Operation Smiling Buddha: Notes for UPSC Exam

Operation Smiling Buddha was the codename assigned for India’s first successful nuclear bomb test which was carried out on 18 May 1974. It was designated as Pokhran – I by the Ministry of External Affairs. Pokhran-I was also the first confirmed nuclear weapons test by a nation outside the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. (UNSC)

This article will give details of the operation within the context of the IAS Exam.

Origins of Operation Smiling Buddha

With the foundation of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in 1944, India’s road to becoming a nuclear power had begun.

A formation of a nuclear weapons programme was sanctioned upon India’s independence by it’s new Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Homi J. Bhabha a professor at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, would be leading the programme. For his efforts, he would soon come to be knowns as “the father of the Indian Nuclear Programme”. India was also heavily involved in the development of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty but decided to opt-out of it as it became abundantly clear that the nuclear powers of the time were only keen on preserving heir hegemony in world affairs.

Earlier, the focus was on peaceful development but in 1954, Homi Bhabha began focusing on weapons design and production.  For this purpose the establishment of Trombay Atomic Energy Establishment at Mumbai (Bombay). and the creation of a governmental agency on August 3, 1954 – the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) were pivotal moments of the Indian Nuclear weapons programme.

When Lal Bahadur Shastri (B: 2 October 1904. D: 11 January 1966) became the Prime Minister, the pace of the nuclear weapons programme was slowed due to him appointing Vikram Sarabhai as the head of the nuclear programme. Due to his Gandhian beliefs, Vikram Sarabhai switched the focus of the programme for peaceful purposes rather than military applications.

It was only upon Indira Gandhi becoming Prime Minister in 1967, the work on the programme was renewed with much fanfare with weapons-grade plutonium being developed as a result

In 1967, when Indira Gandhi became the prime minister, the work on the nuclear programme resumed with renewed vigour. Homi Sethna, a chemical engineer, played a significant role in the development of weapon-grade plutonium.

In order to maintain operational secrecy and functionality, the staff was limited to 75 engineers and scientists from 1967-74. APJ Abdul Kalam, the future president of India would be the representative of the DRDO.

The detonation of the Nuclear device

The device was of the implosion-type design and had a close resemblance to the American nuclear bomb called the Fat Man, which had destroyed the Japanese city of Nagasaki decades earlier.

The fully assembled device had a hexagonal cross-section, 1.25 metres in diameter, and weighed 1400 kg. The device was detonated when the firing button was pushed at 8.05 a.m.; it was in a shaft 107 m under the army Pokhran test range in the Thar Desert.

The nuclear yield of this test still remains controversial, with unclear data provided by Indian sources, although Indian politicians have given the country’s press a range from 2 kt to 20 kt.

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Aftermath of Operation Smiling Buddha

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s popularity soared father the nuclear tests which had considerably stagnated since the end of the 1971 Indo-Pak war (which began on December 3, 1971, and ended on December 16, 1971). The improvement in her image also managed to improved prospects of the Congress Party overall where it was well-received in the Parliament of India.

Despite India’s continued statements that the tests were done for peaceful purposes, there was harsh opposition from the International community. The Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) was formed as a result of the Indian tests to check international nuclear proliferation. The NSG came to the conclusion that many safeguards were required for any future nuclear export deals in 1992. This meant that there would not be any more nuclear exports to India. The restriction were waived off in the wake of the Indo-US civilian nuclear agreement of 2008.

Pakistan never for a moment believed India’s statement about the tests being for peaceful purposes. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto reiterated that Pakistan would never succumb to India’s nuclear bullying or accept Indian hegemony over the subcontinent”. The nuclear tests done by India would see Pakistan plunge headlong into its own quest to obtain nuclear weapons.

Regardless of the consequences, Operation Smiling Buddha remains one of the greatest events in modern Indian history.

The UPSC Syllabus page will help in giving a general idea about the exam pattern. For more preparation materials and related articles refer to the links given in the table below:

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