Pokhran-II (Nuclear Testing) - [May 11, 1998] This Day in History

11 May 1998


What happened?

India conducted a series of nuclear bomb tests at the Pokhran Test Range of the Indian Army starting 11 May 1998.

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Pokhran II – Background

Pokhran II was a milestone in India’s nuclear programme. It is important to know about the details of this programme. It is especially important from a security and foreign relations point of view for the IAS exam.

  • India’s nuclear program had its beginnings in 1944 when scientist Homi Bhabha tried to convince the Indian National Congress of the necessity of harnessing nuclear energy.
  • In the fifties, rudimentary studies were done at BARC towards this end. Efforts were also made to look for ways to produce bomb components like plutonium.
  • Indira Gandhi became the country’s Prime Minister in 1966 and more serious efforts were put in towards the nuclear program. Physicist Raja Ramanna is acknowledged as the person responsible for steering this program in the right direction.
  • The first nuclear tests by India were conducted in 1974 under the prime ministership of Indira Gandhi. This test was codenamed ‘Smiling Buddha’.
  • After these tests, the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the major nuclear powers of the world imposed a technological apartheid on India. As a result, India’s nuclear program slowed down due to the lack of resources and technology.
  • In the late seventies, it was known that Pakistan had a steady and well-funded nuclear program.
  • In 1995, the then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao decided to conduct further tests. However, India was pressured by the US not to do so, when American satellites got wind of the impending tests in India.
  • After AB Vajpayee became the Prime Minister, there was a move towards exercising the nuclear option. He had declared, “There is no compromise on national security; all options including the nuclear options will be exercised to protect security and sovereignty.”
  • Scientist and future President of the country APJ Abdul Kalam was the head of the missile program then. Vajpayee held consultations with Kalam and R Chidambaram, the head of the nuclear weapons program.
  • The tests were to be conducted very discreetly and the army’s 58th Engineer Regiment was entrusted with the task of preparing the sites for testing without getting detected by American spy satellites.
  • A small group of senior military officers, scientists and top-level politicians were only involved in the event’s planning. The chief coordinators of the tests were Abdul Kalam and R Chidambaram.
  • The institutions involved were BARC, DRDO and the Atomic Minerals Directorate for Exploration and Research (AMDER).
  • The engineer regiment had learnt to avoid probe by the satellites by working in the cover of the night and by returning the equipment in its original place to give an impression that they were not moved.
  • Five nuclear tests were conducted between 11 and 13 May. They were named Shakti-I through V. The operation was called Operation Shakti.
  • All the devices were weapons-grade plutonium. The first bomb was a fusion bomb and the rest were all fission bombs. On the first day, i.e., the 11th, three tests were done at 3:43 PM local time. They were underground tests done in the deserts of Rajasthan.
  • The chief technical people involved were (their designations at the time of the tests are given)
    • Chief Coordinators
      • APJ Abdul Kalam (DRDO Head & Chief Scientific Advisor to the PM)
      • R. Chidambaram (Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission & DAE)
    • DRDO
      • K Santhanam
    • AMDER
      • G. R. Dikshitulu
    • BARC
      • Anil Kakodkar (Director, BARC)
    • After the tests, the Prime Minister gave a press conference in which he announced to the world that India had conducted nuclear tests. India had become a full-fledged nuclear state.
    • The public in the country welcomed the tests and the BSE showed significant gains.
    • International reaction to the tests was not generally good. The USA, Japan and Canada imposed sanctions on India. Russia and France did not condemn India.
    • Pakistan strongly condemned the tests and also conducted nuclear tests about 15 days after India did.
    • The government of India declared May 11th to be observed as National Technology Day in the country. Awards are given to people who contribute in the field of science and technology.
    • On the same day, India had also successfully test fired Trishul missile, and also test flown the Hansa-3, India’s first nationally built aircraft.
Also on this day

1857: Indian sepoys captured Delhi from the British.


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