Smiling Buddha – Pokhran 1

India’s PNE at Pokhran 1974

A number of you would have seen the recent film ‘Paramanu’ and have assumed that the tests of 1998 was the seminal event signaling India’s nuclear journey, but many of you would not have heard of Smiling Buddha, a PNE (peaceful nuclear explosion) which was conducted some 24 years before the 1998 Pokhran II tests. I am not surprised because so little is written about that first test and if you did want to try and unearth that story, you would have to scour all around to find a rare copy of Raj Chengappa’s magnum opus “Weapons of peace’. I do not promise to provide you much more, but I can give a decent overview for those interested in perusing the matter further. Those aware will know the reason for the difficulties, a decision was taken early by the team, to commit nothing to paper in the interest of national security, and so you will discover no paper trail.  But naturally, memories of those involved did conflict here and there, so their own accounts differ slightly.

So friends, it is time to visit the deserts of Rajasthan, the stratospheres where satellites traversed, the musty South block offices in Delhi, the tiny hamlet of Thumba in Trivandrum, the atomic energy city in Trombay and get to know the select few involved in this project and what they did preceding the test itself.

Remotely located, near Jaisalmer, on the arid Thar Desert and some 50 miles from the Pakistan border, Pokhran was once the seat of the Champawats, a sub-clan of the Marwar-Jodhpur Rathores. The name Pokhran means land of five mirages, connected to the five salt ranges. The Rajput Marwari Thakur’s titled Pradhan’s, were premier nobles of the Jodhpur fort, and ruled from Balagarh. Of the eight Sirayats, or premier nobles of Marwar, two are Champawats, the Thakurs of Pokhran and Auwa. Their abode is barren, dry and hostile, with scanty and erratic rainfall. Typical of deserts, it was evidenced by vast expanses of sparse vegetation with little grass to provide fodder for cattle, sheep and goats. Camels could be seen often, providing a means of transport. Rolling sand dunes separated by sandy plains and punctuated by low, barren hills –bhakars complete the scenery. In some areas the sand dunes are in continual motion, but older and taller dunes are quite stable and as high as 150 meters. These dunes would figure in intelligence assessment much later, during the 98 tests, and so were always very important for the planners. In the 60’s Pokhran was used as a conventional weapon test range. It again came into consideration only because that was just about the only place where the government and the bomb planners could sequester some 40 sq miles of land and where the water table was acceptably low for digging deep test shafts.

As time went by only their mud forts remained and the populace cultivating millet hardly saw anything foreign. Their life centered on their small havelis, the camels, the colorfully clad women and their small festivals. They were certainly not prepared when government officials came to acquire large tracts of land at a pittance, Rs 4 per bhiga(1/4 acre) during the early 70’s.

Let me now take you back a little back and refer you to that story of the listening device in Nandadevi when the world was snooping on China’s nuclear tests and missile development from the top of the Himalayas and India’s role in it. Two years after the disastrous skirmishes at the Indian borders, a hostile China had tested its atom bomb and signaled a bigger threat from the Northern borders. By now the nuclear club had five members, US, Britain, France, China and Russia.

Even though the intent to develop a nuclear device and test it dated back to the tail years of Nehru, Homi Bhaba, the dynamic head of AEC and Raja Ramanna found the going tough especially after Nehru’s death in 1964. The RAW was set up with help from CIA and the Nandadevi caper followed to cement that cooperation.

Pakistan gravitated towards China as India strengthened its Russian bear hug. The 1965 war with Pakistan showed a decisive Shastri taking on a Chinese threat, but he passed away in the midst of a peace discussion at Tashkent. Days later Homi Bhaba died mysteriously in a plane crash in Switzerland. Indira Gandhi took on the mantle as India’s PM. India was deep in debt at that time. Vikram Sarabhai was appointed as the chairman of the AEC, overlooking Bhaba’s understudy Homi Sethna. But by then the Nuclear haves had formed a club and decided to restrict any new entrant with their combined immense power. The BARC enterprise in Trombay was growing and the Punrnima reactor was set up additionally to assist with special experiments. Even a PNE was frowned upon and the western powers would offer no support to India’s request for assistance. India eventually pulled out of the NPT in 1968.

