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India's Pokhran II Diatribe and China


The Chinese media joined India’s Pokhran II diatribe immediately after K. Santhanam and his ilk called May 1998 Operation Shakti as “fizzle” and lent voice to express concern about India’s minimum nuclear deterrence potentials against plausible adversaries.[1] As a mouth piece of the Communist Party China (CPC) and by implication, an instrument of the Chinese government, the media reports reflects the mind, if not the stand and postures of the Chinese leadership. Nonetheless, the tone and tenor of the wordings apart from the form, shape and prominence of reporting stand to hold clues to China’s plausible approach, be it treating outright adversary or otherwise. While the trail of events in time series could be just few and far between and hence, quite limited in scope to lead to a generalization, it could very well be an instance, if not a bench mark for reckoning which way the wind of bilateral relations was to blow.

In methodological perspectives, the study of the kind transcends both the boundary of media monitoring and content analysis. It touches upon the frontiers of diplomacy studies with windows on conflict management in the context of the two turning new leaf towards thaw from being adversary for a long time. This does not obviate the continuum relationship of rival, competing for political, diplomatic and economic space as a competitor. For covering the hiatus in equating the media perception and wordings to the perception and wordings of the leadership, much less the government, the methodological options weigh statements against the standard policy. The extent of congruence and / or variability of material facts in the reported story, and a broad matrix summary and/ or reasoned acceptance or rejection of the thesis promise a reasonable framework for getting to the truth. The dynamics of change in Chinese stand normally carry cultural propinquity of its own kind, which included flair to cultivate bond of friendship and manipulate feelings of goodwill, guilt and obligation to its advantage in hours of need.

Notwithstanding, positive disposition, if any, in the Chinese response has to be a function of what Zhao Quansheng says change in “micro-macro linkage”. [2] It can be little different when there negative disposition. By micro level, Zhao meant investigating the role of individual or group decision makers, and macro level analysis referred to the influence of the domestic society and institutions as well as the international system and structures in the formulation of China’s foreign policy. Akihiko Tanaka credits “domestic development” for Chinese hard lines or otherwise in its disposition to the outside world.[3] Taking historical perspective, Tanaka says China presented a hardliner face to the outside world when it was caught up in revolutionary campaign and, when the emphasis was upon economic development, Chinese foreign relations stressed the business like advancement of foreign trade. Wang Guangwu and Zheng Yongnian nearly conform to Tanaka’s thesis with a difference. They say that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has learnt from the Soviet Union that it can not afford to try to build a China-centric world order in the era of reforms and open up policy. In order to get to understand and interpret China’s positive or otherwise disposition in bilateral relations, Carol Hamlin calls for looking into both “international situation to which China must respond” and the “attitude towards the outside world prevailing within the Chinese leadership”.[4]

The paper is aimed at discerning China’s disposition in bilateral relations on strategic issues. The study design juxtaposes an array of Chinese media reports against the material facts in the controversy. It looks for congruence. It also looks for the penchant to accept and/ or decry the truth as it is any way. It examines changes in stance in time sequel, if any. Reproductions of the Indian media story in the Chinese media constitute independent variable while the elements of interpolations in one form or the other constitute dependent variables. The same literally held good even where the Chinese media story stemmed as independent work of Chinese media. Validity of generalizations stand conditioned to the given time frame and the issue in vogue. This frame work could, of course, acquire a measure of legitimacy when seen against an array of reportage in time series over a period of time. Organized in analytical format, the paper thus focuses on: Pokhran II and the Controversy; Congruence and Variability in Chinese Media Depiction; and, the Media Candour and Misstate

Pokhran II and the Controversy

India’s low yield and contained five underground nuclear tests, code named Operation Shakti, in popular parlance referred as Pokhran II, witnessed unusual flurry of intellectual bashing on the issue of actual as against designed test values after 11 years of the event.[5] Dr K. Santhanam, then Director, Test Site Preparations, kicked off the dust, first, in a statement on Aug 26, 2009, then in an article, contributed to The Hindu of September 17, 2009 and subsequently in an Indian TV channel appearance.[6] Dr K. Santhanam called the test Shakti –I, a two stage thermonuclear device a failure as the yield was only 25 kilotons, nearly half of what the scientists had then claimed.[7] He said that a meeting of scientists discussed the failure soon after the test and decided to hide it. He also pointed out that the failure meant that India now did not possess a credible nuclear deterrent, indicating that warheads on India’s long-range missile could have far less punch than expected.

