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Program 9834
August 25, 1998


Indian and Pakistani nuclear experts along with archival audio

This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.

[Program begins with sounds of South Asian music]

MALE VOICE: Attention! The reactor is now critical! Attention! The reactor is now critical!

JEFF MARTIN: Long before India and Pakistan tested nuclear weapons this past spring, both countries were known to have the capability to build a bomb. And both countries refused to join the widely accepted Nuclear Non-Proliferation regime.

A.G. NURANNI: Really these great powers were like drunks who were preaching temperance. They never tried to scale down their nuclear arsenal, while they were asking us not to produce nuclear weapons.

MARTIN: In this edition of Common Ground, we’ll look at the background of the nuclear programs in the Indian subcontinent, and the stand-off in which India and Pakistan now find themselves.

SHIRIN MAZARI: I didn’t, nor did anyone in Pakistan, invent the principle of nuclear deterrence. We got that from you guys.

MARTIN: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It is produced by Stanley Foundation. I’m Jeff Martin.

In May of this year first India and then Pakistan, successfully tested nuclear weapons and then declared themselves nuclear powers. Those actions shattered a decades-long status quo in which it was understood that there were five acknowledged nuclear weapons states in the world—although it was also known that several countries had the capabilities to produce a weapon. India’s decision and Pakistan’s response have created a new nuclear stand-off and a challenge for those who would limit the spread of nuclear weapons. But as Michael O’Rourke reports, the India-Pakistan nuclear rivalry has been a long time in the making.

RECORDED SPEECH OF LORD MOUNTBATTEN: You have a world-renowned leader of courage and vision. Under his able guidance India will now attain a position of strength and influence and take her rightful place in the comity of nations. [applause]

O’ROURKE: On August 15, 1947, Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last viceroy of British India, welcomed the now free country of India to the world. Independent India was the second most populous nation on Earth and emerged immediately as a prominent Third World player on the global stage. Nowhere was this more true than in the field of atomic energy. Indian nuclear research and scientific accomplishments pre-dated independence. In 1928, while India was still under colonial domination, an Indian scientist won the Nobel Prize in Physics. India’s achievements in atomic energy were recognized at the first International Atoms for Peace conference in 1955. Homi Bhabha, the founder of India’s nuclear program, chaired the conference.

RECORDED SPEECH OF HOMI BHABHA: A widespread atomic power industry in the world will necessitate an international society in which the major states have agreed to maintain peace.

O’ROURKE: Bhabha’s chairmanship of the conference symbolized not only India’s progress in the field of atomic energy, but also the world’s hopes for the success of the Atoms for Peace plan. India would lead the other lesser-developed nations to a new world of prosperity, powered by atomic energy. After years of secrecy that prevented transfer of any technical assistance from the nuclear haves to the have-nots, cooperation was now the order of the day. Several countries offered to help India with its nuclear development. In 1956 Canada agreed to supply India with a large research reactor. It was known originally as the Canada-India Reactor, or CIR. For years the CIR was the centerpiece of India’s nuclear program, and is celebrated in an early Indian film on atomic energy.

FILM SOUND TRACK: The scientists watch anxiously, hopefully, proudly. “Attention! The reactor is now critical! Attention! The reactor is now critical!” This is indeed a proud day for India and Canada. The CIR will be one of the most powerful research reactors and one of the largest isotope producers in the world.

O’ROURKE: One of the isotopes that the Canada-India Reactor could produce in abundance was plutonium, a nuclear weapons material. The reactor required heavy water, a special form of water which was supplied by the United States. Neither the United States or Canada required safeguards or inspections of the reactor to insure that weapons materials were not diverted from the plant. India did formally agree to use the plant for peaceful purposes only, a pledge that would later prove ambiguous. In 1958, two years after construction of the CIR reactor began, India announced plans to build a reprocessing plant to extract plutonium from the reactor’s spent fuel. Together, the two plants gave India the capability to produce weapons-grade plutonium. India may have been hedging its bets against China’s nuclear program. The reprocessing plant was built long before India had any peaceful use for it. But very few people in the late `50s were concerned about the direction of India’s nuclear program. India was perhaps the best model for transformation through the peaceful atom. The country had a tremendous need for energy and it had the scientific infrastructure to develop nuclear power. India was also committed to peace. Jawarhawal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, was an outspoken advocate of nuclear disarmament. Nehru’s foreign policy rested on nonalignment and peaceful co-existence with its neighbors, especially China.

