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Thank god, India’s leaders didn’t fight over nuclear weapons like they are over A-SAT

The story of how India got its nuclear weapons must be retold now as it underlines the incredible bipartisanship demonstrated by 7 governments and prime ministers.

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An important anniversary in the history of India’s strategic development just passed us by. Almost exactly 40 years before Mission Shakti, the successful A-SAT missile test, India had taken an epochal decision: To weaponise its nuclear capability.

The story must be retold now as it underlines the incredible bipartisanship and maturity demonstrated by seven successive governments and prime ministers. Even as they fought each other bitterly, they took care to ring-fence the essential national interest.

If India ever decided to single out a date for marking some sort of an anniversary of its nuclear weaponisation, 18 March 1989 would be a pretty good choice, probably even more fitting than the two dates of May 1974 and 1998, when Pokhran I and II, respectively, were conducted.

Rajiv Gandhi was then in the last few months of his prime ministership. He had suffered enormous attrition from fighting both internal and external crises. But on national security and foreign policy, Rajiv had not lost focus in the least.

Some frantic searching of our nuclear basements and barsatis, whatever you call them, during the Exercise Brasstacks crisis (1986-87) had revealed that our deterrent was far from ready. The complacency that 1974 had created was dangerous.

Also, by early 1989, it became evident that Pakistan was either very close to a deliverable weapon or had one already. Americans were already talking of Pakistan being a mere “last turn of the screw” away from the bomb. Sure enough, 1989 was the last year the US administration gave Pakistan their annual certificate of nuclear virginity, even though they were desperate to save it from sanctions — the ‘good’ jihad in Afghanistan was galloping towards ‘victory’.

Also read: Mission Shakti cements India’s position at the ‘Space NPT’ high table

It was in this setting that the Indian Air Force (IAF) decided to hold a massive air power display at its firing ranges of Tilpat, on the south-eastern edge of Delhi. It seems Rajiv made up his mind in the course of that remarkable display by 129 aircraft, almost a third of the effective IAF order of battle then. He gestured to the then defence secretary, Naresh Chandra, to follow him into a tent, even shaking off a curious Rajesh Pilot.

It is nearly impossible to reconstruct an authentic account of that momentous hour. But from what I have been documenting from various participants, direct and indirect, in what was to become the most spectacular and successful secret operation — also the longest — in India’s history, Rajiv, even with his power fading, had decided that the time had come for India to give up the pretence of “peaceful nukes” and develop a full-fledged arsenal.

That he put Naresh Chandra in charge of it is a fact I have confirmed with several members of the nuclear “core” group, as also successive prime ministers, although most are still shy of sharing any more details of the remarkable operation that subsequently unfolded.

The core group mandated to develop the nuclear arsenal included V.S. Arunachalam, then the head of the Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO), and renowned nuclear scientists P.K. Iyengar, R. Chidambaram, and Anil Kakodkar.

The expertise came from nuclear scientist K. ‘Santy’ Santhanam, missile-man APJ Abdul Kalam of the DRDO, and Muthuswamy Balachandran of the Terminal Ballistic Research Lab, located now in Chandigarh, and some others.

I am not sure if the number ever added up to a dozen, but this was a tough gang to handle. These were highly talented, motivated and, in some cases, individualistic men, as scientists often tend to be. Rajiv probably chose Chandra to lead this group because he knew it would need an experienced, trustworthy and discreet civil servant to network the system and cut a few corners where needed.

A decision was taken to keep the whole operation totally secret, and ‘out of the system’. There will, therefore, not be a scrap of paper on this found either in the records of the PMO or the Cabinet. A novel, if irregular, way of providing funds for the programme was found, which, to date, remains one of India’s very well-kept secrets, even though many who made it possible are still active within the establishment.

As and when the scientists needed money, Chandra merely took a note directly to the finance secretary and the minister of the day, who signed it without asking questions.

The money was to come out of allocations provided in the annual union budgets under a nondescript ‘science and technology’ header to the Planning Commission. Of course, the financial adviser at Yojana Bhavan, as well as the prying auditors of the Comptroller & Auditor General (CAG), had been “advised” not to get curious about where this money was going.

The other side of this phenomenal operation was the acquisition, often from global markets, of materials required for the weapons as well as the missile programmes in spite of the sanctions.

Also read: Pokhran anniversary: Why Narasimha Rao decided not to conduct tests in 1995

It is still too early in our history for us to describe this in greater detail. But contemporary historians might ask what the brilliant, if mercurial, scientist ‘Santy’ Santhanam was doing on a desk at the Research & Analysis Wing (RAW) on a full-fledged tenure. Suffice it to say that you won’t have a scientist of his repute reading clips from Pakistani newspapers and writing analyses.

It is also important to mention one more vital fact. In the course of this entire operation, which lasted from 1989 to 1998, not one Indian scientist, diplomat, or spook was ever caught, or even reported, for any irregular nuclear trade.

