India’s Nuclear Program

Indian nuclear policy as it came to be formulated in the early years, revolved around two principles: Promotion of research and development for harnessing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes and Attainment of self sufficiency in the nuclear programme.

The key architects of this policy were Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Dr. Homi Bhaba. Based on these principles India designed a three  stage nuclear strategy. Its main elements were as follows:  (i) Building of heavy water moderated reactors which could produce power as well as plutonium needed to start the breeder reactors;  (ii) Utilizing the plutonium produced from the first stage reactors in the fast breeder. This stage was to continue until suitable thorium-uranium 233 reactors become available; and (iii) To run the I1 type of breeders on the thorium-uranium 233 cycles.

The Sino-Indian war of 1962 and the Indian debacle in the war brought in some rethinking about defence policy. However, the direction that defence rebuilding took was essentially in the area of conventional weapons systems. The detonation of the Chinese nuclear device in 1964 led the Indian decision makers to look at the nuclear option.

Homi Bhaba, then the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission stated that India could produce a bomb within eighteen months, if it so wished. Prime Minister Lal ‘Baliadur Shastri admitted to the Parliament that he was willing to consider the use of nuclear blasts for peaceful purposes. In late 1964, Shastri is reported to have authorized the Indian Atomic Energy Commission to go ahead with the designing of a nuclear device and preparing the non-nuclear component so that the lead-time required to build an explosive could be reduced from eighteen to six months.

The decisions of 1964 were followed by a protracted debate on the Nuclear Non- proliferation Treaty. Both, Shastri and Homi Bliaba died in 1966. The early years of Indira Gandhi’s Prime Ministerial tenure saw a lot of political uncertainty in India. At the level of technological capabilities, there remained some uncertainty. Indian decision of not signing the NPT confirmed the end of the uncertainty of the sixties.

In the early seventies, Indian nuclear agenda began to take a definitive direction. In September 1971 , the Chairman of the Indian AEC announced at the Fourth Atoms for Peace Conference that India had been working, on top priority basis, in the field of nuclear explosive engineering for peaceful purposes. Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi also made it clear that the AEC was constantly reviewing the progress in the technology of underground nuclear explosion from, both, the theoretical and experimental angle.

Mrs. Gandhi, however, denied that there was any schedule fixed for a nuclear explosion. India conducted its first nuclear test in  1974 at Pokhran in Rajasthan. This was an underground test. This test has been called a Peaceful Nuclear Explosion (PNE) as its purpose was to pursue research in peaceful applications of nuclear technology and not construct a bomb.

It was after the nuclear test in 1974 that India finally developed a coherent nuclear doctrine to suit the changed circumstances. The test had demonstrated the Indian capability of producing a nuclear explosion. India now had the raw materials, the scientific and technological know-how and the personnel to construct an atomic bomb. What remained in question was the intent. India made it clear that this test was not conducted for production of a nuclear weapon and that India had no intention of going in for nuclear weapons. At the policy level, the earlier Shastri position of peaceful uses of nuclear energy with a go ahead for research in PNE was now further expanded. The test did not divert Indian stand on nuclear disarmament and peace policy. In her statement to the Indian Parliament, Mrs. Gandhi went at great length to stress that the test was part of the research and development work, which the AEC had been carrying out in pursing  the national objective of harnessing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.

By conducting the Peaceful Nuclear Explosion, India demonstrated its capability to produce a nuclear bomb. But it simultaneously stated that it would not produce a nuclear bomb. This created a sense of uncertainty about India’s real intentions. It is because of this that one can describe Indian policy as being a deliberately vague nuclear posture. This was to remain the basis of Indian nuclear policy for a long time.

This underwent a change in the early nineties following some important initiatives taken by the nuclear weapons states, namely,  To indefinitely extend the NPT in 1995,  To sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in  1996 and To begin discussions on the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty.

Nuclear debate in India in the first half of the nineties focused on need to enhance nuclear capability. On 11 and 13 May 1998 India conducted series of tests at Pokhran. India declared that it was now a nuclear weapon power. In his statement to the Parliament Prime Minister Vajpayee spelt out the nuclear policy of his government in the post Pokhran I1 phase: One, India would maintain a minimum but credible nuclear deterrent. To achieve this India did not require further testing and hence it was accepting a voluntary moratorium on further nuclear testing. Second, India would adhere to a ‘no first use‘ doctrine as regards nuclear weapons. Finally, India continued with its commitment to global nuclear disarmament.

