India Conducts Nuclear Tests Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Nearly a quarter century after India’s first nuclear tests, the country’s Hindu nationalist government undertook a second set of tests. Geopolitical consequences of this nuclear experiment were severe, resulting in Pakistan conducting its own nuclear tests in the same year.

Summary of Event

India’s nuclear ambition fueled by Indira Gandhi’s vision of creating a nuclear state manifested in 1974 with the Pokhran I tests. These were conducted in an attempt to increase the threat level with India’s neighbor Pakistan following the deadly Indo-Pakistani War of 1971. The tests, though successful, instigated an arms race between the two nations that threatened the political stability in the region. Nuclear testing was conducted in the same region two decades later, in 1998, and was seen by many as a bigger attempt by India to flex its muscles. The primary motivation for the arms race was to secure the disputed Muslim-dominated Kashmir region in India. Pokhran II Nuclear weapons;testing India;nuclear weapons tests Weapons;nuclear [kw]India Conducts Nuclear Tests (May 11 and 13, 1998) [kw]Nuclear Tests, India Conducts (May 11 and 13, 1998) Pokhran II Nuclear weapons;testing India;nuclear weapons tests Weapons;nuclear [g]South Asia;May 11 and 13, 1998: India Conducts Nuclear Tests[10010] [g]India;May 11 and 13, 1998: India Conducts Nuclear Tests[10010] [c]Government and politics;May 11 and 13, 1998: India Conducts Nuclear Tests[10010] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;May 11 and 13, 1998: India Conducts Nuclear Tests[10010] Vajpayee, Atal Bihari Sharif, Nawaz Gandhi, Indira Kalam, Abdul Chidambaram, Rajagopala Khan, Abdul Qadeer

During the years of the Cold War, the U.S.-Soviet nuclear arms race was seen as a show of power and political might. This trend diffused into South Asia, where India and Pakistan’s dispute over the Kashmir region underwent two major wars during the 1960’s. India’s alignment with the Soviet Union and Pakistan’s mutual understanding with China attracted global attention as well. During the 1970’s, the increased tension between India and Pakistan culminated with the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War that saw the birth of Bangladesh. However, severe losses on both sides and the stalemate of the Kashmir region continued. As a Muslim-dominated region, Kashmir was viewed by Pakistan as its territory because of the predominantly ethnic Sunni Muslim population living there. India had taken interest in Kashmir because of its political allegiance and because the region had a sizeable Hindu population.

Growing populations between the two nations and the prospect of using nuclear energy to sustain this growth prompted the two nations to sign a pact in 1988 in Lahore, Pakistan, disallowing preemptive strikes against their nuclear energy facilities. The secular Indian National Congress government of India responsible for the numerous roundtable talks between the two nations stabilized the dispute during most of 1980’s and 1990’s. However, during the February, 1996, Indian elections, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee vowed to develop nuclear weapons if elected. Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif government viewed this as a threat and committed to reexamine the 1988 agreement on nuclear restraint. During the same period, the number of incursions across the border in Kashmir and minor border conflicts were growing. On April 6, 1998, Pakistan tested the 932-mile-range Ghauri missile, capable of carrying nuclear-tipped weaponry. India viewed this test as a threat, since its capital city New Delhi was only a few hundred miles from Pakistan’s border.

With Vajpayee’s victory in India’s 1996 prime ministerial elections, his election promise to build nuclear weapons began to gain momentum. In the years that followed his election, India assembled some of the brightest scientists from the nation’s best research facilities. Among them was Abdul Kalam, viewed as India’s “missile man” for his contribution to India’s space program. Kalam became the chief scientific adviser to the prime minister and laid the foundation for India’s nuclear program. Another key architect of this program was Rajagopala Chidambaram, a nuclear scientist who by this time had recently completed his tenure as the director of Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre India’s premier nuclear research institute.

On May 11, 1998, the nuclear testing operation in the desert region of Pokhran was conducted. The first of the two nuclear tests was code-named Shakti I. With a 12-kiloton-yield fission device and a 43-kiloton-yield thermonuclear device, Vajpayee’s government sent a strong message to its neighbor. Two days later, the second round of tests, Shakti II, was carried out with a subkiloton nuclear device. International outcry and economic sanctions immediately followed. On May 14, the United States imposed a $20 billion blockage of aid and critical loans scheduled for India. Japan followed the United States with a $1 billion aid blockage. The United States and other Western nations expressed displeasure in what they believed to be a threat to global peace. Pakistan’s prime minister Sharif viewed these tests as a sign of nuclear weapons buildup, and, with the assistance of his principal nuclear scientist, Abdul Qadeer Khan, his nation reacted with its own tests. On May 28, 1998, Pakistan tested five nuclear devices, with a sixth smaller device tested on May 30. The tests were conducted in the deserts of the western province of Baluchistan, in the Chagai Hills. Pakistan reported a much higher kiloton yield than India. The U.N. Security Council condemned the tests by both nations. The world watched anxiously, fearing nuclear warfare between the two nations. Pakistan;nuclear weapons

Czech members of Greenpeace protest against India’s underground nuclear tests in front of the Indian embassy in Prague.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

The entry of Pakistan into the “nuclear club” (an informal group of the world’s nuclear superpowers), the timing of both countries’ tests, and the ongoing Kashmir conflict were not seen favorably by the world. The two nations were strongly encouraged to sign the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, but they refused, and regional conflict and territorial disputes acerbated the situation even further. The 1998 tests were a precursor for an increased turbulence in the region.


The nuclear tests were only the beginning of an increased regional conflict between India and Pakistan. The peace process following the tests was volatile, and alternating phases of treaties and conflicts ensued. In 1999, despite the promise of the Lahore Summit, wherein the two nations met to discuss the peace process, the arms race intensified with both nations testing long-range missiles. In the same year, the delicate border situation developed into the Kargil War in the Kashmir region. This heightened the possibility of nuclear warfare. However, the war was quelled by international pressure and the reclamation of Kashmir by India. After the war, the peace process seemed possible.

In the early twenty-first century, the two nations participated in a number of bilateral talks. The 2001 Indo-Pakistan talks in New York City and the resumption of the Lahore-Delhi bus service in 2003 were seen as positive steps toward mutually committing to peace and nuclear responsibility. The 2006 meeting of the Nonaligned Movement in Cuba was seen as one of the most fruitful meetings between the nations. While the peace in the region remained fragile, mutual agreements and cooperation for civil nuclear power brought the two nations together. Pokhran II Nuclear weapons;testing India;nuclear weapons tests Weapons;nuclear

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nizamani, Haider. The Roots of Rhetoric: Politics of Nuclear Weapons in India and Pakistan. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2000. Discusses the symbolism attached to the nations’ nuclear programs and the role of nuclear weapons in the region’s political stability.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Peimani, Hooman. Nuclear Proliferation in the Indian Subcontinent: The Self-Exhausting “Superpowers” and Emerging Alliances. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2000. Provides a comparative account of the subcontinent’s neighbors and their race for nuclear domination.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sridharan, E. The India-Pakistan Nuclear Relationship: Theories of Deterrence and International Relations. New York: Routledge, 2007. Reexamination of international politics and the impact of the India-Pakistan relationship on the global and regional peace process.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tellis, Ashley. India’s Emerging Nuclear Posture: Between Recessed Deterrent and Ready Arsenal. Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND, 2001. Discusses India’s rise as a nuclear state and its impact on regional geopolitics within an international political context.

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Categories: History