few instructions. Then he turned to Vajpayee, who was sitting next to him on the sofa, and with a note of disappointment that changed his usually dry tone, said to the Prime Minister, " Sir, we have just received news from Pokharan. There is expected to be a slight delay due to weather conditions."

Vajpayee listened stoically to his chief secretary. The Prime Minister's angelic demeanor resembles that of a graciously smiling Buddha. One of India's most experienced politicians, the seventy-two-year-old Vajpayee had seen a lot and little could shake his granite calm. In a few hours, a fateful decision made a month ago will lead to a climactic flash. It would put his country on a dangerous path of confrontation with the rest of the world. But the prime minister had put an end to all hesitation, and now not a shadow of doubt was reflected on his thick eyebrows.

Just that morning, Vajpayee moved to 5 Race Road, the heavily fortified official residence of the Prime Minister. He was elected to the post of prime minister almost a month and a half ago, on March 19, but gave his predecessor time to slowly leave the residence.

Caught off-guard by the Prime Minister's decision to move into the residence, the Defence Research and Development Organization (R & D) "the hub agency responsible for conducting nuclear tests," she panicked. A day earlier, its engineers had worked furiously to install secure wiretap phones in his new home. His apple-green phones allowed him to be in direct contact with leading scientists in the field of atomic energy and defense, who were stationed at the Pokharan test site in the desert of Rajasthan, a good nine hundred kilometers from Delhi. Keeping in touch with the scientists on site was vital.

* * *

Some of the members of the Pokharan bomb team still remember the difficulties they encountered in trying to inform Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of the results of India's first nuclear explosion on May 18, 1974. According to the blunt and sarcastic Homi Sethna, who was then chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), even now only a select few fully know what it was like.

Apparently, after the test, a sweating Sethna, covered in a layer of dust, wearily approached a specially prepared field phone provided by the Indian Army, which connected him to the Prime Minister's office in Delhi. After several attempts, Sethna finally got through to P. N. Dhar, who was then the chief secret officer-

page 48

Rem Gandhi, and said: "Mr. Dhar, it's all gone..."

Before he could finish, Sethna thought: "The end! The phone line went dead. Dhar must have thought the trials were over!"

Then Sethna, along with the regimental commander, Lieutenant Colonel P. P. Subherval, rushed headlong to the village next to Pokharan, where the army telephone switchboard was located. To his horror, Sethna discovered that he had forgotten Dhar's direct phone number.

Subherval came to his rescue and ordered the telephone operator in a stern, official voice,"Give me the Prime Minister's office." Without moving, the operator asked him in rough Hindi, " Who are you?"

A few strong words followed, and finally Sethna got through. The connection was terrible. He had to shout into the phone so Dhar could hear him. Legend has it that he shouted the famous code words: "Buddha smiles."

In fact, these words were never code words. In fact, today none of the key members of the team that worked on creating the first bomb wants to take over the authorship of this phrase.

Raja Ramanna, considered by many to be the" father "of the Indian bomb, says:" Sethna told me that it was a code received from Dhar." Ramanna, then head of the Bhabha Atomic Research Center (AICC), took offense, considering it an insult to the Buddha's name.

Sethna disagrees with Ramann, and they have always rarely agreed with each other, thinking that the code words, if they were actually used, were appropriate. He playfully explains that when the Buddha smiles, it means that there is peace and universal prosperity on earth. Sethna, however, denies that he ever used the phrase to send a message to Delhi, and believes Dhar came up with the code after the nuclear tests.

Sethna says that he said only one thing to Dhar over the crackling phone that morning: "Sir, everything went OK. It is expected that the power of the explosion exceeded ten kilotons. There was no release to the atmosphere."

To be heard, he had to shout so loudly that Ramanna jokes, " He must have woken up the Buddha himself in heaven."

The gentle-mannered Dhar doesn't even now dare tell Sethna that his heroic efforts were in vain. A good ten minutes before Sethna's call, Dhar heard the landmark news from General G. G. Bivur, then Chief of Army Staff, who was present at the test site. When Bivour reached him from the army switchboard, Dhar asked him, " How are you?"

