The Recent Declassification of India's Secret 'Long Telegram' Shows Why It Went Nuclear

An Indian Air Force Jaguar GR-1 Shamser (Sword of Justice) ground attack aircraft. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Air Force

The nuclear specter of China has always been India's overwhelming consideration.

“The main argument in favor of India going nuclear is the Chinese threat” — L.K. Jha (Secretary to Prime Minister) March 5, 1967

“A nuclear stand-off with China is essential as soon as possible” — P.N. Haksar (Secretary to Prime Minister) 1968

The Counsel of History

Indian Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar recently made a controversial “personal” comment that perhaps India must revisit its no first-use nuclear policy. However, the only available document on Indian nuclear policy has been the “Draft Nuclear Doctrine,” which has fostered perpetual speculation on the vector and valences of Indian strategic doctrine. We have had little historical perspective on how Indian doctrine has absorbed Chinese and Pakistan nuclear threats ever since India carried out its first underground nuclear test — “Smiling Buddha” — in May 1974. There is still no consensus on what the historical reasons were for India to cross the no-bomb line or what internal discussions were taking place between the scientists and the prime minister’s office. However, newly declassified documents from the prime minister’s office, which include letters between the prime minister’s office and the Department of Atomic Energy, as well as correspondence between the prime minister and scientists help establish the specific considerations that went into the making of India’s nuclear doctrine. It revises arguments such as those of George Perkovich, that, in the second half of the sixties, “the (Indian) scientists acted without benefit of a national security strategy or requirement.” The documents reveal disquiet among India’s strategists about China’s repeated nuclear tests from 1964 onwards.

India’s “Long Telegram” and Crossing the No-Bomb Line

Perhaps the single most important document for establishing the evolving history of India’s nuclear weapons policy comes from P.N. Haksar, Secretary to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi that may be dated to 1968. The note is titled “Need for India In a Changing World to Reassess her National Interest and Foreign policy.” (PN Haksar, Installment IIIrd, Subject File 290, NMML, New Delhi ('LONG TELEGRAM'). 

The revealing document tends to defy most assumptions held about India’s nuclear policy regarding the level of “stand-off capability” that was being considered in the Prime Minister Secretariat. P.N Haskar wrote:

i. the making of nuclear arms in the shape of medium range (2,000-3,000 miles) capable, from sites within India’s frontiers, of striking with success not only a few chosen targets in Tibet but of ranging as far afield as the industrial heart of China in Manchuria and in the great river valleys south of it which include some of her principal industries and urban centers of population

ii. The development simultaneously of submarines driven by nuclear power fitted out to carry nuclear missiles

iii. This nuclear arms program should be based on adequate stockpiling of those sensitive instruments and machinery…. which will be difficult to import from abroad increasingly

Haksar distinguished between the role of nuclear India as opposed to other nuclear powers. Haksar also reveals his thought that India’s nuclear ambition should be clearly communicated with the United States at a relevant time. The nuclear specter of China remained the overwhelming consideration. Haksar seemed to appreciate nuclear balancing in Europe and wrote of India’s “own security require that she becomes a nuclear power to establish a genuine balance of power with China.”

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