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The journey from Pokhran-II

india Updated: May 12, 2008 03:00 IST
Amit Baruah
Amit Baruah
Hindustan Times
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It came as a timely reminder. By testing the Agni-III and Hatf-VIII missiles last week, India and Pakistan re-emphasised their nuclear weapons power status.

Days before the 10th anniversary of the Pokhran-II tests, Agni-III sent out a message that India was pushing ahead with the induction of this missile, capable of hitting targets 3,000-km away.

In turn, by testing the cruise missile, Pakistan was demonstrating a new capability: that it too had the prowess to launch nuclear-capable missiles from the air. The 350-km range of the Hatf, or Death, missile revealed again the India-specific nature of Pakistan's strategic concerns.

After the sands of Pokhran shook on May 11, 1998, Pakistan retaliated with its own nuclear tests in the Chagai Hills of Balochistan 17 days later.

Efforts were made by the Clinton administration to stop Pakistan from retaliating with tit-for-tat tests, but US Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott couldn't do much to prevent Pakistan. All this while, a huge campaign went on against India and Pakistan. Both countries faced sanctions and international isolation. At the same time, the Americans realised they had to engage both in separate talks, between Talbott and External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh and Pakistani Foreign Secretary Shamshad Ahmad.

The Western goal was to ensure there is no marriage between delivery systems and warheads, and hence no hair-trigger between the two countries. In February 1999, India and Pakistan agreed to "engage in bilateral consultations on security concepts, and nuclear doctrines, with a view to developing measures for confidence building … aimed at avoidance of conflict".

"The two sides undertake to provide each other with advance notification in respect of ballistic missile flight tests, and shall conclude a bilateral agreement in this regard," they agreed. A formal agreement has been signed to this effect.

After the January 2004 revelations about AQ Khan and his nuclear Wal-Mart, Pakistan's credibility suffered a further blow.

Even as India and Pakistan made some progress on nuclear CBMs, the US agenda as regards to New Delhi shifted considerably after the Bush administration took over. There was a recognition that a rollback of India's nuclear programme wasn't possible.

The July 2005 civil nuclear deal with the US implicitly recognised India as a nuclear weapons' power, but conferred no de jure status given the constraints of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. As India debates in its domestic arena the merits and demerits of the nuclear deal, the deadline looms large for a change in international status.