May 11, 1998 is a historic day in India’s history. It was the day the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government began its set of nuclear tests over a span of two days. According to the World Nuclear Association, ‘India's nuclear weapons program is described by its government as a necessary minimum deterrent in the face of regional nuclear threats that include a considerably larger Chinese nuclear arsenal as well as Pakistan's nuclear arms.’
Following the tests, then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee said, “Today, at 15:45 hours, India conducted three underground nuclear tests in the Pokhran range. The tests conducted today were with a fission device, a low yield device and a thermonuclear device. The measured yields are in line with expected values. Measurements have also confirmed that there was no release of radioactivity into the atmosphere. These were contained explosions like the experiment conducted in May 1974. I warmly congratulate the scientists and engineers who have carried out these successful tests.”
But like all great events in the history of India, there is a lead-up. Here are 10 events in India’s history that led to the successful nuclear testing at Pokhran 22 years ago
1944: India begins its nuclear programme under the leadership of Dr Homi Jehangir Bhabha. Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) is formed
1954: Dr Bhabha steers the programme in the direction of weapon design. Trombay Atomic Energy Department and Department of Atomic Energy established. India has a ‘verbal understanding’ with Canada and the United States under the ‘Atoms for Peace Project’. Canada and USA also help India in establishing CIRUS research reactor in Trombay.
1960: India’s Prime Minister Pt Jawaharlal Nehru holds discussions with USA to conduct India’s first nuclear power plant in Tarapur
1965: After Nehru and Bhabha’s death, Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri appoints Vikram Sarabai as the head of the nuclear programme, knowing full well that he will use it for peaceful purposes.
1967: Indira Gandhi becomes PM and work on the nuclear programme resumes. Homi Sethna plays a role in development of weapon-grade plutonium rather than uranium
1972-74: Indira Gandhi authorises Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) to manufacture a device for a test. Civilian scientists work with Indian Army. Device is named ‘Smiling Buddha’ and detonated on May 18, 1974
1989: The Janta Dal government led by former Prime Minister VP Singh successfully develops Prithvi missiles in its bid to combat terrorist attacks from across the border
1995: After staying quiet, fearing international criticism, Prime Minister Narasimha Rao decides to conduct tests. However, plans halted after US spy satellites were found examining India’s attempt to test. Bill Clinton-led administration puts pressure on Rao to not conduct tests
1998: NDA-1 assumes power under the leadership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee. A year earlier, Nawaz Sharif defeats Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan. In March 1998, Vajpayee asks his scientists led by APJ Abdul Kalam and R Chidmabaram on their nuclear options. Following US Spy Satellites observing the area, India knows it needs to conduct the tests in secrecy. 58th Engineer Regiment supervise test preprations to ensure total secrecy.
May 1, 1998: Bombs transported from Mumbai to Rajasthan by IAF jets to Rajasthan from wehre they are transported in Indian Army trucks to the site of the tests
May 11, 1998: At 3:43 pm, Shakti I, II and III are detonated simultaneously, as measured by international seismic monitors. On May 13, two sub-kiloton devices (Shakti IV and V) are detonated. Due to their very low yield, these explosions were not detected by any seismic station.