Former President of India APJ Abdul Kalam, who had then led the team in his capacity of Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) Chief and Scientific Advisor to the Prime Minister, disputed his assertion. R Chidambaram, former chairman of Atomic Energy Commission and the architect of the nuke tests and Anil Kakodkar, then director of Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, likewise, reasoned out the official position. They held that the device operated according to its design specifications and the yield was 45 kilotons. APJ Abdul Kalam defended India’s deterrence capability as well, which assumed centre stage by default.

In the row, three former colleagues of Dr K. Santhanam in the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC)Dr Homi Sethna, Dr P.K Iyengar and Dr M.R Srinivasan and former Director of Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) Dr A N Prasad questioned the validity of Pokhran II, through with varying emphasis and reasons. Dr Homi Sethna slammed Dr APJ Kalam for disputing the veracity Dr K. Santhanam’s assertion. He laid charge of political interference in Pokhran-II and imputed political motives on the part of Dr APJ Kalam justifying the official stand on the issue.[8] Dr P.K Iyengar did not lag behind. He alleged that the 1998 tests were carried out in haste at the bidding of the government.[9] Dr M.R Srinivasan and Dr A.N Prasad called for peer review in the face of the controversy.

Interestingly, these Indian nuclear scientists held centre stage vehement in opposing Indo-US civil nuclear power deal.[10] There is thus an ideological angle in their diatribes. The nuclear scientists were expected to discuss merits of various on site and off site yield estimation methods.[11] They got instead engaged in vituperations, which smacked of immature peer group grievances and tussles.

Congruence and Variability in Chinese Media Depictions

The Chinese print media lent its ears to the wrangle in Indian electronic and print media in a measured way. Chinese language People’s Daily led the hype, where it picked up a story from the Indian media and stated what an adversary could say while remaining neutral in public posture. It was just a day after the Indian Scientist Dr K. Santhanam sought to spill the beans for reasons best known to him. Of several stories then making headlines in the Indian media, the People’s Daily (Renmin Ribao) picked up the riposte of the Indian Navy Chief Admiral Suresh Mehta. [12]

In this Chinese media story, the narratives carry incontrovertible facts as they have appeared in the Indian media. It says what the Indian Navy Chief did say. It also says why the Indian Navy Chief chooses to say so. The contents in the Chinese media story, thus do not betray an iota of extrapolation. It does extol. It does not beacon aversion either. In such a backdrop, the Chinese media story as such can be classed ‘disposition neutral’ in form. However, there is subtle but reckonable problem with the spirit. The narrative squarely qualifies the veracity of the refutation by the Indian Navy Chief Admiral Suresh Mehta as it adds an aura to the assertion of the Indian nuclear scientist Dr K. Santhanam for having stemmed from the mouth of ‘one of the country’s top atomic scientists’. It then scoffs at Indian achievements as quotes past debate over the success of the Indian nuclear tests, in particular foreign media. The Chinese media story thus, transcends the fair limit of ‘disposition neutral’ strand.

Just three days later on Aug 30, 2009, the People’s Daily carried riposte of Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh on the issue.[13]

This piece of the Chinese media story is again aging ‘disposition neutral’. It is well scribed to depict the two sides of the coin. It tells what the Indian Prime Minister said. It also tells why the Indian Prime minister chose to say so. Even the sequencing of argument is faultless. The scribe has shown inscrutable skill in managing the slant, too. However, though in a stride, it coveys doubts about Indian nuclear weapon capabilities. As the Chinese print media is far short of autonomous, it goes to suggest a considered official decision to stay clear from getting unduly engaged in India bashing.

