When Dalai Lama Supported Vajpayee’s Decision to Conduct Nuclear Tests at Pokhran

A new book, titled Vajpayee: The Years that Changed India is all set to hit the stands on 25th December to mark the birth anniversary of veteran BJP leader, and former Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee. …


A new book, titled Vajpayee: The Years that Changed India is all set to hit the stands on 25th December to mark the birth anniversary of veteran BJP leader, and former Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The book charts the course of Vajpayee’s prime ministership and tries to give the readers a glimpse into Vajpayee’s thought process and political philosophy.

Written by Shakti Sinha, who had worked very closely with Vajpayee during his tenure as the prime minister, and is currently the honorary director of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Institute of Policy Research and International Studies, at MS University, in Vadodara, this book outlines in details many highlights of Vajpayee’s career, including the series of nuclear tests that the prime minister conducted in Pokhran. In the book, the author writes that although initially the decision to go nuclear caused domestic euphoria, and silenced the opposition, as more tests were conducted Vajpayee faced international criticism, with the then US President, Bill Clinton, calling it a ‘terrible mistake.’ The book states: 

“After the initial domestic euphoria, which forced the Opposition to keep mum, domestic criticism (of the Pokhran Nuclear Test) gained force. The left parties criticized the Vajpayee government for deciding to change national policies unilaterally. They felt that the other political parties should have been consulted. The Congress was confused as to how they ought to react. Should the tests be celebrated as a programme begun by Indira Gandhi, which received a major fillip during Rajiv Gandhi’s regime? Or would such a stand make Vajpayee look good, hinting at the Congress’s implicit acceptance that this was the right thing to do? Their initial reaction was, ‘Why now?’ Essentially, the Opposition did not know how to react, as was soon illustrated by I.K. Gujral. His remedy was that India should sign the CTBT, like France and China did after conducting tests.

This ignored the fact that both these countries were recognized nuclear weapons states under the NPT, and the CTBT allowed them to test if they felt that their national security was imperilled, a luxury denied to India. Another Opposition leader, Mulayam Singh Yadav, had a simpler criticism—that the tests should have been kept a secret.

Even as reactions to the initial tests, conducted on 13 May, were coming in, two days later, India conducted two more tests. These ‘were required to demonstrate our capacity to miniaturise, at sub-kilo yields, and with that India concluded its planned series of tests’, as the media was informed by the government. The next step taken was possibly the best thing to have been done as a follow-up to the tests, though it received a lot of flak at that time.

This was to write to world leaders explaining the circumstances which had made testing a compulsion for India. Unlike normal diplomatic correspondence, which is all sweet and cloying, this one was direct but polite. A great deal of effort went into the writing of these letters.

No sooner had Vajpayee’s letter reached the White House than it appeared in the New York Times. This caused considerable embarrassment for us, since we had pointed to the ‘China factor’ as the primary reason for our decision to test. It was said that the compulsion to go nuclear was driven by, to quote from the letter, ‘. . . overt nuclear tests on our borders, [conducted by] a state which committed armed aggression against India in 1962, [and] although relations had improved in the last decade or so, an atmosphere of distrust prevails mainly due to unresolved border problem. That country has materially helped another neighbour of ours to become a covert nuclear weapons state, [due to which, we] have suffered aggression from that neighbour, [making us] victim of relentless terrorism and militancy.’

Factually, the statement was correct, but all hell broke loose. The Chinese were livid and made their outrage known. Domestically, too, a lot of people criticized the government for having spoilt relations with China; Chinese perfidy in supplying nuclear and missile technology to Pakistan which undermined India’s security was conveniently ignored.

The international reaction to Vajpayee’s letter was subdued, almost bordering on disbelief. The American analysts only picked up the 1962 part, ignoring the rather nuanced reference to India–China relations in the letter. I remember reading an American comment that India could not expect to be taken seriously if it used the 1962 war as justification for the tests. Clearly, the commentator either did not read the statement, or if he did, its meaning escaped him.”

The author Shakti Sinha pointed out that the criticism against conducting the tests grew louder as the series of nuclear tests continued and it wasn’t just America, but United Nations, as well as Nelson Mandela, who condemned them. During such circumstances, Vajpayee got an unexpected supporter in Dalai Lama, who was primarily against nuclear armament of any kind but, more importantly, did not like the ‘undemocratic’ way in which countries were accessing the dangerous weapon, with some having more right and access to it, than other. In the book, Sinha writes,

“The international reaction after the second series of tests and the letters was several degrees ‘hotter’ than what had followed the initial tests of 11 May. And yet, there were some realistic voices who singly agreed with India’s need to move ahead but in groupspeak went along with condemnatory statements. Clinton said that India had made a terrible mistake. He even moved on removing the hurdle of the Pressler Amendment so that arms sanctions on Pakistan could be lifted. Nelson Mandela condemned the tests. The United Nations Security Council expressed its dismay. On the other hand, France said that sanctions made no sense.

They were joined by the UK and Russia, who also said that they would not impose sanctions. Within the US itself, different voices now started speaking up. House Speaker Newt Gingrich said that Clinton was being one-sided, blind to China’s doings, and was in fact selling nuclear technology to them, which was adding to India’s security concerns and making the latter more worried about China than about Pakistan. Congressman Frank Pallone, co-founder of the India Caucus (a group within Congress, sympathetic towards India), opposed the tests but asked Clinton to consider the situation India was in and put it in perspective.

India had a long and contested border with China and faced a large PLA presence on its border. The Chinese presence in Burma was of concern to India as well, and there was Chinese support for hostile groups operating against the Indian state. Pallone’s recommendation was that the US should take the threat India faces from China more seriously and consequently work in closer coordination with India. A few years later, as India’s position as a rising but responsible power was being recognized, Henry Kissinger backed the tests. Despite his long ties with the Chinese regime and old history of rubbing India the wrong way, he conceded that India had a case for a deterrent against China. Like many others, he felt that the American sanctions were probably a mistake.

The Dalai Lama sent a personal letter to Vajpayee, in effect supporting the decision to test by alluding to the point that the possession of nuclear weapons would deter any offensive actions and would therefore ensure peace. Vajpayee was very touched when he read the letter. Later, the Dalai Lama went on record saying that India should not be pressured into giving up nuclear weapons; it should have the same rights as developed countries. His basic point was that he thought ‘nuclear weapons are too dangerous. Therefore we should make every effort for the elimination of nuclear weapons.’ However, he disagreed with the assumption that it was all right for a few nations to possess nuclear weapons when the rest of the world did not; it was undemocratic.”

The following excerpts have been published with permission from Penguin Publishers.

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