Friday, December 9, 2011

Mrs Gandhi’s triumph

My article on the first Indian nuclear test appeared in today's edition of The Pioneer.

Recently declassified American documents explain how India caught the US by surprise on May 18, 1974 when it conducted its first nuclear test.

It is perhaps a coincidence, but as India celebrates the 40th anniversary of the most resounding victory of its Armed Forces, America’s National Security Archive has declassified a series of secret documents entitled “The Nixon Administration and the Indian Nuclear Programme, 1972-1974”, analysing why the US Intelligence agencies failed to predict the first Indian nuclear test in May 1974.
In India, triumph was soon followed by the worst diplomatic debacle. Mrs Indira Gandhi, who had led Indian troops to victory, lost everything on the negotiating table at Simla. The Simla Agreement, signed on July 2, 1972 by Mrs Gandhi and her Pakistani counterpart, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, should have provided opportunities for both countries to start over in a new direction.
That was not to be the case, though Mrs Gandhi had all the cards in her hand, in particular 93,000 Pakistani prisoners of war. Although the Simla Agreement was to put in place some basic concepts such as the normalisation of relations between the two countries, the opening of posts, telegraph, road, air or sea communications, or border crossings, it did not do so.
Mrs Gandhi probably believed that the Jammu & Kashmir issue could soon be resolved (it is said that Bhutto had agreed to a solution in a secret deal), but many in Pakistan felt that Bhutto had made too many concessions to “that woman” as Gen Yahya Khan used to call India’s Prime Minister. Soon after the Simla summit, Mrs Gandhi realised that she had been taken for a ride. This is probably the reason why on September 7, 1972, she authorised scientists of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre to work on a nuclear device. As Bhutto’s political position gradually weakened, he could not afford anymore ‘compromises’ on Jammu & Kashmir and the possibility of fresh conflict reappeared. It was then that Mrs Gandhi decided to go ahead with the ‘peaceful’ nuclear test at Pokhran in Rajasthan.
The newly declassified papers cover the period starting just after the Bangladesh liberation war till the ‘post-mortem’ assessment in 1976. On January 14, 1972, the US State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research Intelligence prepared a top secret note: “India to Go Nuclear?” The memo pointed out: “There are continuing reports that the Indians are preparing to detonate a nuclear device during the next several weeks. While the exact timing described in these reports varies, the date chosen may prove to be January 26, the day on which India celebrates the promulgation of its post-colonial Constitution and the end of dominion status.” It added, “The purpose of the planned detonation is unclear in the reports.”
The documents demonstrate that the CIA knew India had the capability to produce 20 to 30 weapons and “could easily test a device in an underground site, such as an abandoned mine”. However, Washington, DC did not show great interest in “the concerted effort by India to conceal such preparations … which may well succeed”. The first lot of documents deal with the period before the Simla summit.
For American analysts, India’s motivation to test a nuclear device would be “domestic political pressures and concerns about China and Pakistan”. The intelligence analysts believed that an eventual test would be more “a demonstration of scientific and technological prowess”; the strategic significance was negligible for the US. Hence, the scrutiny of India’s nuclear preparations did not go further due to “a relatively modest priority has been attached to relevant intelligence collection activities”.
In other words, the US did not consider it worth its effort to keep a watch on India. Greater resources and more personnel were deployed to keep a watch on China which had exploded a nuclear device at Lop Nor in Xinjiang eight years ago. US President Richard Nixon was more interested to change the dynamics of the Cold War by visiting the Forbidden City to Chairman meet Mao Tse-tung.
Britain had passed intelligence inputs to the US in April 1972 which concluded that India was not going to conduct a nuclear test. “HMG (Her Majesty’s Government) had taken new preliminary look at Indian nuclear intentions. The UK had concluded that India had the capacity of proceeding to nuclear explosion, but that it had detected no indication that GoI (Government of India) had in fact decided to do so,” the documents say.
But some thought differently. Japanese diplomat Ryohei Murata believed that India had decided to go ahead with conducting a nuclear test and detonation could take place any time. Murata also accurately predicted that the Thar desert in Rajasthan would be the test site. The Japanese believed that the ‘forces’ wanting to go nuclear within the Government of India were prevalent. The Americans described the Japanese information as “scanty”.
Around that time, Mr Henry Kissinger ordered a National Security Study Memorandum on the implications of an Indian nuclear test for the US. In August 1972, a Special National Intelligence Estimate concluded that the chances of India deciding to conduct a nuclear test were “roughly even”. The SNIE’s assessments on this issue were later criticised in a post-Pokhran report as “marred by waffled judgdments”. The conclusions should have been 60-40 in favour of a decision to test.
The SNIE had suggested that the factor “impelling India to set off a test was the belief that it would build up its international prestige and demonstrate India’s importance as an Asian power and overawe Pakistan”. In early-1973, John Pinajian, the IAEA’s representative in India, became suspicious that New Delhi was preparing for a nuclear test after Mr Raja Rammana, the BARC director, did not allow him to access the facility to conduct an experiment which had been approved by India’s Atomic Energy Commission.
The US Embassy in Delhi sent a cable to the State Department in early 1974 about “India’s Nuclear Intentions”. The conclusions were: “Deeper economic problems, among other considerations, militated against a nuclear test in the near future, even though the Indian Government had the capabilities to produce and test a device.” The Embassy, however, admitted that “we know little about relevant internal Government debate”.
India’s ‘peaceful’ nuclear explosion on May 18, 1974 caught the US by surprise. The post-explosion analysis shows that the American intelligence agencies had not been searching for signs that a test was on the cards. The day after the explosion, the US Embassy in Delhi tried to justify its failure. As Ambassador Moynihan was in London, Deputy Chief of Mission David Schneider sent a report to the State Department, “India’s Nuclear Explosion: Why Now?” The Embassy, which had no clue of the “Indian decision-making”, put the blame on domestic politics and psychological reasons. It rationalised the test by “the need to offset domestic gloom and the need for India to be taken seriously. The decision will appeal to nationalist feeling and will be widely welcomed by the Indian populace”.
We now anxiously wait for New Delhi to declassify documents for an Indian view in the matter. Whether we will see that happen in our lifetime is another matter.

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