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India and Pakistan: A History of Conflict

Asia arms race map/ staff
(Updated: May 1999)
Asia officially entered the nuclear club in 1964, when China tested its first atomic weapon. Although the nuclear detonation followed the first test by the United States by some 20 years, the Communist state's action sent chills through a region already suspicious of China's growing military aggression.

India, in particular, was quite wary of its militarist neighbor. Ties between the two countries had worsened since 1959, when Tibet's Dalai Lama fled to India after the Chinese invasion of the Himalayan territory. India also had lost a brief border war with the Chinese in 1962 – a defeat that led India to shift more resources toward nuclear weapons research.

As India progressed down the path of developing its own nuclear program, its conflict with western neighbor Pakistan also became more acute. The two countries had been at odds over several disputed border territories since their creation in 1947, fighting a series of wars in the span of a 20-year period.

In 1971, hostilities erupted again as Pakistan troops began assaults on India-backed Bengali separatists in East Pakistan. A brutal campaign ensued with Bengalis subsequently declaring their nation (Bangladesh) independent and India joining the fight against its western neighbor. By December 1971, some one million people had died in fighting that ended with Pakistan's surrender.

Pakistan's defeat spurred its leaders to pursue a secret nuclear weapons program by 1972. India, however, was the first to demonstrate nuclear weapons capability with a test in May 1974 – a detonation that shocked Pakistan and altered the nuclear balance in the region.

In the 1970s, Pakistan turned to China for help in its arms race against India and made significant progress in acquiring sensitive nuclear technology. China reportedly supplied Pakistan with plans for a nuclear bomb in 1983, as well as enough highly enriched uranium for two thermonuclear weapons. Pakistan's leading nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan claimed Pakistan had developed a nuclear bomb in 1987, although the statement was not backed by testing.

"Our security and the peace and stability of the entire region was gravely threatened. As any self-respecting nation, we had no choice left for us."
Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announcing the tests of nuclear devices in May 1998.

Pakistan and India worked on acquiring and perfecting nuclear-capable missiles throughout the 1980s and 1990s. India tested in 1988 its Prithvi missile, capable of carrying a nuclear warhead into Pakistan. Meanwhile the Pakistanis launched a program to develop two short-range ballistic missile systems in the 1980s – (a decade later testing a 600-kilometer ballistic missile capable of reaching targets deep into India's interior).

Despite the publicized missile tests, details of both nuclear programs remained sketchy in the 1980s and early 1990s. One reason: India and Pakistan had failed to sign both the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty that would have opened their nuclear programs to more international scrutiny.

In the 1990s, repeated clashes between Indian army troops and Muslim separatists in the long-disputed Himalayan territory of Kashmir further strained relations between the two countries, as India blamed Pakistan for aiding the Muslims. The series of battles killed an estimated 30,000 people by 1996.

In May 1998, India shocked the world by detonating a series of nuclear devices. Pakistan followed weeks later with its own sequence of nuclear tests. The actions by the two countries brought international condemnation and economic sanctions from many countries, including the United States.

Eventually the international pressure, combined with the continued losses from fighting in Kashmir between Indian Hindus and Pakistani Muslims, led the two sides to meet in October 1998 for peace and security talks. For the first time, negotiators discussed the use and testing of nuclear weapons, even dedicating one session to their conflict in Kashmir. No accord, however, was reached. Both governments continue to negotiate with U.S. officials about signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

In December, the Clinton administration announced the easing of sanctions against both India and Pakistan, paving the way for U.S. loans and investments in the two nations.

Fighting between India and Pakistan continued into 1999. In May, India launched a series of airstrikes at armed Muslim infiltrators in its portion of Kashmir. Indian authorities claimed Pakistan had helped several hundred of them cross into the territory. Pakistan retaliated the next day, claiming to shoot down two Indian fighter jets.
Tim Ito, Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive producer
Compiled from reports by The Post, the State Department and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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