March 18th, 1989 can be considered as one of the most important if not the most important date in the history of Indian defense. It was quite evident by then that Pakistan was well on its way of developing a full-fledged nuclear weapon ready for deployment. The then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was in his final days as the Prime Minister and was caught up amidst excessive internal and external conflicts but thankfully that did not deter him from taking a firm stand regarding the country’s defense. 1989 was also the last year when Pakistan last received their annual certificate of being a nuclear free country.
Under such circumstances the Indian Air Force (IAF) decided to conduct a massive show of power on March 18th, 1989 by kicking of what can be said as one of the biggest Air Force exercises in the history of independent India. Almost a third of all available aircrafts (129 then) participated in this exercise that took place at the firing ranges of Tilpat on the south-eastern edge of Delhi. Rajiv Gandhi was present at the ranges during the time and signaled the then defense secretary Naresh Chandra to a tent. This very specific incident in Indian history is said to be a turning point in the nuclear armament of India. The conversation between the Prime Minister and the Defense Secretary can never be detailed as of now but from what little is available, Rajiv Gandhi had decided during this conversation that it was time for India to have their own nuclear arsenal.
Rajiv Gandhi made Naresh Chandra in charge of what came to be known as the nuclear ‘Core’ group which included the likes of V.S. Arunachalam, the then head of DRDO, nuclear scientist P.K. Iyengar, R. Chidambaram, Anil Kakodkar, K. ‘Sant’ Santhanam, Muthuswamy Balachandran and India’s missile man Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam along with some others. Naresh Chandra was a perfect choice for this role as he was a civil servant with immense experience, discretion and had the ability to cut a few corners if needed.
It was decided that the entire operation would be totally discreet and would have nothing to do with the ‘system’ back then. It was named Operation Shakti. No documentation was ever made or recorded by any government officials. Not even the PMO had one piece of paper that stated any details regarding this operation. The money flow had to be quite heavy but at the same time had to be discreet given the sheer amount of auditors and foreign agents keeping a keen eye on the Indian peninsula. The money required for the project was allocated during the annual budget under the ‘Science and technology’ category. This was done to keep the information secret even from the Planning Commission.
Heavy sanctions had been implied on India because of the Pokhran I tests therefore acquiring materials from global markets while keeping all of it under covers was quite a daunting task. This has been one of the most well kept secrets India has been able to conceal from the rest of the world. The core team deserves even more accolades than they currently do because during the time when all of this was unfolding, Pakistani smugglers and thieves were leaving their trail everywhere they went. For the entire duration of almost 10 years from 1989 to 1998 when the Pokhran II tests were successfully conducted, not even one person whether being a scientist, a politician, a diplomat or a civil servant was caught or uttered a single word to any outsider. The very thought fills me up with national pride.
Since Pokhran I, the Indian nuclear programme witnessed 7 prime ministers from Rajiv Gandhi to Atal Bihari Vajpayee and for quarter of the century everything related to the programme remained totally discreet. India witnessed political and civil turmoil during this period and even went through a period of national emergency but such was the dedication of the members involved including the Prime Ministers that they kept their political and personal differences aside and worked in unison for the nation, something that is missing from the current scenario of politics. The leaders in the past would be saddened to see such a state of politics in the country.
The passage to Pokhran II was quite dangerous and depended completely on the will of the core team given the sanctions that followed Pokhran I. It was this very week from 11th May, 1998 to 13th May, 1998 when India successfully tested 1 fusion bomb and 4 other fission bombs and Operation Shakti was declared a success. United States along with their intelligence agency CIA were deeply embarrassed and this was termed as “a serious intelligence failure of the decade.” Outraged, the US imposed economic sanctions on India and opposed India internationally. During 1998-1999 the US and India held several bilateral talks in order to ease the situation. America even tried to roll back India’s Nuclear Program but was unsuccessful in doing so. With another failure in their belt, US then tried to have India sign the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and the Non Proliferation Treaty and again met with failure leaving the Bill Clinton government red faced.
It has been 20 years since Operation Shakti was declared a success and since then India till date maintains its ‘No First Use Policy’ which has turned the tides to India’s favor. US now supports India and its support to Pakistan has dwindled significantly in the last two years. Operation Shakti is a very fine example of Indian diplomacy and technical expertise of people who deserve to be appreciated but remain behind the curtains for the nation. They are the dark knights every nation deserves.
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