The search for a nuclear umbrella

Having decided against a nuclear bomb, Shastri embarked on a quest for nuclear guarantees from the US and the Soviet Union

HAVING stemmed the tide of popular demand for going nuclear to meet the Chinese challenge and mollified his critics somewhat by agreeing to a quiet exploration of a peaceful nuclear explosion, Lal Bahadur Shastri embarked on a "half-hearted, diffident and ultimately futile" search for nuclear security guarantees from the United States and the Soviet Union "against possible nuclear threats from China". Significantly, the derogatory adjectives about the prime minister's initiative were penned years later by one of his most trusted and respected confidants, L.P. Singh, then Union home secretary, who rose to even higher positions afterwards. Singh knew that Shastri had acted without the benefit of consultation with his cabinet colleagues or even of bureaucratic analysis. Other critics of the quest were harsher in their comments.

The most curious feature of the exercise, however, was that although Shastri always talked of nuclear security guarantees by only the two superpowers, he never approached either Washington or Moscow. His lone international interlocutor on this subject was his British opposite number, Harold Wilson, whom he visited in the first week of December 1964. Apparently, he presumed that Wilson would take up the matter with the US and the Soviet Union.

Evidently, the news of Shastri's search was leaked by British sources because it first appeared only in London newspapers. The Indian PM, the report said, was seeking a "nuclear shield" for his country. Agitated Indian journalists understandably sought clarification. Shastri told them that he had indeed raised the guarantee issue but firmly denied having used the expression "shield". Indeed, he claimed that he had "merely floated the notion" to Wilson.

Wilson's version was that Shastri had "not actually requested protection against possible nuclear blackmail", and that he, Wilson, hadn't made "any commitment".

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