Bivour replied: "Sir, there is good news."

Dhar realized that the explosion had been successful.

Phones in India are often in poor condition, so Dhar was not embarrassed when the connection with Sethna was cut off. He recalled that on December 3, 1971, when fighting broke out between India and Pakistan, leading to the Bangladesh War, he spent 90 minutes notifying Gandhi, who was in Calcutta, because most of the phones were out of order. So 24 years later, in May 1998, the bomb-making team was doubly careful to establish two lines of communication between Delhi and Pokharan just in case. However, as in 1974, the code name will be coined later. "Operation Shakti" 2-a series of nuclear tests in 1998 called many hours after the explosions in the desert. In fact, there was no need to speak code language over secure communication lines. Mishra instructed the scientists to "speak plainly."

Conducting tests on the Buddha's birthday, which is a national holiday, was also not associated with an inappropriate display of a sense of history. The tests had to be postponed until Indian President K. R. Narayanan returned on May 10 from an official tour of Latin America. Vajpayee did not want Narayanan to face harsh criticism while abroad.

...On the evening before the test, Vajpayee arrived at the Presidential Palace and met Narayanan in his spacious, airy office. From where Vajpayee sat, informing the president of his decision, he could see the figure of a reclining Buddha sitting gracefully on a side table. And behind the president, a statue of the Mahatma stared back at them both, unperturbed. The wide windows offered a magnificent view of the Mughal gardens that adorn the presidential palace grounds , and the red-hot evening sun was disappearing below the horizon. When darkness fell, none of them paid attention to the symbolism of the" scenery " of the stage.

After meeting with the president, Vajpayee told Mishra to tell the scientists to continue testing. That evening, Mishra called A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, Head of R & D, in Pokharan and delivered the message.

Kalam said, " Sir, do you know that it is now the Buddha Purnima (full moon on the Buddha's birthday)?"

Mishra was surprised,"Really?"

None of them noticed the irony of this coincidence.

* * *

At 3 p.m. the next day, Abdul Kalam called to inform Mishra that the uninvited winds over the test site were abating. And the tests could be done within the next hour.

page 49

The bearded Shakti Sinha, the Prime Minister's private secretary, was surprised that the wind could delay everything for so long. He didn't understand why the scientists were so worried if the device was buried deep underground.

But scientists were concerned not only about the speed of the winds, but also their direction. They were blowing west, and if the tests failed and harmful radioactive nuclear particles fell out, they would be carried to neighboring Pakistan. India simply couldn't afford the risk. Scientists who had scheduled the explosions for 9 a.m. had to wait, and meanwhile the desert was getting hotter hour by hour. They went without lunch, just tea and cookies in the control center.

Vajpayee calmly received the latest news from Pokharan. He looked at his four ministers-Interior Minister L. K. Advani, Defense Minister George Fernandez, Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha, and Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission Jaswant Singh. They were all sitting quietly in the chairs around the Prime Minister's dining table.

Vajpayee is a man of few words in a small company. His friend N. M. Ghateit, a lawyer, says the Prime Minister has traveled with him many times without speaking for several hours. But give the Prime Minister a large audience and he will charm you with his eloquence. There was no need for words this time. The ministers understood the gravity of the situation.

From Jaswant Singh, an army major turned politician who looks solemn even when he smiles, Vajpayee expects insightful advice. Just before Vajpayee was sworn in as Prime Minister of India on March 19, 1998, Singh told him: "Atalji, Andre Malraux once said: "True desire means trying to grasp the rainbow at both ends at once." I think you will have to catch the flavor of India's past to change the future of our nation."

The erudite Singh then read the premiere an excerpt from the Bhagavat Gita, one of India's greatest epic poems, in which the God Krishna rebuked Arjuna on the battlefield with the words: "You have lost your smriti (national memory)." He told Vajpayee, " India wants you to help restore its smriti."

Singh meant that India has lost the memory of its greatness, and now Vajpayee has the honor to lead the nation back on the path of glory. Singh felt that Vajpayee knew how to do it, but because of the government's fragile majority in parliament, he wasn't sure if he had "what it takes to see it through." But he didn't tell Vajpayee.

