Morarji Desai told US: Not sure if 1974 nuclear test was necessary
The volume takes a close look at the Jimmy Carter administration’s approach to South Asia, especially tensions over nuclear proliferation and India-Pakistan rivalry.Updated: Aug 10, 2019 07:16 IST
Three years after India’s first nuclear test in 1974, then prime minister Morarji Desai told the US he wasn’t sure it had been necessary and that his predecessor, Indira Gandhi, had been “basically wrong” to carry out the test.
This has been revealed in a record of a conversation between Desai and American ambassador, Robert Goheen, on May 27, 1977, that was recently declassified in a volume of the US state department’s historical series Foreign Relations of the United States 1977-1980.
The volume takes a close look at the Jimmy Carter administration’s approach to South Asia, especially tensions over nuclear proliferation and India-Pakistan rivalry. Shortly before Goheen was sent to India in April 1977, he was tasked by Carter to take up several nuclear issues, including no-proliferation, with Desai.
When Goheen raised the matter at his first meeting with Desai, the prime minister said “he was not sure an explosion had been necessary” in 1974, according to the US record of the conversation.
“Mrs Gandhi had been basically wrong but Desai did not want to pass public criticism on her. The Prime Minister said there was no question of having another explosion. Even if it were proposed he would not do it — he would carefully consult people — he would consult the US,” the record states.
Desai “explained that he had not expressed doubt in public regarding whether the explosion was necessary as that was a reflection on Mrs Gandhi”, adding she “had no intention to develop nuclear weapons but was more politically minded”.
Once a top leader of the Congress, Desai joined a breakaway faction led by K Kamaraj when the party split in 1969. He became premier when the opposition united under the banner of the Janata Party and fought elections held in 1977 after the end of the controversial emergency imposed by Gandhi.
Desai’s aversion to nuclear weapons comes across in several declassified letters written to Carter and in cables and records of conversations contained in the volume. At the same time, Desai repeatedly pushed Carter to continue supplying enriched uranium fuel for the Tarapur nuclear power plant while focusing on India’s peaceful nuclear programme. Carter, on the other hand, sought assurances India wouldn’t use US nuclear material in a nuclear explosive device.
Goheen raised this issue during his first meeting with Desai and explained Americans were “very suspicious of any supply of nuclear materials because of the Indian explosion of 1974. He said Carter had tasked him to ask Desai for his “personal confirmation that any material the US had supplied would not be used in a nuclear device”.
Desai replied “vigorously and emotionally saying there was no question about that, India stood by its agreement”. He again referred to the 1974 test and said Gandhi “had not been wise in the way she carried it out” and that “he feared his predecessor was trying to make an impression within India”. Desai also said India “was not interested in any way in the use of nuclear energy for warfare”.
The letters, cables and records of conversations in the volume also reflect the Indian government’s concerns about Pakistan’s clandestine efforts to develop nuclear weapons, an issue raised by Desai and the then external affairs minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
In a letter written to Carter on February 10, 1979, Desai referred “to the problem of Pakistan’s nuclear development” and said New Delhi believed Islamabad “has been importing equipment openly or clandestinely which might enable it to attain a nuclear capability in directions which may not be consistent with peaceful purposes”.
“There are rather uneasy forebodings of its efforts to acquire this capability and I am wondering whether you have information about these developments. Should our information about nuclear developments in Pakistan get confirmed, namely that it has obtained clandestinely what it would have been prevented from getting openly, it would, along with earlier and even now current impressions about such unauthorised exports, mean that those who have the resources, presumably because of their non-peaceful pursuits are not taking adequate precautions against pilferage or clandestine operations of subversive elements,” Desai wrote.
In his reply dated April 5, 1979, Carter wrote: “Pakistan is clearly engaged in a significant effort to build a uranium enrichment plant which would give it a capability of developing nuclear explosives. Our best assessment is that it will be several years before Pakistan will be able to produce enough material for a nuclear explosive device, rather than the six months cited in your Government’s analysis. We have been very active in seeking to forestall the Pakistani program.”
Carter said the US had talked to all countries exporting sensitive nuclear equipment and asked them to enforce export controls. “While the response from supplier nations has been good, we must face the fact that at best these efforts will probably only delay Pakistan’s program,” he added.
At a meeting with US secretary of state, Cyrus Vance, in Washington on April 24, 1979, Vajpayee said Pakistan was “causing some problems in the nuclear area” and that India “would like to see the Pakistani program stopped”.