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National Technology Day: Anniversary of India’s Historic Nuclear Tests

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National Technology Day is celebrated on 11th May every year to mark India’s accomplishments in technology. On this day in 1998, India successfully conducted nuclear tests in Pokhran. India became a complete nuclear state after the test, and this milestone was officially announced by the then Prime Minister of India- Late Sh Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

National Technology Day was started in the commemoration of the first anniversary of the Pokhran test on 11th May 1999. So, let us dive into the significant Pokhran II nuclear test, but before, let us first find out the driving factors behind India’s nuclear arsenal development and the history of the Indian nuclear programme.

Catalysts for India's Nuclear Weapon Development

India’s focus was always on the peaceful use of nuclear energy, but various geopolitical and security concerns prompted our nation to develop nuclear weapons. Here are some events that pressured India to conduct nuclear tests.

1. Our neighbour and rival state Pakistan got ready-made nuclear weapons from China. Besides this, during that time, the President of the United States of America, George Bush, refused to certify that Pakistan was trying to develop nuclear weapons.

2. The United States indefinitely extended the Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1995. The treaty was developed to stop the spread and promotion of nuclear weapons. NPT created an imbalance in the world as those countries who already had nuclear weapons were allowed to keep them while others were prohibited from making them. The world was divided into nuclear weapons states (NWS) and non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS). Many countries, including India, saw this as a discriminatory move and thought towards working outside the NPT framework and following the path of nuclear self-reliance.

3. The United States and various international players came up with a “freeze”, “cap”, and “roll back” strategy for India and Pakistan. This strategy was aimed at stopping the further development of nuclear weapons, limiting their existing quantity and eliminating them. However, India was sceptical about this strategy, and this added further pressure on Indian policymakers to develop their nuclear weapons.

History of the Indian nuclear programme

After India got its independence in 1947, a team of Indian scientists led by physicist Homi J. Bhabha - who is also referred to as Indian Oppenheimer convinced the first prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, to invest in the development of nuclear energy. In the early stages, the whole focus was on making Indian energy efficient by using the thorium and uranium reserves that are found in the coastal regions of south India. However, serious development started after 1954, with the construction of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC). 

Though tensions between Pakistan and India played a crucial role in the development of the nuclear war, the first factor that contributed to it was the India-China war of 1962, which ended with China’s victory and India’s humiliation. In May 1974, during the Indira Gandhi era, India tested a 3000-pound explosive device 300 feet underground at the Pokhran test site. The mission was officially known as Pokhran I but was informally called Smiling Budha. As a result, Canada stopped its support for the Indian nuclear programme, and the United States of America imposed sanctions on India.

Because of sanctions imposed by the United States on India, it became difficult for India to obtain nuclear materials for the test. But regardless of the challenges, BARC managed to construct the Dhruva reactor at Trombay in 1977. During 1990, India again faced pressure to curb its nuclear program, as discussed in the previous section. But India continued its work in nuclear technology and tested five nuclear devices in Pokhran. Let us discuss how Pokhran-II was conducted in the next section.

India's Nuclear dream- Pokhran II

On March 20, 1998, the newly elected Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee called on the chairman of the Department of Atomic Energy, R. Chidambaram and Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) head, APJ Abdul Kalam. At the meetings with the prime minister, the atomic energy chairman and DRDO head briefed the prime minister about the nuclear programme and the missile programme. It is said that after this meeting, preparation for the Pokhran-II test started. 

On May 1st 1998, the movement of nuclear devices started from Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Mumbai, to Jaisalmer airport for Operation Shakti. These devices were transported to Jaipur and then to a small city called Pokhran through four army trucks. The shafts in which the nuclear devices had to be tested were maintained by the 58th Engineer Regiment of the Indian Army. The commander of the regiment, Colonel Gopal Kaushik, supervised the operation, and every officer was ordered to maintain the secrecy of the project.

The shafts were dug, and every person involved was told to do their work with the utmost secrecy. Even APJ Abdul Kalam and Chidambaram would wear green army dresses when they visited the site. To keep everything secret, engineers and scientists worked at night as satellites can’t click clear images in darkness. Everything that was used at night was returned to its original position before morning. So that when the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) saw the images, it would seem to them that nothing had been moved.

Also, false names were given to the people involved, as the CIA could spy through phone lines. APJ Abdul Kalam was named “Major General Prithvi Raj”, and Chidambaram was called, by the name “Natraj”. Also, so many codewords were used in the mission that many scientists found them to be more complicated than physics calculations.

On 11th May 1998, India conducted three underground nuclear tests in Pokhran, Rajasthan. After a day, two more underground tests were conducted. According to Indian officials, the combined yield of the explosion was about 45 kilotons. 

Also Read, How did Vikram Sarabhai Lift India as a Nation

Consequences that India faced after Pokhran-II

After the Pokhran test, there were celebrations all across India, but the Western world reacted adversely. The United States imposed economic sanctions on India, which were condemned by Indian officials as tests were necessary for Indian security. Despite the backlash, the Government of India stood firm in its decision to conduct nuclear tests. 

However, soon after announcing to the world that India became a nuclear state, a national security advisory board was established, which made a no-first-use policy for nuclear weapons. However, this policy was amended in 2003, according to which if Indian forces were attacked with chemical or biological weapons, India could use nuclear weapons, and this policy is still in force today.

How this day is celebrated?

Starting from 1999, on this day, the Department of Science and Technology, Government of India, honours technological advancements that have aided in the development of the country. Below are the award categories under which “Rashtriya Vigyan Puraskar” is bestowed.

  • Vigyan Ratna
  • Vigyan Shri
  • Vigyan Yuva
  • Vigyan Team (VT)

Along with the science and technology department, the day is celebrated throughout schools, colleges, universities and various research institutions in India. For example, top CBSE schools in Baddi organise several events, such as science exhibitions, quizzes and competitions, to cultivate student’s interest and curiosity in science and technology.

Final words

National Technology Day is a day to celebrate India’s technological achievements. It’s a day to draw inspiration from the collective work of the team behind Operation Shakti, which includes great scientists, engineers, and army officials such as APJ Abdul Kalam and R. Chidambaram, as well as visionary leaders such as Atal Bihari Vajpayee. We feel proud writing this article, and if you feel the same, don’t hesitate to share your opinions.