Vajpayee's decision to conduct nuclear tests so quickly after taking office took his opponents by surprise. For them, the new Prime Minister was always a model of contrasts, a disconcerting combination of hard and soft beginnings. Vajpayee was always seen as the" velvet glove "that covered the iron fist of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The prime minister's gentleness comes mainly from a love of art, especially poetry. His poems really reflect the rare tenderness of the heart for a politician. They reveal Vajpayee's personal views on contemporary issues better than many of his official statements.

After a visit to Hiroshima in 1982, he wrote a poem strongly condemning nuclear weapons. But years later, as Prime Minister, in a moment of candor, he told Sudhindra Kulkarni, his chief of staff, "Hiroshima has convinced me that the world respects only the strong and does not tolerate the weak." Vajpayee became convinced that the only way to prevent another Hiroshima was for the entire world to give up its nuclear weapons. But if others do not show such a desire, India should join the "nuclear club".

On another occasion, Vajpayee wrote a moving poem calling for peace between Pakistan and India, which said:

Whether we are friends or
at war, 
The same blood flows. 
What has befallen us 
must not happen
to our children.

However, after the 1998 test, many felt that Vajpayee had pushed the region closer to the brink of a potentially devastating nuclear conflict. Four months after the nuclear explosions, Vajpayee said at a ceremony marking the release of a cassette of his poems:: "You can see a contradiction in the fact that a person who writes about the world detonated nuclear bombs. But while there may have been some hesitation, I can assure you that there were no internal contradictions."

When Pakistan responded with six nuclear tests two weeks after the 1998 Indian bombings, Vajpayee was convinced that tensions between the two countries would ease. He told an aide, " Now that we've demonstrated that we both have nuclear weapons, we can't afford to go to war. We will become closer to each other, and this will open the way for cooperation."

As it turned out, Vajpayee was both right and wrong.

A year later, on February 20, 1999, Vajpayee made history by taking a bus to Lahore, Pakistan, to meet with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to find ways to ease tensions between the two countries.

page 50

reduce the likelihood of a nuclear conflict. It seemed like a major breakthrough had been made. But a few months later, Pakistan's credibility was undermined when, in May of that year, its army made a determined attempt to occupy key heights in the Kargil area on the Indian side of the Line of Control 4 .

One of the reasons that India chose not to expand the conflict and limited itself to the Kargil area was the fear that an escalation of the war could lead to a nuclear conflict. Pakistan rattled its nuclear weapons, and India secretly kept its weapons on high alert. But it was obvious that neither side wanted an all-out war. Pakistan backed down when its troops were driven back by the Indian army after six weeks of bloody conflict.

However, the danger of another war, perhaps even worse than the Kargil confrontation, has not abated. It intensified after the Pakistani military regained power, when Sharif was ousted in a bloodless coup on October 12, 1999, by the army's chief of Staff, General Pervez Musharraf. India can never be sure of anything in its relations with Pakistan.

* * *

On that May day in 1998, Vajpayee looked at his Defense Minister, George Fernandez, and thought that his gray hair still curled wildly, emphasizing his boyish charm. Vajpayee had known Fernandez since 1969, when he was a fiery socialist leader. Even then, Fernandez was a rebel who was never afraid to speak out.

In 1974, when Vajpayee supported a nuclear explosion, Fernandez, then the leader of a prominent railway workers ' union, denounced the test. A few days earlier, Fernandez had shut down most of the country's rail networks, demanding higher wages for workers. In an attempt to disrupt the strike, Indira Gandhi arrested him and placed him in Tihar Jail in Delhi. There, the day after the nuclear test, Fernandez penned a pamphlet in which he called the explosion "criminal" and sharply criticized Gandhi for trying to divert the country's attention from more pressing issues. He wrote: "Without the necessary economic infrastructure, all the talk about the bomb can become just a manifestation of excessive vanity."

Fernandez changed his position in 1996, when the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), designed to deter all States from testing nuclear weapons, was due to enter into force. He supported India's decision not to sign the treaty, even though half the population was still poor by any measure, saying: "When I discovered that the nuclear-weapon states were not inclined to give up their own capabilities while closing the door on us, I decided that we needed to have such weapons, too."

