Pokhran-II: When India fooled the CIA and successfully conducted its nuclear test

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Pokhran-II: when india fooled the cia and successfully conducted its nuclear test

File image of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee waving to cameramen as he stands on the edge of the crater at the Shakti-1 site, where an underground nuclear test took place on 11 May. AFP

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Twenty-four years ago between 11 and 13 May, India scripted history when it conducted a series of underground nuclear tests with five bombs in Pokhran, Rajasthan. At 3.45 pm on 11 May, the tests were initiated, under the assigned code name Operation Shakti, with the detonation of one fusion and two fission bombs.

Now, 24 years later, this milestone is marked every year as National Technology Day to honour the achievements of scientists, researchers, engineers and all others involved in the field of science and technology.

Global Tech News Daily

Today, on National Technology Day, we express gratitude to our brilliant scientists and their efforts that led to the successful Pokhran tests in 1998. We remember with pride the exemplary leadership of Atal Ji who showed outstanding political courage and statesmanship. pic.twitter.com/QZXcNvm6Pe

— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) May 11, 2022

Global Tech News Daily

As we celebrate National Technology Day, here’s a look back at the tests, the reactions from the world and why it was significant for India.

History behind the Pokhran II tests

The 1998 tests weren’t India’s first nuclear weapons trial; the first successful one took place in 1974 under the codename “Smiling Buddha” during Indira Gandhi’s rule in Rajasthan’s Pokhran.

However, this wasn’t enough to place India on the same page with other nuclear states.

Pokhran-II: when india fooled the cia and successfully conducted its nuclear test

File image of the crater where the first Indian underground nuclear test was conducted 18 May 1974 at Pokhran in Rajasthan. AFP

For the next two decades, many prime ministers tried to revive nuclear research – most notably PV Narasimha Rao – only to surrender to American surveillance satellites and the threat of sanctions.

In fact, in 1995 when Rao ordered for a nuclear weapons test it had to be aborted after America’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) spy satellites picked up signs of preparations for nuclear testing at Pokhran Test Range in Rajasthan. President Bill Clinton and his administration exerted enormous pressure on Prime Minister Narasimha Rao to stop the preparations.

In 1996, Vajpayee came to power and began working to achieving his dream of converting India into a nuclear state. However, his plans had to be put in cold storage after his government fell in 13 days.

When he returned to power in 1998, he gave the thumbs-up for the nuclear tests to the then Defence Research and Development Organisation chief A P J Abdul Kalam and then Atomic Energy Commission chairman R Chidambaram.

On the go and in the dark

Once the approval for the tests were given, India began meticulously planning the procedure, away from the prying eyes of America. Reports state that the people involved in the tests were sworn to absolute secrecy and also they had one-and-a-half year to rehearse and plan every step.

As per a report in the Daily O, India’s access to state-of-the-art satellites helped greatly in planning the Pokhran tests.

These satellites gave India the pivotal information on what could and couldn’t be seen. Using this, they would work at the test site on at night so as to avoid being captured on camera.

Pokhran-II: when india fooled the cia and successfully conducted its nuclear test

File image of nuclear scientists at the testing site in camouflage army uniforms. Image Courtesy: @MoDIndia/Twitter

Moreover, in locations where holes were dug, sand was aligned towards the direction of the wind. This prevented suspicion since unaligned sand could have signalled activity.

The people involved in the tests also used code names to counter CIA’s spying on communication lines. Some of the code words used then were — White House, whiskey and even Taj Mahal.

It has also been reported that when scientists from DRDO and Bhabha Atomic Research Centre would visit Pokhran they would do it in disguise. In fact, APJ Abdul Kalam’s name was switched to Major General Prithvi Raj and Rajagopala Chidambaram’s codename was “Natraj”.

History made

On 11 May, the residents of Pokhran woke up to an ordinary day. However, a huge clap of thunder and cheers turned the course of history.

Vajpayee quickly called for a press conference from his Race Course Road residence in New Delhi and announced that India had conducted three underground nuclear tests in Pokhran.

Pokhran-II: when india fooled the cia and successfully conducted its nuclear test

The site where Shakti-3 nuclear device was detonated underground on 11 May 1998. AFP

“Today, at 15:45 hours, India conducted three underground nuclear tests in the Pokhran range. These tests conducted today were with a fission device, a low-yield device and a thermonuclear device. The measured yields are in line with expected values. Measurements have also confirmed that there was no release of radioactivity into the atmosphere. These were contained explosions like the experiment conducted in May 1974. I warmly congratulate the scientists and engineers who have carried out these successful tests,” he said.

International outrage

The tests left the Western world shocked and surprised.

The Clinton Administration condemned the tests and said it was “deeply disappointed” and subsequently slapped sanctions against India.

In fact, the then US president Bill Clinton would go on to refer to South Asia as the “most dangerous place on Earth”.

US senator Richard Shelby had then sai that the CIA’s failure to identify that these tests were going to take place was “the biggest failure of our intelligence gathering agencies in the past ten years or more”.

Britain conveyed its “dismay” and Germany called it “a slap in the face” for the countries that ratified Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and the then-United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan issued a statement expressing his “deep regret”.

Explaining the reason for the tests, Vajpayee wrote in a letter to Clinton: “We have an overt nuclear weapon state on our borders, a state which committed armed aggression against India in 1962. Although our relations with that country have improved in the last decade or so, an atmosphere of distrust persists mainly due to the unresolved border problem.”

Significance for India

Despite protests by international as well as national entities, Vajpayee stood firm on his decision to carry out the Pokhran II tests.

In an address in Lok Sabha, he had then said, “The Pokhran II nuclear tests were conducted neither for self-glorification, nor for any display of machismo. But this has been our policy, and I think it is also the policy of the nation, that there should be minimum deterrence, which should also be credible. This is why we took the decision to conduct tests.”

The Pokhran II tests also paved the way for India’s ‘No First Use’ policy — a vow that it would never carry out a nuclear first-strike and also would not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear powered states, and would strictly control the export of such materials and technologies.

Experts also believe that the Pokhran tests helped change the world’s view of India. Michael Kugelman, a senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, has been quoted as saying, “The nuclear tests in 1998 were a watershed moment in India’s history. They served as an early but resounding reminder of India’s status as a rising power. But the nuclear tests also set India and Pakistan on a new and escalatory collision course that they remain on today.”

Former National Security Advisor, Shivshankar Menon speaking to Economic Times said that the tests “shook loose our relations with all major powers, US, China, even Pakistan. The world had got used to a certain kind of India. That was challenged, successfully.”

With inputs from agencies

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