PRAN CHOPRA: Close and friendly relations with China were a very essential part of the foreign policy framework of Jawarhawal Nehru.

O’ROURKE: Pran Chopra is a professor at the Center for Policy Research in Delhi.

CHOPRA: He saw India and China as two major Asian countries to whom there would be an Asian resurgence. Nehru was a great Asian and he has a vision of Asia which was perhaps romantic, but that rested a great deal upon the relations between India and China. And that collapsed.

NEWSREEL OR DOCUMENTARY ANNOUNCER: India found the path of neutralism a hard one in a world torn by strife. Red China poured troops over her northern frontier, and India’s people mobilized to meet the threat. India had been ill-prepared….

O’ROURKE: On October 20, 1962, Chinese troops invaded India to settle a simmering border dispute between the two countries. Surprised Indian troops were easily overrun by the better prepared Chinese forces. The defeat humiliated India and discredited Nehru’s policy of security through nonaligned peaceful coexistence.

GIRILAL JAIN: The scale of the conflict was rather limited. But the shock waves that it sent through the entire body politic of India was enormous. Oh, it just transformed our attitude completely.

O’ROURKE: Jain is a retired senior editor of The Times of India.

JAIN: We had a sense of betrayal. We thought that we had done a great deal for the Chinese. We had been extremely friendly to them. We had promoted their cause in the world. And we had a perception also that they were a peace-loving country, which they are those who would live in peace. All this was shattered.

O’ROURKE: The Chinese threat also prompted the first public call for India to develop nuclear weapons. It came from the right-wing opposition Jain Sang Party?? Nehru, who had declared that India would never develop nuclear weapons under any circumstances, flatly rejected the proposal. In May 1964 Jawarhawal Nehru died and power passed to Lalbhadur Chasttree. Five months China again shocked India and the world.

[sound of atomic bomb blast]

PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON: Chinese Communists have announced that they conducted their first nuclear test today. By our own detection system we have confirmed that a low-yield test actually took place in Western China at about 3:00 a.m….

O’ROURKE: Former US President Lyndon Johnson. Cries for an Indian bomb rose to a crescendo after the Chinese nuclear test. Several members of Prime Minister Chasttree’s own Congress Party joined those calling for India to develop nuclear weapons. Homi Bhabha contended that nuclear weapons would be useful to India as a deterrent and that India could produce a bomb in 18 months. In late 1964, Prime Minister Shastri still publicly stated that India would not develop nuclear weapons despite the Chinese threat.

PRIME MINISTER LAL BHADUR SHASTRI: And to bring the situation with which we are faced on our northern borders, it would have been understandable if we had also elected to develop our considerable nuclear capacity for defense purposes. But any such a step by us might well have started a race for nuclear weapons which once begun will hardly ever stop.

O’ROURKE: Events continued to pressure India’s leaders to come up with a response to the Chinese nuclear threat. In the Fall of 1965 India fought its second war with Pakistan over the disputed territory of Kashmir. Once again China was a problem for India.

[sounds of artillery fire]

NEWSREEL OR DOCUMENTARY ANNOUNCER: As the big guns bark on three fronts in the Kashmir war, there are new threats that may plunge all of Southeast Asia into hostilities. As India and Pakistan trade punches in the Kashmir border dispute, China has issues a series of ultimatums to India. The Red Tiger is threatening India all along her northern border, particularly….

O’ROURKE: In the wake of the Kashmir conflict, Prime Minister Chasttree sent emissaries to the United States and the Soviet Union seeking security assurances against the Chinese nuclear threat. Such assurances, if granted, would have jeopardized India’s nonaligned status. But neither country was prepared to give India an ironclad security guarantee. In January 1966, Homi Bhabha was killed in an airplane crash. A few weeks later Lalbhadur Chasttree died. India’s new Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, may have de-emphasized the research being done on nuclear explosives. Almost in spite of itself, India remained nonaligned and non-nuclear. But one result of India’s changing security needs was the way it viewed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which was then being negotiated by the super powers. India’s early interest in the Non-Proliferation Treaty stemmed from its support for nuclear disarmament. By the mid-`60s, after long negotiations, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to a treaty draft that addressed their mutual desire to stop the spread of the Bomb to other countries. But the treaty did little to constrain countries that already possessed nuclear weapons, including China, which did not sign the treaty. The draft called upon non-nuclear weapons states to promise not to develop the Bomb and to place all of their nuclear facilities under international inspection. Countries that already possessed nuclear weapons did not have to submit to inspections or reduce their nuclear arsenals. This seemed unfair to India. C.S. Jha, was India’s Foreign Secretary at the time the Non-Proliferation Treaty was negotiated.

