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.”

Haksar wrote this for the benefit of the Indian prime minister almost fifty years ago. This was India’s equivalent of George Kennan’s “long telegram” to the State Department. The long telegram also carried an unsparing assessment of Pakistan as “an unstable state contrived artificially” whose internal logic compelled the “inevitable and chronic hostility of Pakistan to India.” Haksar was India’s Kennan and much of what he assessed has become part of India’s enduring strategic culture. A study of it is central to any constructions of Indian strategic thought. The Indian long telegram assesses the great power approach to Indian nuclear ambition. Haksar acutely felt a “growing convergence of interest in Washington, Peking and Moscow of keeping India under pressure and using Pakistan for the purpose.” He also wrote of both Moscow and Washington having similar a view on balancing India and Pakistan: “making the development of nuclear arms by her (India) that much more difficult by providing measured quantities of arms to Pakistan.” It also gives a window to understanding the Russia-Pakistan rapprochement that was taking place, which had implications for China’s nuclear strategy towards both India and Soviet Union. Haksar grappled with Soviet attempts to gain leverage with Pakistan with the argument that Russia was weaning away Pakistan from China for its own reasons because “close understanding between Pakistan and China may bring nuclear tipped missiles aimed not only at India but the Southern flank of Soviet Union.” Therefore, the dangers of Pakistan and China colluding were not only for India but also for the Soviet Union, and that too in nuclear terms. Haksar self-reflection shows a strategist forming his thoughts rather than a draft where the thoughts are already complete. Uncertain of Soviet strategic intentions, Haskar’s writing reveals a realist exploration of the limits of Indo-Soviet cooperation even as in this same year (1968) military cooperation between India and Soviet Union had begun in earnest. The larger subcontinental strategy of Soviet Union was still not clear.

The Haskar “long telegram” cites Zulfikar Ali Bhutto being under house arrest at the time but acknowledges the possibility of the “flamboyant” Bhutto taking Pakistan closer to China as indeed turned out to be the case. Ayub was seen by both the United States and Russia as a counterweight to India and neither of them wanted to strengthen the war-making capacity of Ayub, but rather his war-deterring capacity towards India.

Another immediate provocation for this “long telegram”: in 1968 Pakistan was looking to set up a nuclear reactor in East Bengal and was holding discussions with Westinghouse before ultimately withdrew. After Soviet statesman Alexei Kosygin’s visit to Pakistan in the same year, it settled for commissioning a feasibility study by Soviet “Technopromexport.” Soviets considered the cooperation a pure commercial transaction in the manner that France described much of its arms and nuclear sales. One of the reasons why Westinghouse withdrew from the bid was because, according to the Indian embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan wanted to retain used fuel rods. If Pakistan had succeeded in creating the impression that it had a nuclear explosive device in East Bengal or even a nuclear facility in East Bengal that would have made any intervention by India in that region out of question. This is not to give the impression that India had designs on breaking off East Bengal much before 1971, but it was a factor that could not have been taken lightly by India.

By 1967, as revealed by a cable from External Affairs official J.S. Mehta from the Indian embassy in Washington to the Chairman of Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) Prime Minister Secretariat that there were differences between the U.S. administration and Congress on the ICBM capability of the Chinese nuclear program. The administration felt that Chinese ICBM would only be ready by 1971-72 and miniaturization of warhead would have to precede any ICBM capability. Congressional hearings revealed that China was still struggling with submarine missile launch. Sidney Graybeal, an advisor to President Kennedy during Cuban missile crisis and a CIA expert on Chinese rocketry, informed Indian EZ official K.P. Jain that China was going to test an ICBM by placing a satellite in orbit irrespective of the size of the payload. The missile test itself would be into the Indian Ocean off the coast of Tanzania and the CIA was monitoring the presence of Chinese technicians in Tanzania. It was also apparent that the Cultural Revolution had not slowed down Chinese nuclear program. In April 1970, K.R. Narayanan (Policy Planning Division-MEA Ministry of External Affairs) wrote on the launch of the earth satellite by China as a follow up to his 1964 paper when he was Director of the China Division. At about this time Haksar had written that India’s “India’s future status in the world and her own security require that she becomes a nuclear power so as to establish a genuine regional balance of power with China.” In March 1969, the Government of India answered in Lok Sabha that it “did not consider it necessary to seek any nuclear umbrella.” (MEA, 1969) As a former Chairman of Indian Atomic Energy Commission, Dr. M.R Srinivasan told the author, “no one in current memory knows that an Indian thinker as P.N. Haksar was already thinking in terms of a triad and it has till now remained hidden in the archives.”

The April 1970 satellite launch established that China had acquired MRBM range. Indian agencies were all basing their nuclear calculation around China. China’s nuclear program established the success of the Communist leadership in navigating through domestic political and economic upheaval while keeping the nuclear program a consistent priority. Subramanian Swamy had written in the October 1970 issue of United Service Institution of India Journal that in a nuclear conflict with a major power, China would have to rely on second strike with fifteen to twenty missiles to undertake assured destruction. (Swamy, 1970) Ten would be decoys and ten pointed at cities to penetrate Nike-X. Calculating for eluding sprint missile detonation height among other things, it would succeed in destroying at least three cities by radioactive fallout, which was a sufficient deterrent for China. This argument was a way of arguing that even a smaller number of missiles with appropriate strategies could give sufficient deterrence for counter value massive retaliation. This was a counterpoint to the United Nations study on the minimum deterrence, which placed the arsenal at one hundred warheads, thirty to fifty aircrafts and fifty missiles.

There was also an argument at the time that India should go in for a tactical weapon arsenal instead of strategic systems. As the PMO documents reveal, this was considered head on by the Department of Atomic Energy. The Indian atomic establishment argued that if China were to meet determined resistance from our ground forces while crossing the Himalayas, she could make use of tactical nuclear weapons and demoralize our troops. It concluded that the argument that India could impact the military situation by possessing only tactical weapons was a fallacy and that India needed to focus on developing strategic delivery capability rather than settling for a small tactical arsenal.

If China is using a nuclear weapon to bully or to annihilate our forces, we can expect China to escalate the conflict if the limited use is successfully countered by us. China is known to be developing a strategic nuclear weapon system involving long range guided missiles. Therefore, the only way by which we could deter Chinese escalation would be to ourselves have a strategic system capable of inflicting an unacceptable damage on China. (PMO File Manufacture of Atomic Bomb File No. 56/69/70-Parl; PMO (Prime Minister Office), NAI; New Delhi, India) 

The only way to stop China from escalating was to have second-strike capability inflicting unacceptable damage. According to the Department of Atomic Energy, “paper tigers do not provide security, that is, you cannot bluff in regard to your military strength.” India would require a total defensive system rather than a prototype by a scientist. However, since Indian cities were within range of China’s intermediate missile arsenal, India would require longer ranges missile to bring Chinese cities within their striking capacity. The completion of the reprocessing facility at Tarapur, which had begun in 1968, was a pointer in the direction the prime minister’s office was thinking.

In conclusion, it would be a mistake to ascribe the wisdom of Indian nuclear doctrine and strategy merely to those who came in at the weaponization operationalization stage. The archival history establishes that doctrinal inquiries went back to the mid-1960s. China was and remains the main nuclear threat for India. Indian nuclear doctrine considers China to be its main nuclear rival. Former National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon told the author that since Pakistani delivery platforms are essentially based on Chinese systems, it made them an extension of the Chinese nuclear threat.

Vivek Prahladan is a visiting researcher at Keio University in Japan.

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