Of sandstorms & secrecy: India’s Pokhran II nuclear weapons test

Hyderabad: On May 11 in 1998, India, headed by then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, conducted successful nuclear tests in the Pokhran range of Rajasthan. India declared itself a full-fledged nuclear state on May 13, 1998, after all five bombs were detonated, despite resistance from the world’s superpowers at that time.

The test, called ‘Operation Shakti’, was one of the most significant turning points in India’s scientific and technological development.

To mark it’s significance, 11 May is now celebrated as National Technology Day. The Prime minister of India, Narendra Modi expressed his gratitude to the nation’s scientists in a tweet.

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Let’s take a look at the events which led India to declare itself a Nuclear weapons equipped country.

History behind tests of Pokhran II

The tests in 1998 weren’t India’s first nuclear weapons tests.

 In 1962, India and China engaged in the disputed northern front, and was further intimidated with a Chinese nuclear test in 1964.

The first successful test in fact took place at the Indian army’s Pokhran Test Range in 1974 under the codename “Smiling Buddha” or Pokhran-I during Indira Gandhi’s reign.

Pokhran-I was also the first confirmed nuclear weapons test by a nation outside the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. hence these tests were never officially recognized.

Many prime ministers attempted to resume nuclear research over the next two decades, including PV Narasimha Rao. Amidst all the secrecy, the 1995 nuclear tests were aborted as American surveillance satellites detected the possibility of a nuclear test, and threatened the country of sanctions.

Significance of 1998 tests

The operation was maintained top-secret in order to avoid drawing international attention and resistance towards the country.

It was carried out by a dedicated team of researchers, engineers, and scientists under the guidance of the Missile Man of India, Dr APJ Abdul Kalam.

Reports state that the people involved in the tests were sworn to absolute secrecy. As per a report in the Daily O, India’s access to state-of-the-art satellites helped greatly in planning the Pokhran tests.

The success can also be attributed to India’s knowledge of US reconnaissance satellites, allowing them to schedule activities for the times the satellites weren’t overhead or were blinded by sandstorms.

The scientists, engineers involved would work in the nights, so as to not be captured on cameras and various satellites.

The tests were a series of five nuclear bomb test explosions. Following the successful test, then-Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee declared India to be a nuclear power.

“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.

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.”

International outrage

The United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and China were the only nuclear powers before India conducted the tests. These five countries, collectively known as the “nuclear club,” have consistently opposed and attacked India’s efforts to become a nuclear power.

The US administration condemned the tests and said it was “deeply disappointed” and subsequently slapped economic sanctions against India. Sanctions against India included withholding all aid except humanitarian help, prohibiting the sale of certain defence materials and technologies, and terminating American credit and credit guarantees to India.

The American intelligence agency said that the tests were “a serious intelligence failure of the decade” for them as India was successful in carrying out the operation and that the CIA failed to detect a nuclear activity.

Sanctions were also imposed by Japan on India and consisted of freezing all new loans and grants.

The then Pakistan Prime minister Nawaz Sharif ‘vowed’ that his country would give a suitable reply to India. Shortly after, the country conducted it’s own nuclear tests between 28 and 30 May, 1998.

Meanwhile, China vehemently opposed to these tests. It issued a vociferous condemnation calling upon the international community to exert pressure on India to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and to eliminate India’s nuclear arsenal.


Following the tests, two important treaties around Nuclear weapons and technologies emerged.

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which prohibits “any nuclear weapon test explosion or any other nuclear explosion” anywhere in the world for both civilian and military purposes, in all environments.

And the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), whose objective is to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology, to promote cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, and to further the goal of achieving nuclear disarmament and general and complete disarmament.

India and Pakistan, and Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, are yet to sign and ratify the CTBT.

However, India has a No first use (NFU) policy by a nuclear power. It means that India would not use nuclear weapons against non nuclear countries as a means of warfare unless first attacked by an adversary using nuclear weapons.

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