Indian Nuclear Test: 1994 Edition

Wow. K Santhanam, the former director of India’s Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses who played what C Ferguson “called”: a “leadership role” during New Delhi’s 1998 nuclear weapons tests, told “Times Now”: television that India canceled a 1994 nuclear test at the last minute.

Interesting topics include: New Delhi’s perception of other nuclear threats at the time, steps that India took to conceal test preparations, and domestic political considerations.

The full text of the interview, broadcast April 1, is below, with relevant portions in bold.

Srinjoy: Why compelled India to think of testing a nuclear bomb in 1994?

Santhanam: First of all you had *the clandestine programme of Pakistan; there was an increasing evidence of collaboration, co-operation, collusion between China and Pakistan, in nuclear weaponry. Specifically the trigger development which technology the Chinese had.* Secondly, other international factors came into play. You may remember The Glen and Symington amendments under which economic and military aid to Pakistan was stopped because of Pakistan’s Nuclear programme despite having certified.

For a variety of reasons we have lived with a nuke China, would it be possible for India to live with a nuke Pakistan, with a history of conflicts? So, the matter was analysed by a special group of experts, drawn from various disciplines as to what exactly should be done and the committee submitted its report to the then PM Narsimha Rao. *This was the build up, so obviously the direction was step by step be prepared to consider conducting tests and exercising the nuke option.*

Srinjoy: What went into the preparation for the test?

Santhanam: *There were two shafts in Pokhran dug during 1981-82 and they had been sealed because no further work was likely to occur. These two shafts were reactivated, we had to blow out the concrete lid and then pump out all the water, do all the repair work.* Brilliant job was done by the engineer in adverse circumstances.

Since we had a lull, so to say, *after December 1994 we came across abandoned wells in the area, the villagers had left because there was no water, deep enough wells, we could use them without inviting attention of digging a new one which the satellites would pick up. So these three wells in an area called Navtala, where identified, they were repaired, then made suitable to receive the device.*

Srinjoy: About the 1994 situation *how were they detected by the Americans*, what led to their detection?

Santhanam: *One must be aware that the resolution of the cameras, whether it is the US satellite or the Russian satellites these days is such that they can easily detect, especially in daylight,* night time the resolution is always poor. The phrase is change detection.

Srinjoy: So what happened after the detection what made the government back off?

Santhanam: Let me say the decision to conduct a test is ultimately political. We must acknowledge that fact because the technical factor is only one factor, amongst a host of other elements leading to a decision making at the highest level.

Srinjoy: How did it happen…*did the White house call? How does it actually happen on the ground?*

Santhanam: *It involves the White house; it involves the US embassy in Delhi. It also involves the Indian government and our embassy in Washington. It’s a tight dance.*

Srinjoy: What happened after that?

Santhanam: We were quite clear that *if work is resumed at these sites there is likely to be detection by satellites.* We were clear this would be detected and it was detected by the US satellite and they had conveyed their concerns to New Delhi. This was as you approach the end of 1994. There was another internal development that of parliamentary elections. *The concern was that if you conduct the test in November-December. It could be construed as a way of influencing the results of the elections* by saying that we are a firm government, we know how to attend to our national security needs, but the timing would have invited a lot of criticism. *The consensus was that ‘let’s hold’. After it is over we will revisit the case.*

Interestingly, Bhubnesh Chaturvedi, former Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office confirmed that India canceled the tests because of the elections:

bq. We had the capacity to do it, but we did not do it, because the elections were near. We did not want the successive government to bear the brunt. If the government would have continued in power, we could have done it.

A transcript of the interview is “here”: You can download a copy “here.”:

One thought on “Indian Nuclear Test: 1994 Edition

  1. SJ

    The Asian Age (New Delhi), April 16, 2008

    Puerile peddling of current history

    By Inder Malhotra

    No matter how often one might lament it, but there seems no escape from the dismal reality that we Indians remain an unchangingly ahistorical people. Worse, the knowledge of history continues to be abysmal even when a mere touch on a computer button can produce a mind-boggling surfeit of relevant information. Sadly, even experts and pundits pontificating in print or on TV day in and day out, often turn out to be shockingly ignorant of current history on which there is no dearth of documentation in the public domain.