China Daily (Zhongguo Ribao) subsequently carried an analytical piece under the caption, “Indian Armed Forces Confident about Nuclear Arsenal” [14]. This story has purportedly been authored by a junior member of the CPC. In its composition, whether it is headline or posers such as ‘second strike’ capabilities, in particular as India’s nuclear policy breathed commitment to ‘no first use’ (NFU), or Pakistan factor, in particular the rationale for keeping its first strike option open, and the like, the Chinese media acquits well to the tests of “disposition neutral”. This is despite an oblique stance on India’s real as against perceived capabilities in the context of Dr K. Santhanam’s doubts.

However, as the headline does not fully correspond, much less corroborate the central piece of the argument, this Chinese media story qualifies the test of “disposition critical”. It has skilfully projected Chinese superiority over India, both in straight and surrogate comparisons, such as with Pakistan. The Chinese media story thus touches the fringe of “disposition sinister”. Disinformation is an effective weapon in the armoury of Information Warfare, which the Chinese adept for quite some time.

China Daily thereafter published a paper by a Pakistan think-tank Maulana Zaheerul Hassan, which carries a full critique of the Indian nuclear programme, and its outlook. [15]

This is a classic case of media exploit, where the Chinese Information Warfare mandarins stand to get mileage without expending an iota of energy. It uses the author as an agent provocateur and puts a damning question mark on Indian capability for safe nuclear programme. Nonetheless, it goes to sound and petition all stakeholders against India’s credibility as responsible nuclear power. When all said and done, the Chinese media story of the kind thus fares adequate as “disposition sinister.”

Media Candour and Misstate

As an instrument of the Chinese state craft, the Chinese media was not expected to act any better.[16] The Chinese media reports focussed on the point of controversy as it stemmed from the counter view of Dr K. Santhanam. They sought to contrast the Indian official stand with a caveat, where the standing of Dr K. Santhanam as a scientist in the field stood as a touch point of authenticity and validity. The Chinese media has been candid in carrying riposte. They can not be faulted for not invoking rational and logical counter points to Dr K. Santhanam’s thesis. This was yet a need to depict a correct view. The Chinese media story missed the bus in the case of two analytical stories, one by the party functionary and the other by friendly foreign patron. None of the two papers dwelt, much less reflect upon different onsite and offsite methods of estimation of nuclear test yield and their respective estimate errors to add objectivity in the stories.

As the stories go, the tests were organized into two groups. The first group consisted of the thermonuclear device (Shakti I), the fission device (Shakti II), and a sub-kiloton device (Shakti III). The remaining two sub-kiloton devices made up the second group (Shakti IV & V). The first three devices were tested on May 11, 1998 and the other two on May 13, 1998. The first three devices were placed in their shafts, code named ‘White House’ Taj Mahal’ and ‘Kumbhkaran’. The other two shafts for the second test series were designated NT 1 & NT 2. The shafts were L-shaped, with a horizontal chamber for the test device.

The actual timing of the tests depended on the local weather conditions. It was hot in the Pokhran desert in early May 1998. It had reached 43°C on the day of the test. The wind was yet the upper most critical factor. Dr. K. Santhanam reportedly handed over two keys to Dr. M. Vasudev, the range safety officer, to reactivate the explosion. At 3:45 p.m. the three devices were detonated.

The seismic center of the triple event was located at 27.0716 deg N latitude, and 71.7612 deg E longitude, which places it only 2.8 km from the 1974 test site (which was at 27.095 deg N, 71.752 deg E). The combined force of the three blasts lifted an area about the size of a cricket ground to a few meters above the earth kicking up dust and sand into the air. Three craters were sunk on the desert surface. Just two days later on May 13, 1998, the two sub-kiloton devices were detonated underground. With the five explosions, India declared the series of tests to be over.

Based on seismic data obtained at the test site three km from the test shafts, the test yield was estimated to be 58 kilotons by Bhabha Atomic Research Center. Senior scientists, involved in the test, addressed the press on the 17th of May. In this press meet, the scientists stated categorically that the thermonuclear device gave a total yield of 45 KT, 15 KT from the fission trigger and 30 KT from the fusion process and that the theoretical yield of the device (200 KT) was reduced to 45 KT in order to minimize seismic damage to villages near the test range. They also stated that the fission device produced a yield of 15 KT and .3 KT from the low yield device.

