This day in History – May 18, 1974 – “Buddha Smiles” – India’s first nuclear weapons test

For all its noble goals the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons i.e. the NPT has always had a glaring hole.  It fixed the recognized nuclear weapon states as those that conveniently had tested a nuclear device prior to the ratification of the treaty.  Then while it envisaged nuclear disarmament, there was no way to force the nuclear weapon states to actually give up their nukes.  This had the practical effect of locking in the recognized nuclear weapon states at five – the United States, the USSR (and now Russia), the United Kingdom, France and the Peoples Republic of China.  This creates perverse incentives for nations to cheat and develop nuclear weapons.  In South Asia it had the effect of trying to pretend that the domino effect that created the nuclear weapon states next to the region would stop based on a piece of paper.

With nuclear China (with a border dispute that led to war in 1962) next door, India chose not to sign the treaty.  With India refusing to sign, Pakistan refused to sign as well.  The Indian experience was enhanced by the 1962 War with China where the USSR declined to help India against a communist state.  In the 1971 war with Pakistan, India faced the hostility of the Nixon administration.  These experiences convinced India that it could not rely on either great power – and the country’s foreign policy was wedded to “non-alignment” in any case…even if after 1971 military ties were closer to the Soviet Union.

In 1972 Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered preparations for a nuclear test.  Secrecy at the test site in Pokhran, Rajasthan turned out to be air tight.  The world was stunned to discover that on May 18, 1974 (on Buddha Jayanti – a festival marking the birth of Gautam Buddha) India tested what it called a “peaceful nuclear explosive.”  The operation was code named Smiling Buddha.  As with the sequel in 1998 the CIA was caught flat footed.  The test provided impetus for Pakistan to accelerate development of its own bomb.  It led to the formation of the Nuclear Suppliers Group that embargoed delivery of materials that could be used to make nuclear weapons to India an Pakistan.

After demonstrating its capacity to make nukes, the Indian nuclear program entered a phase of ambiguity.  India does not appear to have made additional steps to actually start manufacturing nukes, though its attention moved in the 1980s to a missile program.  By the early 1990s the fact that India and Pakistan both had nuclear weapons capability was an open secret.

In 1995 American satellites discovered preparations for another round of tests and enabling the United States to exert pressure on the Narasimha Rao government to stop.  On May 11 & 13 1998 the new BJP government fooled the satellites and conducted a second round of tests ending the ambiguity and declared India a nuclear power.  Pakistan ended its own ambiguity and conducted its nuclear tests at the end of the month.

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