The Indira Gandhi line about a deliberately vague nuclear doctrine had been continued by successive Congress governments of Rajiv Gandhi and P.V.Narsimha Rao. It was I.K.Gujral, Prime Minister of the United Front government who sought to end this ambiguity. Gujral wanted to keep the nuclear weapons option open as a security measure. However, he refused to define the exact nature of threat that forced him to articulate a clearer position on the nuclear issue. The BJP in its National Agenda was still more specific about keeping the option open. The 1998 nuclear tests ended the lingering ambiguity in Indian posture.

A lot of discussion took place about Indian nuclear policy after the tests. Questions came to be asked about the exact nature of Indian nuclear policy and its long term direction. The Draft outline of Indian Nuclear Doctrine was prepared by the government and released on  17 August  1999. It argues for autonomy in decision making about security for India. It takes the long established Indian line that security is an integral part of India’s  developmental process. It expresses concerns about the possible disruption of peace and stability and the consequent need to create a deterrence capability to ensure the pursuit of development. It argues that in the absence of a global nuclear disarmament policy, India’s  strategic  interests require an effective credible deterrence and adequate retaliatory capability should deterrence fail. It continues to hold on the  ‘no first use doctrine’ and the civilian control of nuclear decision-making. It also expresses India’s strong commitment for global nuclear disarmament.

India’s nuclear doctrine

  • Draft nuclear policy released in 1999 and amended in 2003
  • Objective: to project that India’s nuclear test explosions had a peaceful content and intentions. It seeks to project India as a responsible nuclear weapon state. Reiterate India’s commitment to global, verifiable and non-discriminatory nuclear disarmament
  • Four key principles
    • India has voluntarily undertaken not to test a nuclear weapon
    • No use of nuclear weapon against non-nuclear weapon state < now modified that India will not use nuclear weapon against a non nuclear state which is not aligned to a nuclear weapon state>
    • No first use. Will not use nuclear weapons unless the other country uses WMD (nuclear, chemical, biological)
    • Will follow credible minimum deterrence under which it would deploy only such nuclear weapons that are necessary to safeguard its strategic interest

Institutions to handle nuclear weapons in India

Two Institutions:                 A. Nuclear Command Authority          B. Strategic Force Command


  • Has two components: Political Council and Executive Council
  • Only the political council can authorise the retaliatory nuclear attack
  • Executive Council provides inputs for decision making by the NCA and it also executes direction given to it by Political Council


  • Custodian of all nuclear weapons and delivery systems
  • Will also formulate the strategy for retaliation and advice the chiefs of Staff committee and actually fire the nukes.

India’s suggestion at UN for end to all nuclear weapons led to the Atoms for Peace Programme initiated by US in 1957. This later became the IAEA.
1963: India ceded to the Limited Test Ban Treaty
1968: NPTIndia’s concern about universal disarmament was not addressed. Hence India did not sign
Only four sovereign states now are outside the treaty: India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea
1974: Pokhran I The challenge of expanded nuclear weapons deployment in Indian Ocean by the US and the Soviet Union and the progressive nuclear weaponization of Pakistan and China led India to go nuclear

  • Various sanctions followed and India’s access to nuclear and dual use technology was cut off
  • London Club was set up in response to Pokhran 1. This later became NSG.
  • 1988: Rajiv Gandhi proposed a time bound programme for disarmament in the special session of UN GA
    • Aka Rajiv Gandhi Action Plan
      • The plan was to be implemented in three stages over the next 22 years
  • Was through at the Six Nation Five Continent Initiative on Peace and Disarmament
  • In 2011, a committee headed by Mani Shankar Aiyer submitted a report to take forward the 1988 Rajiv Gandhi action plan
    • The report outlines a seven point roadmap, including India reiterating its commitment to eliminating its own arsenal as part of a universal, non-discriminatory and verifiable global process and promoting delegitimizing of nuclear weapons to set the state for “negotiating Nuclear Weapons Convention that would discuss a world without nuclear weapons in a specified time frame”

1996: CTBT

  • Was discriminatory
  • The treaty did not talk about the already stored nuclear arsenal
  • Till this time countries like the US had developed capabilities to perform nuclear tests in the laboratories and this treaty did  not tell anything about limiting laboratory testing.