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Post-Bhopal, Rajiv Gandhi asked military to prepare for nuclear and chemical attacks

Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi sent senior defence and military officials to Europe to assess equipment and training needs to prepare India’s armed forces to cope with nuclear and chemical attacks.

world Updated: Aug 04, 2017 18:33 IST
Prasun Sonwalkar
File photo of late prime minister Rajiv Gandhi.
File photo of late prime minister Rajiv Gandhi.(HT Photo)

Soon after the devastating Bhopal gas leak in December 1984, then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi asked the armed forces to prepare to deal with possible nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) attacks by terrorists at a time of heightened tensions in India.

India was keen to send its personnel for training in an NBC environment to the UK, but British officials expressed their inability to accommodate 12 of them in one course and suggested alternatives, newly declassified documents released by National Archives show.

Military relations between the two countries at the time were described as "poor".

According to the Foreign Office documents, the assessment in London was that “Indian Forces are not equipped at present to operate in an NBC environment. But they are increasingly concerned by the threat NBC warfare poses and, as a result see the need for adequate defensive measures and training”.

On May 17, 1985, British official DJ Bowen wrote: “The Bhopal disaster has heightened awareness of the potential capabilities of CW (chemical warfare) and the vulnerability of those who are inadequately protected against it…Very recently the Indian Army has set up a central cell to look seriously at what training and equipment is required.”

Bowen added, “More recently still there is evidence that the Indian Prime Minister himself has told the Armed Forces that they must equip themselves for this eventuality (not least in case terrorists should want to precipitate a Bhopal-like disaster for political ends).”

The document notes that as a result of Gandhi’s concerns, he had “dispatched at very short notice" the defence ministry‘s scientific adviser and the vice-chiefs of staff of the three services on a tour of the UK, Sweden, France and Holland to assess equipment and training needs.

There were concerns in London about sharing security training films with India because of the “presence of Soviet advisers” in New Delhi, but there was also eagerness to sell equipment to deal with NBC situations.

Bowen wrote: “The importance of offering the Indians the NBC training they want lies in the fact that our positive response could have a quite dramatic effect on determining the NBC equipment that the Indians buy. £50M as an initial outlay is not inconsiderable, and there would clearly be a requirement for further purchases.”

PRG Williams, a colonel, pushed for a more positive response to Indian demands in the defence sector following a decision to give New Delhi a copy of a film on biological warfare but not on riot control agents.

He wrote on March 16, 1985 that he took a took this view because “India remains the most populous democracy in the world, with an army rooted in the British tradition, and with very considerable influence and in the longer term sales potential”.

Williams added: “Furthermore, relations in general and military links in particular are presently poor, and while we recognise that the presence of Soviet advisers is a security constraint, we shall never be able to achieve any influence if we are seen to turn Indian requests away. 

“At present there are sufficient projects under discussion for us to be able to slip at least a toe in the door at long last, and it would seem sensible to take as positive a line as possible on all of them. After all, the shoulder then might follow the toe.”