C.S. JHA: It was a really one-sided treaty, you see. We sent an emissary to the Soviet Union, to Britain, and the United States, you see. But we drew a blank. I mean, they were not prepared to moderate their draft. That was it. Either you take or leave it. And better take it. You know, that was the attitude. I submitted a note to the Cabinet and the Cabinet decided that we would not sign this treaty.

O’ROURKE: After some debate, Indira Gandhi’s cabinet unanimously rejected the Non-Proliferation Treat. Announced in May 1968, the decision proved to be very popular with the Indian people. Most Indians viewed the NPT as an affront to India’s national pride. A.G. Nuranni is a high court lawyer from Bombay.

NURANNI: Really, these great powers were like drunks who were preaching temperance. They never tried to scale down their nuclear arsenal, while they were asking us not to produce nuclear weapons. So we said, “nothing doing. We will not sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty.”

GENERAL KAY SUNDARJI: Some can be trusted and some can’t.

O’ROURKE: General Kay Sundarji.

SUNDARJI: This kind of historical nonsense is one of the main planks of the NPT. [laughing] You can trust the Big Five but you can’t trust anybody else.

It is the United States and the Soviet Union and the nuclear weapons powers who are spreading the nuclear weapons. They are in, at the time of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, since then there are four times the number of nuclear weapons. Therefore, what is nonproliferation? The proliferators are proliferating. And then to say, that its spread to other nations is more dangerous, is, I consider, is a racist nonsense.

O’ROURKE: Kay Suundarji, a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis in Delhi, is a prominent pro-bomb advocate.

RECORDING OF PRIME MINISTER INDIRA GANDHI: The entire nation rejoices in this historic event. We hail the people of Bangladesh, in their hour of triumph. We are proud of our own armed forces, who have….

O’ROURKE: In December 1971 Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi claimed a decisive victory over Pakistan in the third war between the two countries. The war resulted in Pakistan’s dismemberment and the creation of the new nation of Bangladesh, from what was East Pakistan. It all but eliminated Pakistan as a security threat to India and left India in a stronger position than at any time since independence. Ironically, it was near this time that India moved forward with its plans to conduct a nuclear test. C.S. Jha recalls a conversation he had with Homi Bhabha years earlier.

C.S. JHA: Homi Bhabha, I knew very well. He was a good personal friend of mine. And he told me that “We want to make a nuclear explosion to prove that we are as good as anybody else is.” And this is a very important thing in the psyche of countries which have been under colonial domination, which have newly gained their independence. It’s a matter of satisfying your ego, you know, national ego. And it’s a matter of self-respect.

RAJAH RAMANNA: So we tried the experiment. We had the plutonium.

O’ROURKE: Rajah Ramanna was the Project Director for India’s nuclear test. The test was done underground in the isolated Rajastan Desert at Pokeran, near the Pakistani border.

RAMANNA: We had some problems under the site. Because there were you were digging, the Rajastan Desert, you get a lot of brackish water underground, from historic ancient times. So by the time you found a dry hole that it self was a ?? Things like that were the logistic problems. And it went off very easily.

MARTIN: You’re listening to Common Ground. We’ll take a break for a moment and return to our report on the long-building nuclear rivalry between India and Pakistan. Printed transcripts of Common Ground and audio cassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details on ordering. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts varied programs and activities meant to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.

[sound of atomic explosion]

O’ROURKE: On May 18, 1974, India became the sixth nation to conduct a nuclear test. Scientists sent the code message, “the Buddha is smiling” to New Delhi, indicating a successful test. India described it as a “peaceful” nuclear explosion. Most Indians reacted to the news with elation and enthusiasm. Ravi Hazari is a lawyer in Bombay and a student of military history.

RAVI HAZARI: I remember my father woke me up and told me, you know, “India has exploded a nuclear bomb.” I was very thrilled. There was a great sense of pride and achievement that “our boys have done it.” And the fact that you have now gate-crashed into a very elite club, which now must salute India’s unsolicited entry into these exclusive premises.