Dr K. Santhanam and his ilk could possibly have a genuine concern in the country getting to demonstrable deterrence against enemy design. This is to be seen in the light of Indian nuclear doctrine of 2003, which speaks of ‘minimum credible deterrent’ with NFU commitment and a “massive” second strike policy. One could dispute the viability of ‘minimum’ for inflicting ‘massive’ second strike capabilities. However, the test was certainly not the sole criterion in the design of the weapon system. The expertise in the field called for specialization in a number of disciplines such as explosive ballistics, shock wave physics, condensed matter physics, material science and production technology, fabrication and processing technology. No one person could be last word to pronounce judgment as Dr K Santhanam seemed to attempt. Notwithstanding, there is doubt in the knowledgeable section whether Dr K. Santhanam then had access to fusion and fission break-up as well as the quality of thermonuclear material to arrive at the estimation of test yields as claimed by him. It is a matter of concern that the ideological consideration should push the scientist’s community and media savvy persons in position to play at the hands of adversaries.

( The writer, Dr Sheo Nandan Pandey, is an eminent analyst on China, based in New Delhi)


[1] Pokhran II refers to nuclear tests, code named Operation Shakti, at the Pokhran test range in India, three on May 11, 1998 and two on May 13, 1998.

[2] Zhao Quansheng, Interpreting Chinese Foreign Policy: The Micro-Macro Linkage Approach, Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1996.

[3] Akihiko Tanako, “Internal-External in Chinese international Conflict Behaviour: A Model”, East Asia, Vol. 2, No 1, March 1983.

[4] Carol Hamlin, “Domestic Component and China’s Evolving Three World Theory”, in Lillian Harris and Robert Worden (eds) China and the Third World: Champion or Challenger, Dover MA: Auburn House, 1986, pp50-51.

[5] Of the five nuclear tests, three carried out on MAY 11, 1998 and two on May 13, 1998, there was just Shakti-II that related to actual warhead. All others were nuclear devices meant for producing data for computer simulations and actual weaponization in due course. As a pure fission device, using plutonium implosion design with proven yield of 15 KT, Shakti-II sought to revalidate the design. The warhead is oriented to be delivered by bomber and/ or fighter aircrafts It could be mounted on a missile too.

[6] Dr K. Santhanam belonged to Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO), which was one of the three participating organizations in the tests. Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) and Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) were the other two participating organization in the gamut. The charter of the DRDO included a variety of key tasks such as assemblage of the device, moving them to the Pokhran Test Range, placing them in the shafts in the ground, and, laying a network of sensors to gather data during the explosions. In the bargain, besides, Dr K. Santhanam, there were a large number DRDO officials responsible for the end product in conceptualizing and developing the design, testing and producing components like advanced detonators, the implosion systems and high-voltage trigger systems. There were then those who contributed in weaponization, system engineering, aerodynamics, safety interlocks and flight trials. His contributions to the discipline while with AEC prior to joining S & T Division of Cabinet Secretariat until 1984 end remains little known.

[7] The device was designed to yield 200 KT. The yield was down graded to 45 KT for test purpose.

[8] Homi Sethna was the guiding force behind Pokhran-I. He trivialized Dr APJ Kalam, who headed the Pokhran-II test. “I fully support Santhanam and stand by his statement that India needs more nuke tests to be conducted”, said Sethna. He asserted: “What does Kalam understand about physics? What did he know about extracting, making explosive grade? He did not know a thing. By being President, he appeared to wear a stature. He relied on atomic energy to gain additional stature”.

[9] Dr P.K Iyengar added extraneous dimension to the debate. He alleged that the Indian intelligence must have found Pakistan preparing for the test and hence, the new government asked the scientists to hurry up, or else what common man in India would have thought. -kalam-iyengar-says-tests-were-done-in-haste_1286978

[10] In a meeting, held in Mumbai on Dec 15, 2006, Dr Homi N. Sethna, Dr P.K Iyengar and Dr M.R Srinivasan categorically opposed India conceding rights to give up nuclear tests. They held aloft their vehemence and expressed their opposition in different forum. They were later joined by some what light weight but quite articulate persons such as A. Gopalkrishnan, Brahma Chellaney and the ilk.

