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India-Pakistan Relations: A 50-Year History

By Donald Johnson 

Shortly 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.

Pakistan Responds

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.

India in the 1990s: the Moratorium Ends

Although Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi reversed his mother's policy of nuclear development, when a new prime minister Narasimha Rao assumed power in 1991, India resumed its plans for nuclear development and in December, 1995, Rao was ready to authorize a nuclear test--only to be discovered by CIA spy satellite and discouraged by President Clinton from going forward with the tests. With the election of the Hindu Nationalist, Bharata Janata Party in 1998, Prime Minister Atal Vajpayee ordered Indian scientists to proceed with plans for testing as soon as possible. This lead to the series of detonations in May, and the subsequent quick response by Pakistan.

Foreign Policy Relations

The United States has treaties which provide nuclear umbrella to Japan and NATO nations. At present, the United States has cordial relations with China. American policy is worked out in tension between those who insist on expanded human rights in China, and those who favor opening markets and investments in China and downplaying human rights issues. The United States was closely allied with Pakistan until end of Cold War. Pakistan provided bases for U-2 flights and conduit for arms to Afghanistan rebels. The United States provided most of Pakistani military aid from 1954 to the 1980s. China is now the major military supplier to Pakistan. The United States has maintained cool relations with India because of its refusal to join the west during the Cold War, its pursuit of a non-alignment foreign policy and for its tight controls on American investment and business enterprise in India.

China is the premier military power in Asia and considers Pakistan its oldest and most powerful Asian ally. China continues to occupy areas inside of India's borders as a result of the Indo-China war of 1962. China has nuclear-armed missiles positioned against India along the Himalayan border and in Tibet, in addition to being Pakistan’s main military weapons provider.

Russia has had close relations with India since Indira Gandhi became prime minister in 1966. Russia provides most of India's military sales. After the demise of the Soviet Empire, Russia is unable to provide economic or military aid to India.

India has pursued a policy of non-alignment with Soviet Union and United States since its independence. India's planned economy was not open to U.S. investment until change of policy toward free market in 1991. India would not accept American military aid or join alliances, thus alienating U.S. leaders and majority of Americans. Under President Kennedy, the United States supported India in its war with China. Under Nixon, the United States supported Pakistan in 1971 in the war that led to creation of Bangladesh (the former East Pakistan). America sent a nuclear-armed aircraft carrier to Bay of Bengal, which helped motivate India to go nuclear. Now that Russia is weak, India feels isolated and alone in world community. India has felt that the United States has also been hostile to India and that we now are promoting China as the major power in all of Asia. Pakistani testing of Gauri missile on April 6th, 1998 was a major factor in India's decision to undertake nuclear testing. India will suffer from the end of economic aid, but its leaders have calculated that that the nation can survive the sanctions.

Pakistan relied on its close alliance with the United States from 1954 through the 1980s. During the 1990s, leaders looked more to China for support and military technology and hardware; China is currently a major supplier of these components to Pakistan. The Pakistani foreign minister traveled to China for consultations ten days before Pakistan conducted nuclear tests. Pakistan will suffer far more than India as a result of economic sanctions by world community. Loss of aid will result in undermining of currency, great increase in debt and increase in poverty.

In the hunt for Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and Pakistan in early 2002, U.S. relations with Pakistan and its leader, President General Pervez Musharraf, improved, which further aggravated India-Pakistan relations. While economic sanctions were lifted, Pakistani militants staged several attacks and bombings; in one occassion, targeted Indian and Kashmiri legislatures. The United States feared possible nuclear retaliation and advised Americans to evacuate both South Asian countries.

Today, U.S. relations with India and Pakistan are strong. In March 2006, when U.S. President George W. Bush visited South Asia, he remarked that we "are now united by opportunities that can lift our people." In India, he commented that "The United States and India, separated by half the globe, are closer than ever before, and the partnership between our free nations has the power to transform the world."

Positions of World Leaders on India and Pakistan Nuclear Testing

Below are quotes from some of the major political figures and leaders in 1998, garnered from a variety of sources, from several countries that are most involved with the issue of India and Pakistan's recent nuclear tests.

