India's Nuclear-Weapons Program: 5 Things You Need to Know

India's challenge is how to deal with Pakistan without triggering a nuclear war.

India is one of the world’s greatest emerging powers today. Its economy is growing rapidly and its military is one of the largest in the world, with over a million soldiers.

India sees its nuclear weapons capacity to be an integral part of its vision as a great power, and its nuclear program is important for both its prestige and security doctrine.

Yet, India’s nuclear weapons program has not been free of controversy and criticism. India is not a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT), and is not one of the five nuclear weapons powers the treaty recognizes. India’s nuclear tests in 1974 and 1998 led to criticism and even sanctions.

Since then however, sanctions have largely been lifted and the United States had quietly accepted India’s possession of nuclear weapons so long as India does not carry out further nuclear tests, though officially, the United States has not recognized India as a nuclear weapons state. This has also led to many claims of double standards on the part of the United States for making exceptions for India—including getting the Nuclear Suppliers Group to agree to a waiver on export restrictions of nuclear materials for India—that have been granted to no other countries. This demonstrates the strategic importance of India for the West and the general global perception of its trustworthiness and stability.

Here are five things you need to know about India’s interesting nuclear program.

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Why did India build Nukes?

Indian nationalist leaders speculated about the possibility of acquiring nuclear weapons even before its independence. India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru justified this by arguing: “As long as the world is constituted as it is, every country will have to devise and use the latest devices for its protection. I have no doubt India will develop her scientific researches and I hope Indian scientists will use the atomic force for constructive purposes. But if India is threatened, she will inevitably try to defend herself by all means at her disposal.”

The main impetus for India going nuclear, however, was China, which tested a nuclear weapon in 1964. Two years prior, China defeated India in a short but decisive border conflict and relations between the two countries were subsequently tense. Taken together, Indian leaders felt that India needed nuclear weapons to counter China’s conventional superiority and defend Indian territory, some of which China was perceived to have occupied.

Nonetheless, India and China both have nuclear no-first use doctrines and it is highly unlikely that either would risk nuclear war over a non-existential border dispute. This raises the question of why India felt it needed a nuclear weapon to counter China, a luxury many other countries with disputed borders with China forewent. Yet, India’s nuclear program was not just about countering China, but being equal to it, since Indian leaders believed that India and China were both destined to be the leaders of Asia.

Today, India’s nuclear weapons are also important as a deterrent toward Pakistan, though it developed them first and Pakistan only later developed its weapons in response. However, given Pakistan’s military stance and weapons, India’s continued possession of weapons is necessary for its security vis-à-vis its western neighbor.

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Nuclear research in India first began at the Institute of Fundamental Research (IFR) from 1944 onward, and even prior to then, Indians had access to some Western scientific journals, the result being that India was theoretically more ahead on the path to a nuclear weapon that most other developing countries at the time. In addition to enriching plutonium and uranium, a unique component of India’s nuclear activity has been thorium, as India contains twenty-five percent of the world’s thorium deposits. Thorium is not ideal for weapons, but its use for civilian power could free up virtually all of India’s uranium and plutonium for military uses.

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After India’s defeat by China in 1962, India moved toward the construction of a nuclear weapon and design work began in 1965 under Dr. Homi Bhabha. Development accelerated under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who both wanted to accentuate her popularity and due to fears of Chinese or American involvement in India’s 1971 war with Pakistan.