Sethna explained much later about the reasoning in a 1996 interview: There were pressures on India
Homi Sethna
to sign the NPT around 1967. There were two schools of thought. One said, "Forget it," we should give up and sign the treaty. This school tried to put pressure on the other school which wanted to develop the nuclear option, but it did not succeed. You see, something else had happened recently. We were told (in 1966) to devalue the rupee, which we did. We were told that money would flow once we devalued, and it would be all milk and honey. But money did not flow in. So that was when we became extremely suspicious of the US advice about what was in our interest.

A decision to prepare for the test was taken by Sarabhai in Trivandrum in April 1970. Sarabhai informed R Chidambaram that he could talk to Abdul Kalam (interestingly Kalam was nicknamed Hanuman – for he was sincere and dedicated, was a celibate bachelor and liked bananas) at Thumba since they had expertise making detonators for the soundiung rockets at TERLS. By 1970 China were ready with their ballistic missile technology as well and administrators feared that those rockets would reach any state in India.

Close to follow was the 1971 war with Pakistan where a victorious India had to face a nuclear threat from the Nixon Kissinger combine (see my article on Ghazi) and their 7th fleet sailing in to the Indian Ocean. The treaty with the Soviets helped counter that challenge. In 1972 Indira visiting Trombay, gave a verbal authorization to Sethna to go ahead and build a nuclear device. Bhaba wanted 18 months to prepare for a test.

Again, tragedy struck with Sarabhai’s mysterious death in a Trivandrum hotel. In any case he had been told that Sethna would take over and that he was being considered to head the space program. By 1972, Sethna was thus in command of the AEC. But perhaps it was better for the team who had always wanted to go full steam, and Sarabhai tended to be an impediment to their efforts.

The biggest issue was the economic situation and the non-availability of Plutonium to carry out a test. Some 15-20 kilos of the material was needed, but the Phoenix reprocessing plant was not operating efficiently and the Purnima research reactor was still to start working. Thus the situation in 1973 was that almost all other constituents of the test were in place, but for the plutonium sphere and the initiator. If they had to test in 1973 or 74, the only way was to take out the 20 kg of plutonium from Purnima after shutting it down. Ramanna gave that order. As days progressed, the ball started to take its shape, a perfect sphere of layered plutonium with a protective coating. Secrecy was paramount and so all this was done after office hours.

Raja Ramanna
The Indian army had the next task, to dig a shaft at least 107 meters into the ground at Pokhran. The 61 regiment at Jodhpur who only knew how to build bridges and bunkers, were tasked to do it, the purpose vaguely stated to them to be seismic experiments. As the local army commander dithered, stating that such mundane tasks were not to his liking, the Army chief Bewoor had to personally intervene and give him an oral command to do it. The outside world was given to understand that the ONGC were digging for gas wells, while locally the story was that they were digging for water to supply the army contingents.

In January 1974 the diggers stuck water and were overjoyed, but the top brass were mortified since what they wanted was a bone dry shaft for the test. After all the effort, that first shaft had to be abandoned (so also the test which was originally scheduled for 15th Feb 1974), and a local a water diviner had to be summoned to identify a previously abandoned dry well in the village of Malki. Digging started again and progressed smoothly.

It was later in April 1974 that India’s PM Indira Gandhi summoned Homi Sethna (Chairman AEC), Raja Ramanna (Director BARC), Nagachaudhuri (DRDO chief) PN Dhar principal secretary and PN Haskar (principal advisor to the PM) for a final discussion. The BARC were to prepare the plutonium core and DRDO to pack the conventional explosive cover around it. The army were to sink and get the shafts ready. Dhar after going through the economic situation India was in and the debt situation warned against testing. Haskar also agreed stating that the time was not right. Ramanna argued that much effort had been made to get everything ready and that it was not the time to cap it. As was her norm of listening more and talking less, Indira sat quietly and at the end stated that she agreed to go for the tests. No minutes were recorded.

Back in Trombay the plutonium ball and the trigger (flower) were readied in time. The trigger was flown out in a commercial flight by Iyengar and Murthy. Chitambaram and Roy carried the ball and other instruments by road accompanied by a military convoy, travelling all of 900km. Ramanna, Sethna and Nagachaudhuri flew in via Jodhpur. The core team had reached Pokhran with all the required paraphernalia as well as the casing and the explosives. Issues with lenses and final assembly of a fat man style bomb presented some difficulties, but were ironed out in the nick of time.