PRAFIL BIDWAI: I was shocked at the disinformation campaign that was launched.

O’ROURKE: Prafil Bidwai is a Senior Editor for the Times of India and has written extensively on India’s nuclear program.

BIDWAI: At one level the government was keen to publicize that India had joined the nuclear club. At the same time, hypocritically, it wanted to say that this was not really a nuclear bomb test.

O’ROURKE: Unlike the recent tests, India’s 1974 test, was thinly disguised as a peaceful experiment. And the Indian government did not go on to openly deploy the weapons at that time. But the `74 test did give India an undeclared nuclear weapons status. One of those who understood this very well was General Kay Sunderjee, India’s military Chief of Staff under Indira Gandhi, at the time of the `74 test.

SUNDARJI: I was perfectly happy about it. Because I have always felt that we needed a deterrent.

O’ROURKE: So you saw it in military terms?

SUNDARJI: I saw it not only in military terms, even in political-military terms.

HOMI SETHNA: Some countries didn’t like it and some countries liked it. For instance, Pakistan did not. Naturally it’s to be expected for obvious reasons, because we are neighbors. United States did not. They did not want many more horses bolting out of the stable, so they didn’t like it.

O’ROURKE: Homi Sethna was the head of India’s Atomic Energy Commission at the time of India’s 1974 test. The test did create great concern in neighboring Pakistan. Pakistan’s own nuclear program was just barely underway at this point. Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfi Kar Ali Bhutto, Benezir Bhutto’s father, started the program after Pakistan’s disastrous defeat in the 1971 war with India. After India’s `74 test, the developed western nations canceled assistance to not only India’s nuclear program, but also Pakistan’s. But the western embargo didn’t stop Pakistan’s weapons program. In fact, it picked up speed after the Indian test. How did Pakistan, a relatively unindustrialized country, get what it needed? Pakistani politician Abida Hussein.

ABIDA HUSSEIN: Beg, borrow, and steal. You know, we live in a world which is not very tidy, is it? Nobody’s systems are all that scientific. You have guys in your systems that are willing to sell just about anything. And if we have the money somehow—begged, borrowed, stolen—to buy, then we buy.

O’ROURKE: A Pakistani scientist working abroad in a Dutch uranium enrichment plant did steal the plans for the plant and brought them back home, where he was rewarded with a high-level job in Pakistan’s nuclear program. The plant, once completed, gave Pakistan the capability to build the Bomb. Pakistani bomb makers were also able to purchase embargoed machinery to build the plant from Switzerland, Holland, Britain, and most of all, Germany. Harold Mueller is the Director of the Peace Research Institute in Frankfort.

HAROLD MUELLER: In the late `70s a small German chemical engineer, with a very small firm, succeeded in smuggling a whole uranium hexaflouride plant to Pakistan. He bought the parts and pieces in several European countries, assembled them in southern Germany on 60 trucks, and shipped them to Pakistan, declared as an experimental laboratory.

O’ROURKE: By 1979 Pakistan’s intentions became obvious and the United States Congress passed a bill that would deny Pakistan foreign aid unless it abandoned its bomb program. At the time Pakistan was the third largest recipient of US aid. But Pakistan forged ahead with its plans and the US aid dollars kept flowing throughout the 1980s. The 1980 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was one reason for continuing US aid. The United States needed Pakistan as a base to challenge the Soviets across the border in Afghanistan. And the Pakistanis felt they needed the Bomb.

[South Asian music]

ABIDA HUSSEIN: Ours is, our nuclear program is a direct reaction to the Indian nuclear program. We cannot hope to attain parity with India in conventional defense. If we have five tanks the Indians will always have 40. If we have 10 planes they’ll always have 100. India is a country which is five times our size. So we just simply cannot afford to have parity in conventional defense. And if India has a nuclear program and we don’t—we fought three wars with India, India has dismembered us once already—you know, what does the international community expect?

O’ROURKE: Many people in Pakistan would agree with Abedu Hussein that Pakistan needs the Bomb to deter Indian aggression. They say that one of the main obstacles to better relations between the two countries is India’s desire to become a super power.

MALEELHA LODI: I think the fact which has soured relations between these two countries, certainly from the Pakistani point of view, is an attitude displayed by New Delhi, irrespective of who has been in power in New Delhi, which is an imperial attitude. Which is an attitude which really expects smaller states in the region to fall in line with India on major security issues and even on foreign policy.