These were years when Pakistani nuclear smugglers and thieves were leaving their fingerprints, footprints and calling cards all over the place. So it is only fair that I do not tell you any more details about this, because even journalists must accept the principle of keeping some facts time-barred.

Not only was no Indian ever caught, none even whispered or boasted about it subsequently. The late Naresh Chandra kept his own counsel despite being under a vicious attack by some who made the outrageous allegation that he was an American ‘mole’ in the ‘system’.

I had then, in 2006, written a series of three articles (The mole and the fox, Know what they did that summer, and How we built the bomb), including a version of this one.

Chandra called me to see him and gently remonstrated, “Arrey bhai, kaun bataata hai aap ko yeh sab. Jaane deejiye (Who tells you all this? Let it be)”. Some of this featured in my obituary (Keeper of India’s family silver) on his passing as well.

It was only in a Walk The Talk interview with me in 2015 that Dr Anil Kakodkar talked about travelling on these overseas missions incognito, with passports issued under assumed names. He also mentioned a hilarious mix-up, which could’ve blown the entire operation.

Travelling somewhere on one of these missions, Kakodkar was told he would be received by someone who identified the scientist as Mr Rao.

“So, this person, who was unknown to me, came to me and said, ‘Hello, Mr Rao’. And I said, I am not Rao, I am Kakodkar,” the scientist recalled with a laugh. However, that someone was part of the programme, Kakodkar said.

There are some other important points for this phase of broken politics. One, that this operation spanned the tenure of seven prime ministers between Rajiv and Atal Bihari Vajpayee. And not only did it remain intact, it acquired strength and momentum.

Not one word was ever leaked about it. Never. When H.D. Deve Gowda sent Naresh Chandra as ambassador to Washington, he decided that his own trusted Karnataka-cadre civil servant, Satish Chandran, would take over as the keeper of the family silver. And isn’t it remarkable that the family silver and the secrecy around it were both preserved through periods of political instability and short-tenure governments?

I can never forget a philosophical statement I.K. Gujral once made to me when he was Prime Minister. This was when India had decided to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention and, surprise of surprises, notified that it was destroying its chemical arsenal.

This, when not much earlier, India had signed an agreement with Pakistan solemnly implying it had no such arsenal. Gujral took some of us senior editors into confidence and shared with us the nuances of this decision. And then he said, “Isn’t it remarkable how our country has been able to keep its secrets?”

“You can understand great people like Nehru and the Gandhis doing so,” he went on, “but then so many ‘lallu panjus’, ordinary men like us, have been in these jobs lately, and yet nobody has found out what we did not want anybody finding out.”

That was the point of my 2006 series of articles. India’s march to Pokhran 1998 was long, complex and dangerous. It also involved hundreds of secret steps and actions. And even if one had been betrayed, the whole operation would have been compromised.

These operations range from this completely novel funding in a system littered with auditors, to repeated exercises with IAF Jaguars and then Mirage-2000s to test the bomb-devices and develop tactics.

From the nuclear core group to the pilots of these aircraft, scores of people shared this confidence. Nobody betrayed it. Or, Buddha would not have smiled a second time in May 1998. By talking loosely of a ‘mole’ later, we do an incredible amount of injustice to the men who made this miracle of May 1998 possible.

Of course, the people who mattered — Vajpayee, former national security adviser Brajesh Mishra, even Manmohan Singh (who, as Rao’s finance minister, readily signed those funds and countless sheets of paper authorising these) — knew better. That they have chosen to stay above petty politics on this speaks about their sagacity and maturity, entirely in keeping with the character of this nine-year operation.

Today, when the A-SAT development, a logical next step in this continuous process of deterrence-building, is being made such a polarising issue, this slice of history needs to be highlighted again.

It is best to keep at least this most critical and sensitive aspect of the national strategic interest out of partisan politics. If wiser people hadn’t done it over the previous decades, India wouldn’t have reached here.

This is an updated version of a column originally published in The Indian Express on 19 August 2006

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  1. In the past there was a unified purpose across party lines. No one may object if one man tries to take credit for certain achievements . The problem arises when this is done with rubbishing of all past leaders and past achievements and promoting a view that everything of value occurred only after 2014 !

  2. What is the point giving details of our arsenal, just use it and sit back. Let them work out what hit them.

  3. Congress cabal never wanted any other party to develop strstegic weapon and always wants to take credit ..fact is that 10 yr they waited for rafale and now crying we would have bought it in 600 crore. How this is possible as recorded sales to Qatar was at 1949 crore per unit and to Malaysia at 1960 per unit .

  4. Shekhar. dont you yourself find it strange that at the time when a particular govt is about to complete its full term in office, you dont even seem to get the inclination, forget the time, to do an indepth analysis of its omissions and commissions?