R Chitambaram
A sandstorm potentially helped the scientists prepare for the final acts of the test, under cover. Soni and Venkatesan went down the shaft in a crane to place the sputnik shaped device and all the power cabling in the L section. After some minor issues, the shaft was filled with cement, sand and a wooden replica of the bomb. There was no going back now. It was 16th May. The villagers were asked to remain outdoors. Sethna flew back to Delhi to get Indira’s final OK. Indira was nonchalant and even asked Sethna, if he was getting scared.

18th May, it was an intensely hot day. Ramanna, Sethna, Nagachaudhuri, Iyengar and Subherwal waited behind a trenched shelter 5 km away from the shaft. Chitambaram and Sikka were in another, near the control room. Srinivasan and Dastidar were in the control room, pottering over the instruments. The button was to be depressed at 8AM.

Just before the test was planned, a problem arose when Virendra Singh Sethi’s jeep refused to start. Sethi hiked back and another army jeep had to tow away the stalled one. It was 805 AM, a five minute delay.

Dastidar pushed the red button and waited, nothing seemed to happen. Venkateshan who had been muttering the Vishnu Sahasranamam, to invoke Lord Vishnu, had gone mum.

And then the earth rose. A mini mountain of sand rose up, followed by the aftershock which sent Ramanna who was trying to stand up, tumbling down, to the earth. Sikka too fell down. Soon they were all jubilantly celebrating. The wooden model survived the blast and was tossed back to the surface.

Sethna later rushed to a field telephone to call Dhar in Delhi but could not get a clear line. However Dhar had already heard from Gen Bewoor moments earlier the cryptic message ‘anand hai’ (it is joyous). Sethna eventually got to Dhar in Delhi a little later from an army phone exchange in the nearby Pokhran village and informed him that the test had gone well with a yield over 10 kilotons, and no venting at the site. Sethna maintained that he had not uttered the so called code message ‘the Buddha is smiling’ as is stated in many a report.

As the ground quaked, the swami in the village square explained to the perturbed lot around him - You see, the world is balanced on the horn of the celestial cow (or bull). Sometimes it gets tired and tosses the earth from one horn to the other. That is when a quake occurs (This was a popular belief in Asia as well as the Middle East) and that is what you just felt. Don’t worry!!

The 9AM, AIR announcement was terse “At 805 AM India conducted an underground nuclear explosion for peaceful purposes at a carefully chosen site in western India”.

Jagjivan Ram, the defense minister was formally notified only after the tests. A disgruntled Ram muttered, ‘what is the point in telling me now’?

Ramanna and Sethna flew to Delhi to meet Indira and were congratulated by the PM. She said – ‘Wonderful job, but now the program is over, Pack up’. That they were disappointed would be an understatement, but for now, it was a time to celebrate. The entire gang did just that, they had a huge beer party at the army mess in Pokhran.

Indira Gandhi with the scientists at the site
Criticism and recriminations followed instantly from around the world. Canada was angry since they knew it was their plutonium which had been used for the tests. Only France congratulated India. The US response was muted for two reasons, one Nixon was beleaguered by the Watergate affair, and of course, even though they had not predicted it, they could not state they knew nothing - it was not that they had no inkling, they had already been tipped by S Krishnaswami in 1971 informally. Cananda were also aware that something was in the offing. Pakistan as expected, were bound to follow, and their defense budget was quickly increased by Bhutto, to work on developing a Pak bomb. The race was on.

Even today people wonder what made India carry out that explosion, was it due to the Chinese atomic threat? Was it due to the anger at the arrival of a nuclear threat from the US in the Indian Ocean? Was it due to NPT pressure and threat of sanctions? Was it because Pakistan was to get atomic weapon support from China? Or was it a politically motivated and timed test? Most indications point to the last reasoning mainly because India went dormant for 25 years after that test. There is one technical aspect though to be considered. The Beryllium polonium initiator had polonium with a 138 day half-life. It had to be used within that time. So that could have been a possible reasoning for the scientists to hurry through with a test, having completed the initiator in Jan 1974.

Following this PNE, the next would be Pokhran 2 in 1998, though scientists maintain there was a need to generate more plutonium reserves and so on.

Even though the press went gaga with the reporting and exclaimed that Indira had the real balls (George Reedy, a long-time aide of President Lyndon Johnson went on to state “My God, that woman had a will of iron. You talked to her and you realized immediately that she was tough.” (Reedy, 1985)), the political situation went downhill soon after. As it transpired, an insecure Indira fearing many things and even a CIA led topple, clamped an emergency and censorship. It was soon time up for the Congress. In 1977 the Janata party swept into power. The swing in Delhi moved back and forth between the congress and the opposition as time passed. The western nuclear haves flexed their muscles and threatened sanctions. Goverments came and went.

