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Why Rajiv Gandhi Decided On Nuclear Weapons

August 05, 2023 09:19 IST
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The idea of weaponization got a fillip from an unexpected quarter.
In the last week of October 1985, Rajiv met US President Ronald Reagan.
Reagan told Rajiv, 'Pakistan has already made a bomb.'
When Rajiv started talking about disarmament, the US president cut him short, 'Don't talk theory, think of your own protection.'
A revealing excerpt from Neerja Chowdhury's fascinating new book, How Prime Ministers Decide.

IMAGE: Kindly note the image of a nuclear test has been published only for representational purposes. Photograph: Kind courtesy Burnt Pineapple Productions/Wikimedia Commons

At one of the meetings he had with the prime minister -- this was in October 1985 -- K Subrahmanyam told Rajiv Gandhi, 'You can't go on postponing a decision on this (going nuclear). If you go on delaying, the defence expenditure will go through the roof. You shouldn't believe what people are telling you, that the US is putting pressure on Pakistan. You have no choice but to go for a weapons program.'

Rajiv decided to go around the room -- and asked for everyone's opinion. Most people sat on the fence. Bimal Jalan said a definite 'no'. 'We can't afford it,' he was clear, 'the economy would be ruined.'

It so happened that the army chief, General Arun Sridhar Vaidya, was not there that day. He was represented by the navy chief, R H Tahiliani. Tahiliani played it safe. 'We will study this and tell you at our next meeting.'

That very night, Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Raja Ramanna and Subrahmanyam went to see Tahiliani at Navy House in New Delhi. Tahiliani told them, 'I'm going to have a committee to examine the cost of this.'

'Before Vaidya comes back, you should, as the officiating chairman, appoint the committee,' they suggested, 'because we want the committee to be headed by Sundarji.'

General K Sundarji was then the vice chief of the Armed Forces. 'He's the only fellow who knows the subject,' they said. Tahiliani appointed a committee headed by General Sundarji.

They produced a report within ten days. It projected that in seven years' time India could have a minimum nuclear deterrent of a hundred missiles and warheads at the cost of Rs 7,000 crores.

It was at this stage that the idea of weaponization got a fillip from an unexpected quarter. In the last week of October 1985, Rajiv met US President Ronald Reagan.

Reagan told Rajiv, 'Pakistan has already made a bomb.' When Rajiv started talking about disarmament, the US president cut him short, 'Don't talk theory, think of your own protection.'

S K Singh, then India's high commissioner in Pakistan, told me it was at this time that Rajiv had given instructions to move towards weaponization. 'I was privy to the instructions that Rajiv gave, that nothing would be put on paper and that we would move full scale on weapons acquisition.'

After Reagan's words to Rajiv -- that Pakistan already had a bomb -- a worried PM asked S K Singh to confirm whatever he could about Pakistan's enriched uranium facility at Kahuta, 22 kilometres away from Islamabad.

'Rajiv had given me instructions to set up an intelligence-sharing device on top of the roof of my personal home. Two of Pakistan's listening posts were connected to me directly. The result was that I got information directly from the posts in (the) North West Frontier and South East Frontier.' He added, 'We had to provide proof to Britain and America (of what Pakistan was up to).'

One of the things he was asked to do, to get the hard information that was needed, was to set up a roadside barber shop near Kahuta. The idea was to obtain the hair of workers at the facility.

'Hair is a sensitive area of (the) human anatomy, which captures and conveys microns and atoms.' Singh said to me, 'Through the hair that was cut of the chaprasis, etc, who worked at Kahuta, we could make out that enriched uranium (was) being used there.... It confirmed what Reagan had told Rajiv.'

IMAGE: Then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi with then US president Ronald Reagan, October 20, 1987. Photograph: Kind courtesy Reagan White House Photographs/Wikimedia Commons

India's resolve to accelerate the nuclear weapons programme came in early 1987.

Pakistan threatened to go nuclear on India during Operation Brasstacks, a large-scale Indian military war-gaming exercise that took place near the border with Pakistan.

Spooked by Brasstacks, the junior minister in the Pakistani defence ministry, Zain Noorani (at the time the president of Pakistan, Zia-ul Haq, was also the defence minister) summoned S K Singh, to his office.

Singh was called at 10 pm. He was made to wait for two hours before Noorani called him in. He told Singh that he was coming straight from President Zia.

The Pakistan president wanted to convey a message to the Government of India: If Indian troops infringed Pakistan's sovereignty and territorial integrity, Pakistan was in a position to inflict 'unacceptable damage' on India. (That was the phraseology employed for the use of nuclear force, S K Singh told me.)

Presented with 'incontrovertible evidence' that Pakistan had the bomb in February 1987, Rajiv decided to speed up India's nuclear weapons programme.

IMAGE: From right, A P J Abdul Kalam, then scientific advisor to the prime minister, then defence minister George Fernandes, then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and others at the Pokhran nuclear test site in May 1998. Photograph: Press Information Bureau/Facebook

On Saturday, 18 March 1989, Rajiv formally gave the go-ahead for making weapons in sufficient numbers and perfecting the delivery systems. He gave the orders to Naresh Chandra, his defence secretary.

That morning he was attending an air show at the Tilpat range. Naresh Chandra was also at the event, sitting right behind him.

As the show ended, Rajiv asked to have a word with his defence secretary. "Rajiv said to me," Naresh Chandra revealed to me years later, 'Yeh aapko karna hai (>em>You have to do this)'."

The prime minister authorised Chandra to oversee the nuclear and DRDO programmes, and the readying of the missiles -- and become the prime minister's principal troubleshooter in everything to do with the nuclear question.

Rajiv kept every move of his on the nuclear issue a closely guarded secret. Only a handful of people were directly involved. Even strategic guru K Subrahmanyam, who was deeply embedded in the system, did not get a whiff of it.

'I was told formally and officially about India's bomb (only) in July 1990,' Subrahmanyam said.

By then V P Singh had taken over as prime minister.

In July 1990, seven months after he took over as PM, V P Singh constituted a high-powered committee to oversee all matters relating to the nuclear bomb 'now that we had got it'.

V P Singh was quick to understand the need for the strategic weapons programme to go into an overdrive. He had been defence minister during Operation Brasstacks. However, given the frosty relations between him and his predecessor, Rajiv, who had not updated V P Singh, some concerned nuclear scientists decided to get President R Venkataraman to bring the prime minister up to date.

It was only after this that V P Singh knew exactly how advanced the country's nuclear programme was.

'Generally I'd known as defence minister,' V P Singh said, 'that our capability and stocks were there. And our nuclear explosion capacity was there.... When I became PM, all this had to be expedited. As PM, an emphasis was laid on...having an operational bomb.'

But in the end V P Singh decided not to go for a test. The border with Pakistan was 'in a critical condition'. Benazir Bhutto, the Pakistani prime minister, had talked about a 1,000-year war with India.

Moreover, V P Singh explained, 'The explosion would have annoyed the US and China, when we needed them both.' Then he added wistfully, 'Decisions are not taken in a vacuum.'

Excerpted from How Prime Ministers Decide by Neerja Chowdhury with kind permission from the publishers, Aleph Book Company.

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