His critics saw it as another unprincipled 180-degree turn in Fernandez's chequered career.

A week before the 1998 trials, his conscience was once again hurt. This time, the mayor of Hiroshima, who gave him a painting depicting the 1945 atomic explosion that destroyed the city. By then, as head of the Samantha Party, Fernandez had become an important coalition partner in the BJP-led government. Fernandez, a Christian who in his youth even tried to enter a theological seminary, served as a perfect cover for the hard-line Hinduism of the BJP.

Vajpayee surprised Fernandez by offering him an influential post as the country's defense minister. He knew that Fernandez had taken his own line in dealing with other countries, supporting human rights defenders in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Tibet. Vajpayee saw him as a true patriot and was sure that he should remain in the ranks. However, the Prime Minister couldn't stop Fernandez from saying more than necessary. Even before the nuclear tests, Fernandez had angered China by publicly calling it " India's number one enemy."

Ironically, it was Fernandez who caused the fall of the Vajpayee government in April 1999, almost a year after the nuclear test. On the eve of 1999, Fernandez obtained the dismissal of the Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat, for ignoring the civilian authorities. This was the first dismissal of a serving Chief of Staff in the history of independent India. When one of Vajpayee's main allies, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party, called Bhagwat's dismissal unfair and joined with opposition parties on the issue, Vajpayee's fragile government collapsed. In Parliament, the Prime Minister lost only one vote of no confidence in the government.

Bhagwat accused Fernandez that even the Prime Minister could not entrust him with state secrets, while three days before the nuclear explosion, three chiefs of staff of the armed forces were invited by the Prime Minister and instructed about the upcoming tests. Bhagwat did not mention that, among other things, the meeting was held to assess the extent of the threat of a preemptive strike by the United States against India's nuclear facilities.

When that prospect was ruled out, the discussion turned to Pakistan and its likely response. According to Bhagwat, the Prime Minister's chief secretary, Brajesh Mishra, allegedly categorically ordered the three chiefs of staff: "Everything we discussed at the meeting is top secret. Don't even try to discuss these issues with your defense minister."

Mishra denies such an order: "I only said that the Prime Minister will instruct his cabinet ministers about the tests."

...Fernandez may have known that tests were about to take place. But it is doubtful that he knew when and what type of devices were tested earlier than the day before the tests, when he was instructed by Vajpayee. Home Minister Advani and Finance Minister Sinha were also briefed on the situation the day before.

Vajpayee did not ask for their approval. He simply told them to prepare their ministries to deal with any emergencies that might arise from the trials. Sinha was asked to prepare the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) and key financial institutions for possible sanctions. RBI governor Bimal Jalan even rushed to Delhi the night before, and at one of the meetings it was decided, in order not to create panic among investors, to firmly hold the rupee against the dollar, even if the US imposes economic sanctions.

Apart from Vajpayee, only three people knew the exact date of the test - Abdul Kalam of UNI & D, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission Rajagopala Chidambaram, and Brajesh Mishra. Abdul

page 51

Kalam and Rajagopala Chidambaram were deeply involved in the bomb-making process and were on Pokharan, and Mishra had direct access to nuclear affairs as the Prime Minister's chief Secretary.

..In 1974, Indira Gandhi failed to warn Defense Minister Jagjivan Ram about the upcoming tests. And when he was informed after the fact, he said a little irritably, " What's the point of telling me now? Now everyone knows."

Gandhi did not warn any of her cabinet ministers. Dhar recalls that the day before the ordeal, Gandhi remained calm and focused. Seeing that Dhar was more worried than she was, she joked: "You are rushing around like a husband before giving birth to his wife."

The next day, Gandhi did something uncharacteristic for her. Dhar rushed to her residence to inform her of the results. It was about eight-thirty in the morning, and she was holding a meeting with a crowd of customers. When Gandhi saw Dhar enter, she broke off the conversation and ran towards him.

"What happened?" "What is it?" she asked breathlessly.


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