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Pokhran anniversary: How we built the nuclear bomb

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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.

The 20th anniversary of the Pokhran II nuclear tests is being marked today in a rather muted fashion. But 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, Pokhran I and II respectively.

Rajiv Gandhi was now in the last few months of his prime ministership. He had suffered a great deal of attrition from fighting both internal and external crises.

But on national security and foreign policy, Rajiv had not lost the focus in the least. Some frantic searching of our nuclear basements and barsatis, whatever you call them, during the Brasstacks crisis, had revealed that our deterrent was far from ready and 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 at its peak.

It was in this setting that the Indian Air Force 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 hearing from various participants, direct and indirect, in what was to become the most spectacular and successful secret operation — also perhaps the longest — in India’s history, it seems that even with his power fading, Rajiv had decided that the time had come for India to give up all 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 unfolded subsequently.

The core group mandated to develop the nuclear arsenal included V.S. Arunachalam, the then-head of DRDO, renowned nuclear scientists P.K. Iyengar, R. Chidambaram, Anil Kakodkar and K. ‘Santy’ Santhanam, missile-man A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, Muthuswamy Balachandran of the Terminal Ballistic Research Lab located 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, be not a scrap of paper 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’ budget to the Planning Commission. Of course, the financial advisor at Yojana Bhavan, as well as the prying auditors of the 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.

It is still too early in our history for us to describe this in greater detail. But contemporary historians might ask what a brilliant if mercurial Santy was doing on a desk in 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 on this, because even journalists must accept the principle of keeping some facts time-barred.

But I can mention a few important points. One, that this operation spanned the tenure of seven prime ministers between Rajiv and Vajpayee. And not only did it remain intact, it acquired strength and momentum, and not one word about it was ever leaked. Never. When 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 both, the family silver and the secrecy around it, were preserved even 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 being able to do so,” he went on, “but then so many ordinary men, like us, have been in these jobs lately, and yet nobody has found out what we did not want anybody finding out.”

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 to 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, we do an incredible amount of injustice to the men who made this miracle of May 1998 possible. Of course, the people who matter — Vajpayee, Brajesh Mishra, even Manmohan Singh (who, as Narasimha Rao’s finance minister, readily signed those funds and countless sheets of paper authorising these) — know 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.

Postscript: While people have talked so casually of a mole, the one fact often overlooked is that in December 1995, the Americans had picked up direct satellite evidence of activity at Pokhran. The then-ambassador, Frank Wisner, brought these pictures to Amar Nath Verma, then principal secretary to Prime Minister Rao. Verma, however, had never been in the nuclear loop, and so, did not even know what was going on. But apparently he asked if Wisner would leave the pictures behind for him to check with the prime minister. Wisner would do no such thing. It seems, according to the complexities of American law, materials obtained by their intelligence sources, particularly spy satellites, cannot be “left” on foreign soil, or even handed over notionally to a foreigner except, probably, NATO partners. So Wisner would no more than show the pictures to Verma, not even letting him touch them, and then placed them back in his pocket. This led to some interesting discussion in the nuclear “core” group: the US embassy can receive these pictures because it is, technically, US territory. But does the ambassador’s pocket also happen to be US territory? Academic, you might say. But interesting, in the rarefied world of high diplomacy.

This article was first published on 18 August 2006.

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