50 years of Pokhran-I: Why India conducted its first nuclear tests

GS Paper II (Governance, Constitution, Social Justice and International Relations):

Security issues and challenges: India’s nuclear doctrine (No First Use) and its role in strategic stability.

India’s relations with its neighbors: Impact of Pokhran tests on India’s relations with Pakistan and other major powers.

GS Paper III (Science and Technology):

India’s achievements in science and technology in the fields of space, nuclear energy, etc.: Development of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.

On this day in 1974, India conducted its landmark first nuclear tests in Pokhran, Rajasthan, as part of the ‘Smiling Buddha’ operation.

Until it actually happened, secrecy surrounded the event, as many major world powers at the time attempted to restrict the proliferation of states with nuclear weapons.

Then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi termed the event a “peaceful nuclear explosion”, perhaps to assuage the rest of the world and particularly the members of the United Nations Security Council’s permanent five (or P-5) members: the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China and Russia.

Background to India conducting Nuclear Tests

The US and the USSR continued engaging in proxy wars in other countries, for ideological and economic superiority, in what was dubbed the Cold War.

To maintain a kind of minimal peace, Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) was signed in 1968.

Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty

Nuclear-weapon States parties under the NPT are defined as those that manufactured and exploded a nuclear weapon or other nuclear explosive devices before January 1, 1967, effectively meaning the P-5 countries.

Firstly, its signatories agreed not to transfer either nuclear weapons or nuclear weapons technology to any other state. Second, the non-nuclear states agreed that they would not receive, develop or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons.

All of the signatories agreed to submit to the safeguards against proliferation established by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Parties to the treaty also agreed to help end the nuclear arms race and limit the spread of the technology.

Why did India choose to conduct nuclear tests?

India objected to this treaty on the grounds that it was discriminatory to countries except the P-5.

The government of India refused to accede to the terms of the treaty because it failed to address India’s misgivings, specifically, the fact that non-nuclear states’ pledge to not develop such weapons was not linked to any such definite obligation on part of the states already possessing nuclear weapons.

A change of leadership in the 1960s (with the death of PM Nehru and his successor Morarji Desai), a war with China in 1962 that India lost, and wars with Pakistan in 1965 and 1971, both won by India, changed the direction of India’s plans. China also conducted its nuclear tests in 1964.

How did Pokhran-I happen?

Unlike Nehru, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi did not hold a negative view of nuclear tests. But given the treaties that the P-5 had in place, India decided to conduct its tests without any prior information being released to the world.

A nuclear device was detonated, with a yield of 12-13 kiloton of TNT, on May 18, 1974. Pokhran, an army test range located in the desert of western Rajasthan, was chosen.

A team of around 75 researchers and scientists were involved. Its code name came from the test’s date being on the same day as Buddha Jayanti, the birth date of Gautam Buddha.

Aftermath of the Test

India demonstrated to the world that it could defend itself in an extreme situation and chose not to immediately weaponise the nuclear device it tested at Pokhran. This was to happen only after 1998’s Pokhran-II tests.

In 1978, US President Jimmy Carter signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act, following which the US ceased exporting nuclear assistance to India.

However,on July 18, 2005, when US President George W Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh first announced their intention to enter into a nuclear agreement in Washington.

The US also pushed for setting up a club of nuclear equipment and fissile material suppliers. The 48-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) would go on to implement agreed rules for exporting nuclear equipment, with a view to controlling the spread of nuclear weapons and where members would be admitted only by consensus.

India has been trying, since 2008, to join the group, which would give it a place at the high table where the rules of nuclear commerce are decided — and, eventually, the ability to sell equipment.

Many countries that initially opposed its entry, like Australia, have changed stance; Mexico and Switzerland are the latest to voice support. India’s effort has been to chip away at the resistance, leaving only one holdout — China.

This was one reason as to why India did not immediately go for the next step, that of the testing a nuclear bomb, doing so only in 1998.

Then too, the international reaction was critical, but over the years India has projected itself as a “responsible” owner of these weapons, allowing acceptance among countries and into groups like the NSG

Nuclear Suppliers Group(NSG)

Goal: Prevent the spread of nuclear weapons (nuclear proliferation) by controlling trade in related materials, equipment, and technology.

Founded: 1974 by countries concerned after India’s nuclear test.

Membership: 48 countries including major nuclear suppliers.

Mechanism: Guidelines (not a treaty) for member states to follow when authorizing nuclear exports.

Focus: Ensuring peaceful nuclear trade doesn’t contribute to weapons development.


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