The 1971 war between India and Pakistan ended in a decisive victory for India and the vivisection of Pakistan. Pakistan’s nuclear weapon program began shortly thereafter, when President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto gathered the best and the brightest of his country’s nuclear establishment at Multan on January 24, 1972.
The 1971 war may also have given a boost to the Indian nuclear weapon program. This seems counterintuitive, given New Delhi’s huge victory, but here’s the argument: President Richard Nixon and national security adviser Henry Kissinger “tilted” toward Pakistan during this war. To dissuade Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi from overrunning West Pakistan after routing the Pakistan Army in the East, they ordered the deployment of the U.S.S. Enterprise into the Bay of Bengal. It is unlikely that Prime Minister Gandhi had such intentions. But by conveying a thinly veiled nuclear threat in the form of the Enterprise – the very same carrier that came to India’s aid during its disastrous war with China nine years earlier – Washington may have given impetus to a second nuclear weapon program.
Here’s what K. Subrahmanyam, India’s premier strategic analyst, concluded from the Nixon administration’s behavior during the 1971 war:
The experience in Vietnam, and the circumstances that led to the use of nuclear weapons on Japan when compared with the experiences of confrontation in the central European line and the Sino-Soviet border, suggest that mass destruction agents like nuclear weapons, ecocidal agents, etc., tend to be used only when there is no fear of retaliation and when there is no sense of mutual deterrence.
[K. Subrahmanyam, “India’s Nuclear Policy,” in Onkar Marwah and Ann Schulz, eds., Nuclear Proliferation and the Near-Nuclear Countries, (Cambridge: Ballinger, 1975), pp. 128-135.]
“Subbu” was more explicit in his “personal recollection” of the Indian nuclear program which appeared in Nuclear India, a volume edited by Jasjit Singh published shortly after the 1998 tests:
Now we know that there were no specific operational directions to the Enterprise mission. But at that stage, the Indian government could not but assume the worst and treat it as an act of nuclear intimidation…. This experience of nuclear intimidation must have influenced Mrs. Gandhi in giving the green signal to the Atomic Energy Department to go ahead with the nuclear test in 1972.
Subrahmanyam recounts having dinner at Delhi’s Ashoka Hotel in late August, 1971 with Vikram Sarabhai, the head of India’s Atomic Energy Commission. Sarabhai, unlike Subbu, was not eager to test a nuclear device, but he strongly hinted that night that Mrs. Gandhi would grant his dining companion’s wish.
The “one war, two bomb” thesis is highly debatable. Raj Chengappa’s insider account, Weapons of Peace, finds some credence to this story. But George Perkovich, who has written the most detailed account of India’s nuclear program, India’s Nuclear Bomb, The Impact on Global Proliferation, is unconvinced. Likewise, Vijai Nair, who wrote Nuclear India, isn’t buying this story. Itty Abraham’s book, The Making of the Indian Atomic Bomb, also finds other reasons for the timing of India’s “peaceful nuclear” test in 1974.