By Donald Johnson
after 3:45 PM on May 11, 1998 at Pokhran, a desert site in the Indian
state of Rajisthan, groups of local Bishnoi herders--whose customs
forbid killing animals or cutting trees--heard a huge explosion, and
watched in amazement as an enormous dust cloud floated in the sky. What
the Indian farmers did not realize, but the diplomats in Washington and
around the world soon grasped, was the fact that India had just joined
the United States, Russia, England, France and China as the newest
member of the nuclear club. On that warm May afternoon, Indian nuclear
scientists successfully exploded three atomic devices amounting to
about six times the destructive power of the American bomb dropped on
Hiroshima in 1945. The next day, as the world tried to absorb the
frightening news, India ignited two more nuclear explosions.
Even as ninety percent of Indians applauded then-Prime Minister Vajpayee's decision to go nuclear, then-U.S. President Clinton immediately reacted to the explosions with shock and criticized India's nuclear testing. The American President argued that India’s actions violated the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty endorsed by 149 nations and the 1970 non-proliferation treaty signed by 185 nations. Despite the fact that neither India nor Pakistan has signed the treaties, the President, citing the 1994 Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Act, immediately called for economic sanctions against India including cutting off $40 million in economic and military aid, and all American bank loans. The President also asked the International Monetary Fund and World Bank to cancel all new loans which could cost India around $14.5 billion worth of public projects, including a major modernization of India's often failing electrical system. Moreover, Japan and other industrial nations soon followed the U.S. example and froze on-going projects in India worth over a billion dollars in aid.
As the five nuclear powers, all permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, discussed ways to punish India as well as ways to prevent Pakistan from testing its own nuclear devices, the leaders of Pakistan were busily moving forward with their own nuclear plans.
On May 28th, Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan's prime minister at that time, announced that following India's lead, Pakistan had successfully exploded five "nuclear devices." Not content to equal India's five tests, Pakistan proceeded on May 30th to explode yet a sixth device and at the same time the Prime Minister announced that his government would soon be able to launch nuclear war heads on missiles.
Both President Clinton and a majority of the world community condemned Pakistan's nuclear testing, although China was much less harsh in its criticism of Pakistan, its close ally. Following the sanctions policy after India's tests, the United States, Japan, Britain, Canada and Germany ended their aid to Pakistan and asked the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank to place a moratorium on loans to Pakistan. However, despite President Clinton's wish to impose a world-wide system of economic sanctions on India and Pakistan, a vast majority of western nations have refused to join the effort.
The Story Behind the Headlines
Despite the seeming suddenness of India's and Pakistan's decisions to test nuclear devices and in so doing seek to join the other five world nuclear nations, the headlines following the explosions "heard round the world," had a fifty-year history.
Since their independence as new nations in 1947, India and Pakistan have followed a path of mutual animosity. Pakistan was created as a national homeland for the Muslim-majority areas of the subcontinent, while India proposed to become a secular nation that included about 85 percent Hindus, but also more than ten percent Muslims as well as large numbers of Sikhs, Christians and members of other religions.
Soon after the partition of the sub-continent into the two nations, about 17 million people fled their homes and journeyed to either Pakistan or India. In one of the largest exchanges of populations in history, violence soon broke out with Muslims on one side and Sikhs and Hindus on the other. The resulting blood shed in the Punjab and West Bengal regions left more than one million people dead in its wake.
In the midst of this refugee movement and open violence, the governments of India and Pakistan hastily tried to divide the assets of British India between the two new countries. From weapons and money, down to paper clips and archaeological treasures, all had to be divided.
The British had left behind, besides about half of the subcontinent that it directly governed, some 562 independent or "princely" states. The provision was that each state could remain independent, join Pakistan or accede to India. A violent competition soon resulted as the two new nations sought to win to their own nations the largest and most strategically located states, such as Hyderabad and Kashmir. Because Kashmir was more than 70% Muslim, Pakistan insisted that a vote be taken in the state. However, India argued, since the Maharaja of Kashmir was Hindu, he had right to take the state into India. Even as independence was being celebrated, India and Pakistan began a covert war in Kashmir and the struggle for that state still goes on today.
In 1947, 1965 and 1971 India and Pakistan fought wars that did not change the status of Kashmir, but did result in the 1971 further partition of West and East Pakistan into the two nations of Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Not only did the architects of Indian foreign policy fear Pakistan, but in 1962, after China's sudden invasion of northeast India, they suddenly realized the ancient protection of the Himalayan Mountains had vanished. India now would have to build sufficient military power to protect itself from both Pakistan and China, the largest country in the world and a major military power armed with nuclear weapons.
Soon after the China war of 1962, Indian scientists began developing its nuclear capability. Under Indira Gandhi's Prime Ministership in 1974, India successfully exploded a nuclear device, announcing to the world its scientific capacity to develop nuclear bombs.
Because of the strong world opinion against nuclear testing, India did not undertake additional nuclear testing until May, 1998. However, this fourteen-year moratorium on nuclear testing did not mean Indian scientists and political leaders were not planning to join the nuclear club.