    A depressing case in point — neither the first of its kind nor is it going to be the last — was the strident claim by one of the 24×7 TV channels for three days running, every hour on the hour, that it had a “startling revelation” to make. And pray what was that earth-shaking disclosure? That this country had planned a nuclear test in “December 1994” that had to be abandoned “under pressure from the United States!” Now, there are two things terribly wrong with this. First, there is nothing in this story that hasn’t been publicised in lurid detail over the years; and secondly, the episode took place not in December 1994 but exactly a year later, in December 1995.

    Ironically, the distinguished nuclear scientist, who duly appeared on the TV channel to buttress its bogus claim, was undoubtedly involved intimately in both the aborted 1995 test and the Shakti series of tests on May 11, 1998. Yet, he mulishly went on insisting that the contretemps had taken place in 1994. Strangely, he also argued that, apart from American pressure, what influenced the P.V. Narasimha Rao government was the consideration that a “test too close to the elections” would be embarrassing. As the wide world knows, the elections took place, as they were scheduled to, in April 1996. How would a 1994 test have been “too close” to them? But neither the scientist nor his TV minders were bothered. Eventually, the enterprising and excited reporters of the channel buttonholed former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. His understandable refusal to comment they cited as confirmation of their “scoop”.

    Moving from fiction to facts, of the reams and reams of material on the aborted test already on record, let me quote only briefly from the book of Strobe Talbott, former US deputy secretary of state, who held marathon negotiations with Jaswant Singh. The book, Engaging India, was published in 2004, but evidently the honchos of the TV channel concerned never read it.

    “As 1995 drew to a close,” says Talbott, “… pressure was mounting on the politically vulnerable Rao to give in to the nuclear lobby … Frank Wisner, the US ambassador to India was (then) back in Washington for consultations … Frank learned that American satellites passing over Pokhran test site had photographed evidence of suspicious activity … Frank went to the CIA to get a full briefing and arrange for copies of pictures sent to the US embassy in New Delhi.

    “While Frank was en route to India, the New York Times carried an article under the headline ‘US Suspects India Prepares to Conduct Nuclear Test,’ with attribution to American intelligence experts. The United States, said the story, was ‘working to discourage [the test], fearing a political chain reaction.’

    “As soon as Frank arrived in New Delhi, he arranged a private meeting with A.N. Varma, Prime Minister Rao’s principal secretary (in effect, his chief-of-staff). Frank showed Varma a single sample of satellite imagery, put it back in his pocket, then warned that a test would backfire against India, incurring a full dose of sanctions … When Clinton called Rao to reinforce Frank’s message, Rao replied only that India would not act irresponsibly. While that statement was far from reassuring, Rao did, as Clinton had hoped he would, pull the plug on the test, largely because he did not want to provoke American sanctions that would do harm to the Indian economy.”

    Can anything be clearer than this? Yet, for reasons of his own, Talbott, an outstanding journalist before he joined the Clinton administration, has left some gaps in his account. Let me fill them, thanks to authoritative information readily available. First, under the US laws, photographs taken by American spy satellites cannot be sent outside the United States. In the case of the 1995 test, President Clinton issued a special authorisation for the pictures to be carried to New Delhi and shown to Indian authorities.

    Secondly, when Frank Wisner raised the subject of the preparations for the test at Pokhran, the late Varma protested vigorously that the ambassador was misinformed. Nothing of the kind was happening, he asserted. The late Varma was not dissimulating. The poor man had been kept out of the loop. He was startled therefore when Wisner produced the photograph, and communicated with the boss as soon as the envoy left.

    Thirdly, and most interestingly, some of the unpublished details of the Clinton-Rao telephonic conversation are delightful. The US president began by welcoming a statement by Pranab Mukherjee, then as now, foreign minister, made in Assam, to the effect that India’s nuclear programme was entirely peaceful, and there was no question of a test. Rao’s response was that he had heard about the statement but hadn’t yet seen it.

    Clinton then moved to the activity at Pokhran, including the laying of cables “running through L-shaped tunnels,” presumably to transmit data from an underground blast. Wily Rao’s bland reply: “All the activity is for the proper maintenance of an existing facility.”

    Rao may have been forced to “pull the plug” on the test planned for December 1995, but, as Atal Behari Vajpayee stated in his obituary tribute to P.V. Narasimha Rao, it was Rao who had advised and encouraged Atalji to go ahead with the tests.

    The Bible talks of the “blind leading the blind.” In this country, it seems, the ignoramuses would continue to mislead the ignorant.


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