[11] There are various onsite and offsite methods of yield estimations in nuclear implosion/explosion in vogue. Onsite methods include: (a) radio-chemical analysis; (b) close-in-motion study; and, hydrodynamic CORTEX. The offsite methods are but seismic estimates. It can be carried out using: (a) surface wave characteristics, independent of test site geological data; (b) body wave characteristics, requiring some onsite geological data; and, (c) Lg wave characteristics, requiring some onsite data. They have their estimation errors.

[12] Indian Navy Chief Refutes Claim by Scientist on 1998 Pokhran II Nuclear Test

Refuting claims by one of the country’s top atomic scientists, Indian Navy Chief Thursday asserted that the 1998 Pokhran II nuclear tests were successful. “The tests were adequate. We believe whatever the scientists tell us. The scientists said the tests were enough and tested. We believe the scientists, as they provide us with nuclear capability,” Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Suresh Mehta told the media. His statement came in the wake of claims by India’s Defense Research Development Organization scientist K. Santhanam that the nuclear tests were only partially successful as the results were much below expectations.

The startling revelations made by Santhanam have raised doubts over India’s nuclear prowess and gave fresh credence to the earlier debates in the foreign media over the success of India’s nuclear tests. Source: Xinhua

[13] Indian PM Refutes Dispute over Success of 1998 Nuclear Tests

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh Saturday refuted dispute over the success of 1998 nuclear test by India, saying the recent controversy over tests was “needless.” Singh told local media that former Indian President A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, who is a world-known nuclear scientist, has already clarified that the tests were successful. “A wrong impression has been given by some scientists which is needless. Kalam has clarified that the tests were successful,” Singh said. Indian scientist K. Santhanam said recently that the Pokhran-II nuclear tests were not a full success and suggested more of such tests. Santhanam, who was Defense Research and Development Organization representative for the tests, said the thermonuclear or hydrogen bomb was of low yield and not enough to meet the country’s strategic objectives.


[14] viewthread.php?gid=rtd=646022

Indian Armed Forces Confident about Nuclear Arsenal

Indian armed forces seem quite confident about the country’s nuclear arsenal despite the controversy over the “yields” of the 1998 Pokhran-II nuclear tests, which included a 15 kiloton fission device, a 45 kiloton thermonuclear device (hydrogen bomb) and three sub-kiloton devices. Outgoing Navy chief Admiral Suresh Mehta, also the chairman of the chiefs of staff committee, on Thursday said India had “a credible minimum nuclear deterrent” in line with its no-first use (NFU) policy. “We are a nation which maintains a credible deterrent…more than enough to deter anybody,” said Admiral Mehta. And should someone do the unthinkable by launching a first-strike, then the “consequences will be more than what they can bear”. Asked about former DRDO scientist K Santhanam’s statement that the hydrogen bomb tested during Pokhran-II was actually “a fizzle”, Admiral Mehta said, “As far as we are concerned, scientists have given us a certain capability which is enough to provide requisite deterrence…the deterrent is tried and tested.” That may well be so but there are still some lingering doubts over whether India has a swift and assured second-strike capability, crucial for a country like India whose nuclear doctrine is centered around the NFU policy. The doctrine, on its part, declares that nuclear retaliation to a first strike will be “massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage”.

This connotes a robust stockpile of nuclear warheads, safe and ready for use if needed. Estimates indicate India’s weapons-grade plutonium stockpile is enough for 80-90 warheads at present. Pakistan, on its part, has deliberately kept its nuclear policy ambiguous in the belief it deters India from undertaking any conventional military action against it. Moreover, recent reports indicate Pakistan has pressed the throttle to enhance its arsenal much beyond 60 nuclear warheads as well as supplement its ongoing enriched uranium-based nuke programme with a weapons-grade plutonium one. But more than the actual number of nuclear warheads, the worry of the Indian armed forces has been the gap in their delivery systems. Pakistan, for instance, is well ahead in the missile arena, borrowing as it has heavily from China and North Korea. China, with its long-range ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) and SLBMs (submarine-launched ballistic missiles), is in a different league altogether. Its road-mobile DF-31A missile, for instance, can hit targets 11,200 km away, while JL-2 SLBM has a reach beyond 7,200 km. India, of course, has no ICBM or SLBM. While it’s developing the 3,500-km Agni-III and 5,000-km Agni-V ballistic missiles, the only missiles available to armed forces as of now are Prithvi (150 to 350-km range), Agni-I (700-km) and Agni-II (2,500-km). But they, too, have not undergone the rigorous testing nuclear-capable missiles should undergo. IAF has some fighters like Mirage-2000s jury-rigged to deliver nuclear weapons but the Strategic Forces Command has no dedicated bombers. Similarly, Navy has only two “dual-tasked” warships armed with Dhanush (variant of Prithvi with a 330-km range) missiles, INS Subhadra and INS Suvarna. Moreover, the nuclear-powered submarine INS Arihant, which was launched on July 26, will take at another two to three years to become fully operational. And it will be equipped only with 700-km range missiles to begin with.