O’ROURKE: Maleelha Lodi is the editor of the Independent newspaper in Islamabad.

LODI: Pakistan must be a nuclear power and acquire nuclear capability. In all its dimensions, military and energy. And this nuclear capability basically is to prevent the Indians from reducing Pakistan to the status of a satellite in Indian orbit.

SETHNA: Pakistan is over-sensitive as far as India is concerned.

O’ROURKE: Homi Sethna is the former head of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission.

SETHNA: They should forget that. They should realize they’re much smaller than us and they must behave accordingly.

SUNDARJI: This pernicious business of the last 40 years, of the world community, exemplified by the United States, equating India and Pakistan as if they are two equal entities in all, in every manner, and then trying to keep them so, artificially, in terms of power, I think has, indeed, delayed the kind of acceptance of reality. And coming to a working arrangement in the region have been postponed for 40 years.

O’ROURKE: General Kay Sundarji is the former Chief of Staff of the Indian Army.

[South Asian music]

O’ROURKE: By 1990 Pakistani defense planners were privately admitting that their country had the Bomb and they were working on military strategies to use their new weapons. Shirin Mazari is the Head of the Department of Defense and Strategic Studies at Kati Azam University in Islamabad

SHIRIN MAZARI: I personally think that the nuclear option is an extremely attractive option for Pakistan. And we would have a very viable military strategy based on counter-city targeting, not counter-force strategy. It would be aimed at the civilians in India. I didn’t, nor did anyone in Pakistan, invent the principle of nuclear deterrence. We got that from you guys. Now if nuclear weapons are a deterrent and if that works for the Americans and the Soviets and the Chinese, why, may I ask, should it not work for the Indians and the Pakistanis? That is my question.

O’ROURKE: Indian defense analyst Ravi Rikye says that past experience has proven that deterrence does not buy security.

RAVI RIKYE: Every country that has nuclearized has used it as an argument, to introduce nuclear weapons. When they have introduced nuclear weapons after, you know, reducing conventional forces, they find instead of peace you live in a state of constant tension, where seconds count.

RAVI HAZARI: You see, it’s not that you’re sitting in Washington and you’re pressing a button and Bang! goes, you know, a missile silo in Siberia.

O’ROURKE: Ravi Hazari is a lawyer in Bombay.

HAZARI: Here, the border is common. Water, wind, soil, people, are crossing the border all the time. They are very close—religious, linguistic, culture factors, which bind the two nations together.

RIKYE: India is driven purely by a lust to have status and prestige. It’s like the very poor man, you know, with a very expensive gold watch. And he hopes to be taken seriously by the other leading countries of the world because he has got a gold watch. But meantime his clothes are in tatters, he’s totally, you know, malnourished, his children are dying of disease, and yet he thinks he’s going to get some kind of, you see, like prestige out of it. This is absolutely crazy. India has stood for all kinds of principles. We are the ones who should say, “We have shown you we can make nuclear weapons. We are the first to voluntarily renounce this for all time.” Think what an impact that would make.

[South Asian music]

MIAN AMANUL HAQ: They are the same people across the border. They may not be Muslims but they are still human beings. We have no enmity with them. It’s just a line, an invisible line between the two countries.

O’ROURKE: Mian Amanul Haq is the Manager of DHL Express in Islamabad.

HAQ: I have relatives in India. I have never gone across, but they have been here once or twice. I haven’t met all of them but the few that I’ve met, they share the same feelings as I do. That if today the borders were opened I think you would find have of India in Pakistan looking for their relations, and half of us Pakistanis in India looking for our relations over there.

[South Asian music]

O’ROURKE: The nuclear tests conducted last spring by India and Pakistan have upped the ante in South Asia. Pakistan, which had not previously conducted a nuclear test, and India, which had tested only once 24 years ago, both now say they will take the next step and deploy nuclear-armed missiles capable of reaching each other’s cities. The escalation of nuclear tensions comes at a time when India and Pakistan are once again in conflict over the disputed territory of Kashmir. Both sides have exchanged fire across the tense Kashmiri border in recent weeks. Perhaps to stem criticism and sanctions from abroad India and Pakistan have said they may now sign on to international treaties banning nuclear tests and production of weapons materials. There are also plans for bilateral arms control talks between the two nations. However, such talks have always failed in the past. The stakes are high. The outcome, uncertain. For Common Ground, I’m Michael O’Rourke.

Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.

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