India Joins the Nuclear Club Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The first nuclear explosion in South Asia, demonstrating India’s nuclear capability, marked a drastic shift from the pacifistic policies of Indira Gandhi’s predecessors and contributed to domestic and international political changes.

Summary of Event

India’s first atomic explosion, on May 18, 1974, was a culmination of events in the larger context of geopolitical circumstances and internal political struggle. India’s turbulent relationship with Pakistan, which started in the aftermath of the British partition of India in 1947, supported by the perceived threat of China’s growing military strength during the 1960’s, encouraged India to respond with its own nuclear program. In the early 1970’s, India experienced a sequence of internal political and economic setbacks that shook the nation’s confidence. In order to regain political strength, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi approved nuclear weapons testing in the remote desert area of the northwestern state of Rajasthan, near the city of Pokhran. Nuclear weapons;India India;nuclear weapons tests Smiling Buddha Weapons;nuclear [kw]India Joins the Nuclear Club (May 18, 1974) [kw]Nuclear Club, India Joins the (May 18, 1974) Nuclear weapons;India India;nuclear weapons tests Smiling Buddha Weapons;nuclear [g]South Asia;May 18, 1974: India Joins the Nuclear Club[01590] [g]India;May 18, 1974: India Joins the Nuclear Club[01590] [c]Government and politics;May 18, 1974: India Joins the Nuclear Club[01590] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;May 18, 1974: India Joins the Nuclear Club[01590] [c]Science and technology;May 18, 1974: India Joins the Nuclear Club[01590] Gandhi, Indira Nehru, Jawaharlal Ramanna, Raja

The officially presented explanation was that India’s first nuclear test did not serve military purposes; it was labeled a “peaceful nuclear explosion,” a test conducted with economic goals in mind, analogous to some American and Soviet testing of that era. This event, however, propelled India into an exclusive group of countries possessing nuclear weapons. It also contributed to further nuclear arms development in the region and exacerbated long-standing political tensions between India and Pakistan.

Some scholars have asserted that India possessed the ability to create nuclear weapons by the late 1950’s but chose to delay this process in order to remain in accord with the policies of peaceful coexistence and disarmament promoted by leaders Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. Pragmatists in India considered the development of nuclear technology for military purposes unnecessary and expensive, with few real benefits for the nation. At the same time, opposing political forces supported atomic testing because they believed that India’s being a member of the world’s nuclear club would improve the nation’s status, marking it as a rapidly developing country with abilities equal to those of the world’s leading powers. Among Indian scientists, the idea of reaching a scientific milestone by building an atomic bomb received approval.

After India’s defeat in a brief and bloody border war with China in 1962, which resulted in territorial losses and severed relations between the two countries, Indian national pride was at a very low point. Two years later, China exploded its first nuclear device and emerged as the world’s newest nuclear power. India had the initial capability to follow China in the pursuit of nuclear weapons but not enough political will to proceed, particularly during Nehru’s years as prime minister (1947-1964) and immediately after. In the next ten years, however, India fought two more wars with increasingly confrontational Pakistan, which, by then, had begun receiving support from China. At the same time, the Soviet Union expanded its military support of India, especially after border clashes between China and the Soviet Union in 1969 severed the relationship between the two communist countries.

Despite its success in two wars against Pakistan in only five years (1966 and 1971), India proved unable to generate domestic political harmony. Indira Gandhi’s unpopular governing methods resembled authoritarianism, and the economic reforms that were enacted during her tenure in office failed to transform the traditionally agrarian country into an industrialized and modern nation. Although it was a founding nation of the Nonaligned Movement and an advocate of international peace and disarmament, India chose not to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968, Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (1968)[Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty] which would limit its ability to harness nuclear energy for military purposes. This status opened doors for India’s eventual nuclear testing without fear of breaking international agreements. The infrastructure and technological needs for development of nuclear weapons were mostly in place by 1972, when Gandhi gave her final approval, because the country’s existing civil atomic program could provide the uranium and plutonium necessary for nuclear fission.

Scientists at Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre under the leadership of Dr. Raja Ramanna, designed the device based on technology that closely resembled early American nuclear weapons technology used in the aftermath of World War II. The project was conducted in great secrecy, and only a few of the highest Indian officials knew its full details; this led critics of Indira Gandhi to suggest that the true purpose of the test explosion was indeed militaristic.

