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I'm Sahaj Sankaran, winner of Yale’s South Asian Studies Prize and Diane Kaplan Memorial Prize for my historical research, and this is Today in Indian History. Four days a week, I'll dig into the context and consequences of an event in India's history that happened on that date. I'll walk you through what happened, what the world around looked like at the time, and how it shaped the India we live in today.

twitter: @SahajSankaran, email: sahaj [at] honestyisbest [dot] com.


May 28, 2020

The First Pakistani Nuclear Test

On the 28th of May, 1998, there were minor earthquakes in parts of Balochistan Province, in Pakistan. The cause became clear a day later, when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif addressed the nation; Pakistan had just successfully tested a nuclear weapon.

Truth be told, the test had been a long time coming. India had first detonated a nuclear explosive over 20 years previously in 1974, the famous ‘Smiling Buddha’ test. One would expect Pakistan to have wasted no time conducting their own test, to bring a certain equilibrium back to the power balance of the subcontinent. The reasons they didn’t are varied, and up for debate. For one thing, Pakistan was still reeling from the loss of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in 1971 - a loss of not only territory, but also half of Pakistan’s economy, population, and technical expertise. To put it into Indian terms, imagine how long it would have taken us to build our own nuclear program if, say, all scientists and resources from South India were unavailable to us. I suspect another factor was the heavy involvement of the United States in Pakistan during the Cold War rivalry between the United States and Soviet Union. There have been entire books written on the subject, and I don’t intend to go into that level of detail; it suffices to say that, in return for significant American military and economic aid, Pakistan followed America’s wishes to an extent. Developing nuclear weapons would have been a step too far even for the pro-Pakistan administration of Richard Nixon, to say nothing of his successors. India had been under less restriction at the time; our ties with America had been shattered, almost irrevocably, by that country’s support for Pakistan during the 1971 Bangladesh Genocide and subsequent war. The Soviet Union, our allies at the time, likely weren’t thrilled by our efforts to develop nuclear weapons, but they seem to have grudgingly conceded the point.

The end of the Cold War brought new opportunities for both India and Pakistan. Efforts had been underway throughout the 1980s to sequentially test parts of nuclear weapons. In 1989, the intense insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir began, and successive Indian governments accused Pakistan (with some justification, it would seem) of supporting the insurgents in their efforts to remove the region from Indian rule. With tensions heightening, and the Cold War powers otherwise occupied, there seemed no reason for Pakistan not to test its own nuclear weapon. In 1998, it finally did.

I’m writing about that test partly because it was a significant event that forever altered the balance of power in the Indo-Pakistani rivalry. I’m also writing about it because it had significant effects on the history of India as well. Vipin Narang, possibly the world’s foremost expert on Indian and Pakistani nuclear policy, has argued convincingly that Pakistan’s nuclear policy is one of ‘asymmetric escalation’. Simply put, that means Pakistan would consider first use of a nuclear weapon in an Indo-Pakistani conflict if it felt that Pakistan’s security was threatened. That scenario isn’t hypothetical: the Indian Army was at the gates of Lahore by the end of the 1965 war, and, as we discussed, temporarily occupied then-East Pakistan in the 1971 War. Does this apply outside large conventional wars, though? Vipin Narang thinks it does, and he believes that this Pakistani policy is partly responsible for India’s refusal to attack Pakistani targets after events like the 2008 Mumbai attacks or the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament building in New Delhi. If he’s right, that implies that Pakistan’s successful nuclear test had major implications for India’s security policy for decades after. It also has interesting implications for the present. The current Indian government has been more aggressive in responding to terror attacks in India with attacks on targets on Pakistani soil. It has coupled that with statements softening India’s policy of no first use of nuclear weapons. I think it’s not too much of a stretch to assume that Pakistan’s own policy influenced such declarations. You can’t understand India’s nuclear program and policy without understanding Pakistan’s, and vice versa; the events of 28 May 1998 still influence events in a significant way.

Sahaj Sankaran

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