[15] & tid=646070 (courtesy: Mon Aug 31, 2009 http://zameer Zaheerul-hassan

Author: zaheer Time: 2009-9-1 04:21 AM Subject: Credibility of Indian Nuke Programme by Zaheerul Hassan (excerpt)

On August 27, 2009 in an interview with Times of India K Santhanam, senior scientist and DRDO representative at Pokhran II admitted that the only thermonuclear device tested was a “fizzle”. In nuclear parlance, a test is described as a fizzle when it fails to meet the desired yield. Santhanam, was director for 1998 test site preparations in Pokhran test range, has stated hat the thermonuclear explosions conducted at that time were ‘actually of much below expectations and the tests were perhaps more a fizzle rather than a big bang’. This is the first time some Indian senior scientist gave some reservation about the nuke programme.

The government officials did not endorsed Santhanam’s point view. ….. The Santhanam’s disclosing uncovered the face of Indian leadership. In short the recent revelation of senior nuke scientist put the question mark on the credibility of Indian nuke programme. …Currently; India has a total of 17 operating nuclear power reactors and has plans to construct an additional 25-30 by 2030 to meet expected civil and military future needs. At present she has 35 – 45 nuclear arsenals of various yields but security aspects of these weapons always remained concern to the world community and sincere Indian officials too. …India’s program extends from uranium exploration and mining through fuel fabrication, heavy water production, reactor design and construction, to reprocessing and waste management. India, the UIC says, has a small fast breeder reactor and is about to build a much larger one. It is also developing technology to use its abundant resources of thorium as a nuclear fuel. It has 14 small nuclear power reactors in commercial operation, nine under construction – including two large ones, and more planned. It’s an eye opener and point of concern to US nuke experts that Indian nuke programmes is one of the most risky programme. …According to, a US-based information clearinghouse, radiation emitted from the country’s nuclear reactors is three times higher than international norms allow. Of its 14 nuclear power reactors, only three reportedly meet international standards. Indian governments always tried to hide about leaks and accidents from the reactors. An Indian scientist who prefers not to be named reported, “An estimated 300 incidents of a serious nature have occurred, causing radiation leaks and physical damage to workers.”…. India has always neglected international laws in relation to its nuclear programme. She has refused to signed CTBT and NPT. …..the recent statements of K Santhanam, repeated incidents and nuke proliferation have made the Indian Nuke Programme, the world’s most dangerous one. IAEA should carry out detail inspection of her civil and military nuke plants. US, Russia and French should reconsider their decisions of further continuation of pacts without elaborate security arrangements and establishing Indian Nuke command control authority.

[16] Xinhua News Agency and its affiliates such the People’s Daily, Liberation Daily, China Daily and the like constitute part of the Chinese intelligence set up. It undertakes operations and feeds open source intelligence both independently and at the bidding of other intelligence outfits. Chinese Association for International Friendly Contacts, affiliated to General Political Department of the Chinese PLA is one such Intelligence Outfit undercover. It is not surprising that the Ministry of State Security and Ministry of Public Security among the civil and the Second Department, the Third Department and the Fourth Department under PLA General Staff Department, Sixth Research Institute under PLA AF and Naval Intelligence under PLA do as well use Chinese print and electronic media. Information warfare units have of late come to use the medium extensively. Planting stories constitute the most popular modus operandi.

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