NEW DELHI: India under Rajiv Gandhi made preparations in 1985 to test a hydrogen bomb in response to Pakistan’s nuclear programmes, recently released US documents showed. Concerned about the possibility of a nuclear arms race in South Asia, the Ronald Reagan administration wanted to send an emissary to mediate between the two neighbours and help ease tensions.
About 930,000 declassified documents, running into more than 12 million pages and recently posted online by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), provide interesting insights into India’s nuclear weapons capabilities during the 1980s and Delhi's increasing concerns over Pakistan's nuclear programme at the time.
According to CIA assessment, fear of international political and economic reprisals would deter India from conducting an attack on Pakistan’s nuclear facilities. “China and not Pakistan is perceived as a long-term threat to the Indian security,” it noted.
The world’s premier intelligence agency said it faced difficulties in gathering details of Delhi’s nuclear programme as Indian security was “extremely tight”.
The spy agency said the hydrogen bomb that the government of Rajiv Gandhi was preparing to explode was much stronger than the one tested 11years earlier, when his mother Indira was the Prime Minister. India at the time was also far ahead than Pakistan on nuclear technology, it noted.
While Rajiv Gandhi was initially hesitant to pursue his mother’s plan to push the nuclear programme, his mind changed when he got reports in early 1985 that Pakistan was making progress with nuclear weapons, according to the CIA. On May 4, 1985, he stated that Pakistan’s persistent efforts to join the nuclear club had compelled India to review its nuclear policy.
The agency said the H-bomb was created by a team of 36 scientists at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre near Mumbai. The CIA also claimed that India was stockpiling plutonium for nuclear arsenal.
“A rapid series of Pakistani tests would compel New Delhi to develop nuclear weapons and touch off a nuclear arms race between the two,” assessed a CIA document.
On sending an emissary, a document said while India was not warm to the idea, it nonetheless was not against giving the person an audience.
The agency had suggested that the emissary should meet Rajiv Gandhi but refrained from predicting an outcome. On the other hand, Islamabad would welcome a US representative, according to the spy agency.
At the time, Pakistan was seen as a key ally of the US in South Asia, and India as a friend of the Soviet Union.
The Rajiv Gandhi government didn’t go ahead with the testing. It was in 1998 under Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee that India again conducted nuclear tests. Pakistan followed with its own testing. The CIA documents, posted online on January 17, were declassified after the mandatory 25 years.