India and Pakistan’s Nuclear Programs (short version)

By |2019-10-01T11:17:37-07:00October 1, 2019|

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For almost a century, India was ruled by the British Crown prior to its independence in 1947. The partition of India gave rise to two sovereign states – the Dominion of India and the Dominion of Pakistan. The partition process largely explains the reciprocal animosity, and can explain the development of their nuclear weapons programs.

During the partition of India, 10 to 12 million people became refugees, flooding across the border in each direction, while thousands met with sectarian violence, resulting in death. The division of the Indian subcontinent is recalled to have created perhaps one of worst exodus of human history, and a perennial dispute over the region of Kashmir, home to both Muslims and Indians, which is divided by the Line of Control.

In the aftermath of the partition, both India and Pakistan expressed the desire to invest resources in a nuclear program. India was the first to achieve it. In 1948, Indian Prime Minister Jawarhal Nehru created the Indian Atomic Energy Commission. Although this was aimed at the development of a nuclear program for peaceful purposes, Nehru declared: “I have no doubt India will develop her scientific researches and I hope Indian scientists will use the atomic force for constructive purposes. But if India is threatened she will inevitably try to defend herself by all means at her disposal.”[1]

India started its atomic energy production process in 1954, with the establishment of the Bhabba Atomic Research Centre (BARC) in Trombay. It also benefitted from the cooperation with the governments of Canada, France, Great Britain and the United States and was placed under the auspices of the U.S. Atoms for Peace program. The creation of the Bhabba Centre prompted Pakistan to establish, in 1956, the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC).

In the 1950s, concerned with India’s growing regional predominance, Pakistan advanced military and economic assistance requests to the United States, adding as a motivation that Pakistan’s geographical position could benefit the U.S. in its fight against communism. In addition to offering conventional support, the United States gave Pakistan its first nuclear reactor in 1962, the Pakistan Atomic Research Reactor (PARR-I), based in Nilore, Islamabad. The sympathy shown by the U.S. to Pakistan would exacerbate the tensions between both countries and India, and would induce India to align itself with the Soviet Union, thus extending Cold War dynamics to South Asia and motivating a long history of reprisals between the two Asian countries.

Despite initial declarations that denied military aims for its nuclear program, the 1965 Indo-Pakistani War, which ended in victory for India, prompted Pakistani Minister of Foreign Affairs, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, to declare: “If India builds the bomb, we will eat grass or leaves, even go hungry, but we will get one of our own.”[2]

The refusal by India to sign the 1968 Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), alongside inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), would be reason for alarm for the international community, and first and foremost, for Pakistan. Fears were confirmed on May 18, 1974, when India exploded its first nuclear device – ironically called ‘Smiling Buddha’ (with official name ‘Pokhran I’)  – at its Pokhran test site, located in the Jaisalmer District of the Indian state of Rajasthan, very close to the Pakistani border. In 1996, India refused to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and two years later proceeded with testing five nuclear devices, emerging officially as a nuclear weapons state.

The perception of threat India represented had been the main factor that motivated Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. Being part of the IAEA safeguards agreement since the first instances of the development of its nuclear program, and being in a net position of inferiority compared to India, Pakistan was induced to seek nuclear technology by entering a clandestine trade network originating in Western Europe. Following pressure by the United States to abandon its nuclear program, Islamabad opened its ties with Libya, Iran, Iraq, Libya, and North Korea, motivated by anti-imperialistic sentiments. In July 1977, the military, led by Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq, ousted Bhutto, who had become Prime Minister, through a coup, and had him hung in April 1979. Many Pakistanis started fearing U.S. interference and Pakistan’s nuclear program became a symbol of national sovereignty and prestige.[3]

In 1997 Pakistan and India had a brief period of amicable relationship. This apparent harmony was disrupted by victory of the Bharativa Janata Party in India, whose stance was categorically against any compromise with Pakistan and in favor of an overt nuclear policy. After the rupture of their relationship Pakistan proceeded to its first testing of an atomic device on May 28 and 30, 1998, shortly after India conducted its second and third nuclear test, on May 11 and 13.

The 1998 testing of nuclear devices by India and Pakistan, and the regime of sanctions that was imposed by the United States not only increased the tension between them, but threw the whole world into a state of emergency, even though the economic pressure on Pakistan prevented the country from achieving full-scale nuclear weaponization and dramatically affected its civil society.

Though India’s conventional military forces are far bigger that Pakistan’s, the two countries possess similar nuclear arsenals. India currently has between 130 and 140 warheads, while Pakistan possesses between 140 and 150 nuclear warheads. India is considered more powerful than Pakistan because it possesses a nuclear triad, namely the ability to launch nuclear strikes by air, land and sea, while Pakistan’s sea-launched cruise missile system is still incomplete. However, unlike Pakistan, India has a strict no-first use policy, although high-level officials have recently threatened pre-emptive strikes to eliminate Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities. Uncertainty, therefore, dominates the region, with both countries heavily relying on conventional attacks against each other and the threat of use of nuclear weapons. Their possession does nothing but increase the militarization of Indo-Pakistani relationship, suggesting that the only safe choice is their dismantling.


[1] Newman, Dorothy (1965) (1st ed.) Nehru. The First 60 Years, Vol. 2, New York: John Day Company, p. 264.

[2] “Eating Grass,” The Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists, Editor’s note, Vol. 49, no. 5, June 1993, p. 2.

[3] Ahmed, Samina, “Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program: turning points and nuclear choices”, International Security, Vol. 23, no. 4 (Spring 1999), p. 183.