Once completed, the bomb was transferred to the army’s Pokhran testing range in 1974. It was detonated on May 18, traditionally celebrated as the birthday of Prince Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, and the successful test became known as Smiling Buddha. The magnitude of the explosion was modest, and the yield did not exceed twenty kilotons. The decision was made to conduct an underground explosion to prevent the spread of extensive radiation over northwestern India and neighboring Pakistan. The bomb was exploded in a shaft constructed more than three hundred feet below the Earth’s surface; after the explosion, only a minor crater was visible in the landscape.


Although the explosion had serious military overtones, it was truly experimental in nature, and the development of nuclear weapons had hardly any strategic significance for India in 1974. For these weapons to be operational in terms of wartime deployment, further technological improvements in delivery systems were needed, and Indian scientists soon began to work on such improvements.

Politically, the event marked a short-lived euphoria and much-needed resurgence of national pride. Support for Gandhi’s government initially increased, as expected, but existing issues soon overshadowed this landmark event in the history of modern India. Members of the international community condemned India for an act they considered unnecessary and destabilizing for the region. No large-scale backlash or pressure from other nuclear powers was evident, however. The United States and the Soviet Union were more concerned with a Chinese arsenal than with India’s ability to counterbalance China.

Canadian collaboration with India through the CIRUS (Canada India Research U.S.) reactor program, CIRUS nuclear reactor program which provided the plutonium needed for explosion, was suspended immediately. With Canadian and American help, the CIRUS research reactor had operated since 1954 in Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, with the exclusive goal of peaceful energy harvest for economic development. Nuclear energy;reactors When Indian scientists utilized the CIRUS reactor in creating a nuclear weapon, they violated the terms of their agreement with Canada.

India’s first nuclear explosion ranks among the most controversial in the history of nuclear proliferation. Domestically, it unexpectedly became a turning point in Indira Gandhi’s political collapse, which culminated in her election defeat in 1977. On a regional scale, it triggered Pakistan’s desire to match its archrival and become ready to respond to possible nuclear threats, a goal that nation managed to accomplish by the late 1980’s, although without conducting any official tests. When India decided to carry out a series of nuclear tests in 1998, however, Pakistan’s defense forces immediately displayed their own capabilities by conducting a similar event two weeks later. For the first time in South Asia’s history, two nations approached the brink of nuclear confrontation, but diplomacy prevailed. Secrets of Pakistan’s nuclear program were eventually leaked to nations that wanted to acquire similar status while bypassing the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Some of them, considered rogue states by Western nations, contributed to the geopolitical instability in the Middle East, with serious consequences.

India’s decision to test a nuclear bomb in 1974 also made the international community realize that the world needed a firm structure in place to prevent other countries from transforming peaceful nuclear technology to military use. India’s first nuclear explosion added needed credibility to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and aided the International Atomic Energy Agency’s efforts to address possible violations of the treaty. Nuclear weapons;India India;nuclear weapons tests Smiling Buddha Weapons;nuclear

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Abraham, Itty. The Making of the Indian Atomic Bomb: Science, Secrecy, and the Postcolonial State. New York: Zed Books, 1998. Provides a well-documented review of conditions that led to the development of a bomb and analysis of the main factors influencing Indian nuclear aspirations from the early days of independence to 1974.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cortright, David, and Amitabh Matoo, eds. India and the Bomb: Public Opinion and Nuclear Options. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1996. Collection of essays and surveys reveals domestic views on nuclear policy in India. Includes maps, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hagerty, Devin. The Consequences of Nuclear Proliferation: Lessons from South Asia. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1998. Uses a geographic framework and the main historical events in India’s and Pakistan’s nuclear aspirations as the basis for an easy-to-read discussion of conditions at the end of the twentieth century as well as predictions regarding the future.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kapur, Ashok. Pokhran and Beyond: India’s Nuclear Behavior. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Presents a chronological analysis of the evolution of ideas and strategic viewpoints in India regarding nuclear weapons from the 1930’s through the 1990’s, placing a comparison of the effects of the 1974 and 1998 explosions in a larger context.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Perkovich, George. India’s Nuclear Bomb: The Impact on Global Proliferation. Updated ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. Seminal publication on this topic. Includes photographs and illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tellis, Ashley. India’s Emerging Nuclear Posture: Between Recessed Deterrent and Ready Arsenal. Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND, 2001. Provides detailed analysis of India’s nuclear capability at the beginning of the twenty-first century. An important resource for readers who want to explore this topic further. Heavily documented.

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