Raj Chengappa mentions that one reason for doing the tests in Pokhran was to remind people of the once glorious Indus valley civilization in those regions, nurtured by the Saraswati River. The once great and unrivalled civilization had vanished with the drying up of the river and what better way to remind the people with this huge event at that very location?  As it appears, later tests on the well water in Pokhran provided an interesting aspect that the water originated from Himalayan glaciers.

What was it with the ‘Buddha smiling’ code concocted by Dhar? It is believed that when Buddha has that serene smile, any situation is peaceful. Chengappa provides an explanation by detailing the Anguli mala story where the fearsome dacoit met his match with an ever smiling Buddha. Others say it was because the test was on a Buddha Pournami day.

Vinay Sitapati demurs - It seems Raja Ramanna was also aware of the history of Vaishali’s destruction by Magadha. The legend is, Buddha was upset about it and thought the war could have been avoided if Vaishali too had deterrent military power rather than its so-called direct democracy so nobody would take hard decisions. “You can only have peace between equally strong or equally weak nations,” he is supposed to have said; that’s why Ramanna told Indira Gandhi “Buddha is smiling” as India had acquired its deterrence. But then again, it was supposedly Sethna who said Buddha is smiling, not Ramanna.

It was not that the area was not under watch from the skies by US satellites in 1974. In fact Corona, Gambit and Hexagon satellites did make sporadic fly through’s during the 60’s and 70’s photographing Trombay and other locales but the scientists were worried that they might get picked up by chance, at Pokhran. In the 90’s however, the US reconnaissance was more pronounced as they were expecting India to test any time. Curiously a Japanese paper had even reported details in 1971 about where the test was being planned and that Plutonium would be used. But nobody took India or her scientists seriously those days, I guess.

Perkovich has an interesting theory. He explains that the 1974 PNE was conceived and executed by a group of South Indian Brahmins primarily to exhibit their brilliance, but they had no interest in weapon-zing, as well as dealing with or sullying their hands with the nitty gritty of military affairs. That is possibly one reason according to him, why the program languished.

Did it? In reality the scientists were hard at work in going to the next phase which was compacting the bomb, making a delivery mechanism, mating it with aircraft and developing missile technology.

Ramanna was always clear about the intentions and it was far from peaceful, he said (Oct 97) - The Pokhran test was a bomb, I can tell you now... An explosion is an explosion, a gun is a gun, whether you shoot at someone or shoot at the ground... I just want to make clear that the test was not all that peaceful.”

Krishna Menon, a person who stood firm for total disarmament, the one who had started the DRDO, was mortified when he heard about the 1974 tests. He was seriously ill and hospitalized in Delhi. Madhavan Kutty wrote - When Menon saw the newspaper report, he started shivering with anger. He asked the nurse to get the Prime Minister on the telephone forthwith. When she came back and told that the Prime Minister was not available, he shouted at her and ordered that Homi Sethna, the Chairman of Atomic Energy Commission, be asked to see him immediately. The nurse reported that he too was not available. Tearing his hair Krishna Menon was heard saying that he was on the consultative committee of Parliament for Atomic Energy and that Sethna had no authority to do this behind his back. He was seen grasping for breath…..

The many players are no longer alive today. Indira Gandhi, Homi Bhaba and Vikram Sarabhai met untimely deaths. Raja Ramanna and Homi Sethna passed away some years ago. Abdul Kalam parented the missile program, then went on to become India’s president and he too passed away recently. But their memories and efforts would always be remembered.

The villagers at Pokhran know all about tests these days. Land value has gone up and they are even trying their hands at cultivating Quinoa. There is much interest in the Saraswati River. Some villagers complain of skin and genetic disorders.

Tests continue - Recently the cruise missile BrahMos was tested at the Pokhran range and VIP’s continue to come and go.

Weapons of peace – Raj Chengappa
India’s Nuclear Bomb – George Perkovich
The making of India’s atom bomb – Itty Abraham
Years of Pilgrimage – Raja Ramanna
Spying on the bomb – Jeffrey T. Richelson
Explosion in the desert – Kushwant Singh

Pics - Google images, Wiki- acknowledged with thanks