    Of what it promised and what it actually managed to deliver? Did it take the right path everytime or were there instances where it failed? How did manage the economy and foreign policy,; for surely in today’s world, these two count for a lot towards National Security? Has it managed to do something meaningful towards Health, Employment, real Education and so on? Did it have strong competent ministers and professionals at the right places in the govt machinery and allowed them to do their job? I am sure a top notch journalist like you can ask these and far more insightful questions, if at all inclined to do so. You somehow don’t seem to be.

    Instead you are mostly found dissing the opposition on one count or another, for daring to criticise the PM for his strange address to the nation on ASAT tests days before elections, for resembling shiv ki baraat, looking like an NGO, not closing on the Rafael deal and so on. For sure the previous govt failed on quite a few counts and thats why its performance was discussed threadbare during in 2014, and they failed to come back to power. Shouldn’t a similar factual analysis wrt the current govt be happening now?

    Words that you write carry a lot of weight. Maybe its time you contemplated about it.

  5. What exactly are you cribbing about? The news reports I have read mention the opposition congratulating the DRDO and Indian Scientists for the feat, but criticising the PM to make a show about it and questioning the timing. Can this be called polarising? Arent these valid questions, with an election just days ahead? Shouldnt journalists like you themselves be asking this question?

    Indeed why now? Why not an year or better still, 3 years back? If this indeed was a deliberated vision of Modi govt to revisit India”s stand on ASAT capability, what were they doing for the last 5 years, especially when DRDO chief is on record to mention that they had the basic capability in 2012? And did you read the take from other experts that this doesnt really buy India anything in security area, as we are unlikely to have the capability to take down all of China”s satellites, while they do have the capability. So it doesn”t really work for India, except for someone who is out to earn a few brownie points and isnt really looking long term!

    Since when did asking questions like these become a crime? And that too for a senior journalist like you to to claim so?

  6. Shekhar has chronicled India’s journey to nuclear status very well. However, despite all this, Congress and other parties attacked nuclear tests in 1998 in a similar deprecating manner. Today, due to all pervasive 24 hour media reach, we may feel higher intensity of the criticism but I do not believe the if Congress or Third Front were to come to power (though I pray to God not to allow this happen!!), new government are not going to dismantle the strategic capacity we have developed. Perhaps, the further development may stop due to pusillanimous nature of the future non-BJP governments. Even Indo-S nuclear deal was vociferously (but wrongly) criticized by BJP but once in power, it was Narendra Modi who sorted out pending issues left over by the UPA and moved ahead with USA. Is Modi is using this momentous DRDO achievement for his political purposes? It hardly matters to a mature voter who knows on what parameters to choose a national government. But there is no doubt that Modi has put his own neck and BJP’s fortunes on the block, when he decided to go ahead with the surgical and Balakot strikes. If we had failed in any manner, he would have lost his face badly. The same opposition would have finished him off in no time. We ought to give credit where it is due and must accept his two singular achievements in the 5 year of his government- clean corruption scandal free government for 5 years, a first in India’s 70+ year history and his 56 inches chest which has ‘josh’ to take risks in national interest. If you don’t like him, press your button on congress symbol but please don’t crib!!

    • Absolutely hit the nail on the head. We see so many un-informed and/or partisan TV journalists (who have not done their research or do not know anything about strategy), finding faults with everything that any achievement or positive steps is reduced to one or other issue with government. It seems having a voice does not seem that you one cries hoarse on anything and everytime..

  7. You seem to forget that Modi has said more than once that in building of the history of India there has been “yogdaan” (contribution) of everybody. He has explicitly, unequivocally, unambiguously acknowledged the contribution of the Congress-led governments too. That being so, I don’t know what your problem is. In his address after Mission Shakthi, the Prime Minister’s emphasis was on the pride of India, the remarkable achievements of its scientists.
    All you Lutyens Delhi people get so obviously worked up when some development shows Modi in good light–you just can’t stomach it. Yes, the fact that he appeared on TV and spoke about Mission Shakthi is not entirely devoid of politics. But what is wrong? After all, he was the man who had the guts to give the go-ahead for the test. Doesn’t he deserve some credit for it? If a politician takes some credit in an election year for something good that he did, is it so terribly wrong?
    Your article is very insightful, but not well-intentioned

    • You nailed it M. Ramesh!!
      The moment they hear MODI, they get diarrhea!!
      Perhaps, once Rahul Gandhi or MMS or Mayawati or Mamta Banerjee (these people are in waiting) come in as PM (God Forbid!!), every issue will be settled, India will be a secular country once again and will start progressing!

      Don’t understand their mindset – really! Whey can’t the media be balanced, if not fair!

  8. Perhaps, it would be prudent to reflect if such an operation would be possible today when everything that a government does is with an eye on garnering votes. Such is the sad state of affairs that superficial leaders have reduced us to.

  9. There are no “ Lallu Panjus “ in that august office in South Block. Someone who holds in trust the destiny of a billion Indians should be willing to lay down his life for the nation. Keeping a secret safe is a small matter.

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