Indian Prime Minister Atal Vajpayee
The [non proliferation] treaties are discriminatory and hypocritical. Our hope is that those nations that want to continue their nuclear monopoly will accept that the same rules should apply to all. (Boston Globe, May 29, 1998)

Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes
China is India's number-one threat. It is encircling India with missile and naval deployments of suspicious intent. (TIME Magazine, May 25, 1998)

Bal Thackeray, Nationalist Leader from Bombay
We have to prove that we are not eunuchs. (TIME, ibid.)

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif
Today we have evened the score with India....I would like to again assure all countries that our nuclear weapons systems are meant only for self-defense.... (New York Times, May 30, 1998)

Chinese official statements
Having signed the nuclear Test Ban treaty in 1995, we have been consistently opposed to nuclear tests. We knew there was a great possibility that Pakistan would follow [India's testing] because of the internal pressure its leaders face. But this is a rather difficult situation for China. We have a friendship with Pakistan, but we still have a strong stance against nuclear proliferation. (TIME, ibid.)

The United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan
This [India's and Pakistan's nuclear tests] is a step backward. The world needs fewer nuclear powers, not more of them. But the problem goes beyond India--I'm calling on India and Pakistan to sign the nuclear test-ban treaty before this problem spins out of control. (TIME, ibid.)

Russian President Boris Yeltsin
India is frankly a close friend of ours, and we enjoy very good relations. Their testing of a nuclear weapon was a great surprise. And when my visit to India takes place this year, I will do my utmost to somehow settle this problem. (TIME, ibid.)

U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ)
The recent testing by India and Pakistan bring the world closer to a nuclear confrontation than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. (Boston Globe, May, 1998)

U.S. President Clinton
To try to manifest your greatness by detonating atomic bombs when everybody else is trying to leave the nuclear age behind is just wrong. India and Pakistan must give up their arms race--a self-defeating cycle of escalation. (New York Times, May 13, 1998)

Former head of the International Energy Agency Hans Blix
India is a great civilization, but that is not enough. They do not feel that they were treated as though they were in the same league [as the permanent five nations on the U.N. Security Council]. One could ask if the outside world could have satisfied India’s wish to be considered a great power in a different manner. Are nuclear bombs the only way to assert greatness? (May 1998)

Facts: Nations with Nuclear Weapons

The following nations possess nuclear weapons, have carried out tests and have missiles to deliver nuclear warheads.

  • United States (pop. about 268 million), 1,030 tests since 1944. Now has 12,070 nuclear warheads. Missiles with range of 8,100 miles can reach anywhere in the world.
  • Britain (pop. about 59.1 million), 45 tests since 1952. Has 380 warheads. Missiles have range of 7,500 miles.
  • France (pop. about 58.8 million), 21 tests since 1961, most recent tests 1995, 1996. Now has 500 warheads. Missile range 3,300 miles.
  • Russia (pop. about 146.9 million), 715 tests since 1945. Has 22,500 warheads. Missile range 6,800 miles.
  • China (pop. about 1 billion, 300 million), 45 tests since 1964. Has 450 warheads. Missile range 6,800 miles. Has nuclear armed missiles directed at Indian cities in Tibet and Himalayan border.
  • Israel (pop about 6 million), no tests, but has more than a hundred warheads. Missile range 930 miles.
  • India (pop. about 988.7 million), six tests since 1974. Has about 65 warheads. Missiles named Prithvi has range of 1,550 miles. Presently developing Agni missile similar to Pakistan Gauri missile.
  • Pakistan, (pop about 141.9 million), began nuclear program in 1972. Now has about 15-25 warheads. Missile range 930 miles. Has received technology and missiles from China.

More Facts and Stats

  • Percentage of national spending on defense: Pakistan 25%, India 14%
  • Size of armed forces: Pakistan 600,000; India 1.2 million, China over 2 million.

Size of Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests

  • India, May 11th - 25-30 kilotons of TNT. Magnitude of 5.3 on seismometer
  • Pakistan, May 28 - 8-15 kilotons of TNT, Magnitude of 4.8 on seismometer