The story of India’s strategic programmes is not well documented. Part of the reason is that protagonists do not talk. Even if they want to, they are handicapped by the Official Secrets Act that follows signatories to the grave. Given these limitations, a few defence analysts and retired officials like me have tried to describe the projects as best as we could without compromising on national security. At the best of times, it is not an easy job. At worse, it can turn into imaginings.
Even though scientists at the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (Barc) were working on developing sophisticated nuclear weapons and delivery systems, there was no major mission to integrate and manufacture deliverable systems. When I became Cabinet Secretary in 1986, I took this initiative with V.S. Arunachalam, who was then the head of DRDO. I visited Barc in Mumbai, DRDO offices in Pune and Hyderabad and other installations. Arunachalam and I met then PM Rajiv Gandhi in early 1988 and pleaded for an integrated programme that would produce deliverable weapons and reliable carriers with appropriate command and control systems. We argued its urgency on reports of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme and the reported China-Pakistan collusion in nuclear technologies. The growing US-Pakistan interdependence also weighed on our minds. After hearing us out patiently, Rajiv ordered the commencement of the weaponisation project. The exact date fails me but it was between mid- and late-1988. Rajiv Gandhi also insisted that a realistic bar chart should be prepared with appropriate holds at defined stages, which only he would lift when necessary. Apart from the bar charts, we were told to minimise paper trails. I continued my association with this exercise even after I joined the PMO in March 1989. No Cabinet Secretary or Defence Secretary was involved in this exercise till I retired in December 1990. We took care not to keep any paper specially related to the nuclear project. All necessary financial sanctions were obtained through DRDO projects. Arunachalam was to coordinate the entire programme. After his briefings to me to sort out difficulties, we would both apprise the PM. Rajiv Gandhi was insistent that the total command and control systems should be only in civilian hands. At that juncture, apart from a few hand-picked scientists from Barc and DRDO, I was the only administrative official in the know of the programme. Apart from Rajiv Gandhi, the only other two political leaders who were aware of the project were President R. Venkataraman and the late P.V. Narasimha Rao. The credit for initiating and supporting a well-defined and integrated programme for strategic weapons system should solely belong to Gandhi as I have mentioned in my memoir, A Cabinet Secretary Looks Back.
Independent of this project, the Defence Secretary and Ministry of Defence were involved in the progress of DRDO’s Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP). It is here that Defence Secretary Naresh Chandra’s contributions would become invaluable.
In January 1990, Arunachalam, Barc’s P.K. Iyengar and I presented before the new PM, V.P. Singh, various options, including the conducting of a few tests. This meeting was attended, if I remember correctly, by Foreign Minister I.K. Gujral and the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, the late Ramakrishna Hegde. In that meeting, referring to reports of Pakistan perfecting and stockpiling atomic bombs, the scientists pleaded for nuclear tests. The PM, considering the then economic conditions, improving Indo-Chinese border discussions and the Kashmir and Punjab problems, decided against this. Since then, there have been robust discussions on India going ‘nuclear’.
Years later, when our economy and technologies improved and some of the political pin-pricks were overcome, India did conduct the tests, even though there are different views about the timing. My experience in government is that testing or abstinence was determined only by our own government’s appreciation of the prevailing political and economic situation and not by threats of embargoes. India is too big a nation to be intimidated by such pressures.
In my first meeting with PM Chandra Shekhar, I mentioned this matter and said that Arunachalam would provide the full briefing. I retired shortly thereafter. Presumably, after my retirement as PM’s Principal Secretary, the responsibility may have been passed on to Cabinet Secretary Naresh Chandra.
The country had reached the stage of building deliverable systems and keeping them at unmarked locations under invincible civilian safeguards. All this was known to a tiny circle of politicians, senior civilian and service officers and a few scientists. Our country has kept these secrets without any compromise for all these years. This, to me, is far more vital.
When I recall those years and remember my collaborators for this mission and the support I received from the political leadership, I cherish a sense of fulfilment.
The writer is a former Cabinet Secretary