Those unforgettable days

Print edition : October 08, 2010

Excerpts from a 2008 interview with Homi Nusserwanji Sethna.

SPEAKING to Frontline at his Mumbai home on September 18, 2008, Homi Nusserwanji Sethna, former Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, gave fascinating insights into India's nuclear energy programme, recalled Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai's visit to the Uranium Metal Plant in Trombay, and narrated how Prime Minister Indira Gandhi orally asked the Department of Atomic Energy to conduct the nuclear test at Pokhran in May 1974 and how no written orders ever came from her. When Sethna phoned Indira Gandhi to ask for written orders soon after the nuclear device was buried in the shaft at Pokhran, she said: Have you become chicken-hearted? Excerpts:

How was the Atomic Energy Establishment Trombay [AEET] formed?

Bhabha said, Look Homi, we have to form the DAE now. I said, How the hell do I do it? It is not my job. You are an expert. You get your clearances and I will do the needful. So he got them and he made it independent of Bhatnagar [S.S. Bhatnagar, Director, Council of Scientific and Industrial Research], which was what he wanted, and we continued with our work.

By then, I knew how to do the separation [of plutonium]. Then Bhabha said, Homi, put up a uranium metal plant. There were two choices. One was to go to Britain. Britain was willing to give it to us for something like one million pound sterling. This was too much. I said, No way. So I took the plunge and said I would do it. I made a plant to make uranium metal. Even now, the plant is working. It supplies all the uranium needed for the reactors, that is, CIRUS and Dhruva, which is a 100 MWt reactor, which is damned good.... I remember Bhabha getting Zhou Enlai to Trombay and showing him the uranium isotopes done at the plant. Do you know what Zhou Enlai said? It will take 10 years for us to catch up with you. Within two years, they [the Chinese] had the bomb.

Within two years?

Because they got it from the Russians. The Chinese plant was done out of range of the U.S. bombers. It was done at a point where the U.S. bombers could not bomb it and return. They could not bomb it and get out.

What was Bhabha's reaction when China exploded a nuclear device in 1962?

They had beaten us, but they had got the knowhow from the Russians. At that time, Russia and China were one [friends]. Anyway, because of the range I told you That was that

We were told to do the experiment, orally. Orally. But no written orders from Mrs. Gandhi.

The PNE?

PNE is peaceful nuclear experiment. We had to select a spot. Wherever we went, we had trouble because there were (a) rail and road bridges, (b) population, in case of wind, in case it [the nuclear device] came up, and (c) essentially, we went down to a state of affairs where we had to make special explosives, etc., etc., and the headman of scientific research in the armed forces was a person who did not believe in

He did not believe in nuclear weapons?

He said he did not believe in atomic, biological and chemical weapons. That was his principle. His daughter suffered from palsy. So he was a very religious person. He believed in Sai Baba and all that. I went to Mrs. Gandhi and said, Look, without the help of the Army I cannot do it. She said, O.K., you wait. She sent this fellow. What is his name? She got a person called from somewhere near BangaloreMy dear fellowYou are taxing my memory!.. It was B.G. Nag Choudhury.

He was DRDO Director-General.

He and I worked very well. We understood what I had to do and what he had to do. We decided on Pokhran. This is where the Army tested out its field artillery. We moved everything at night the whole assembly to Pokhran at night because nobody would bother us then. We had police protection right through. Both the police and the Army guarded our convoy. We reached. We assembled the device. We did it in a way that people did not understand. It was L-shaped.

It was an L-shaped shaft?

Yes. We went down to 600 feet. That is all. Bad. We should have gone down to at least 10,000 feet. The trouble was we struck water. So we had to stop. How did we recognise this spot? There was an old man who used to herd the goats in the region. He was a Muslim who worshipped the deer. He said you should protect the deer. We agreed on that. You need not worry. Then he said you go to this place and you will find complete lack of water. We did, and at 600 feet, ogaya'.

You know Mrs. Gandhi never wrote a piece of paper in which she agreed that I shall do it.

She did it so beautifully [secretively].

What do we do now? I said, Let us lower it [the nuclear device] into the tunnel and finish up with the bloody thing. After that, we will hang up and we will go back to our work at Trombay. At the end, we did it. Before I fired the thing in, I rang her [Mrs. Gandhi] and said, Look, I have buried the bloody thing. There was no bloody.' I have buried the thing. Now, there is no way of getting it back. I am going to try it out tomorrow. We will fill up the hole and we will do it tomorrow.

We worked the whole night and finished up everything We had a green laser at the top. We supplied power to it. It was flashing away. We finished the thing. We buried it with the help of the Army. The Army man was a good explosives man. We designed everything. Then I rang up Mrs. Gandhi and said, We have buried it. You have not given us permission [to detonate it]. But I intend to go ahead. What do you think was her reaction? I noticed that you have become chicken-hearted.

You told her that?

No. She told me, You have become chicken-hearted.

You needed permission from her in writing.

Yes. She said, If it is successful, I will give it to you. We did it. When it happened, I told her it has happened now. I said I am going back to Bombay. But we are finding it difficult to get the transport because of the trains. There was a train station near Pokhran. I will go home to Bombay.

She said Don't worry and made a deal. She sent us a plane! An IAF plane for my own flight! We were given full treatment. Excellent food. We started at Jaipur. There was an Army base at Jaipur, outside the town. We had beer, etc. We were ready. And the plane took us to Delhi. In Delhi, we landed at the technical area, that is the Air Force area.

We were to go immediately. I said [to her], I am going to the hotel for a wash. No, no, come this way only that was her argument. I said, All right. I went there. First come to my office. So we went to her office. She was busy with her sister-in-law [ sic] in the South Block Krishna Huthee Singh. Not Huthee Singh. The other one

Vijayalakshmi Pandit.

Vijayalakshmi Pandit. She hurried her up. She herself came outside, took me by the hand and congratulated me. She shook hands with me. I said, Now may I go? She said, Nothing of the kind. There is a press conference next door. So I went to the Then I went to the hotel, had a bath, a good meal and went to sleep. Next morning, I took the first plane. I took the Air India plane which was doing Bombay-London. So that was that.

Can you say something about Bhabha? How did he form the AEET, which was renamed Bhabha Atomic Research Centre after his death?

He had absolute powers to rule anybody. He was a brilliant administrator.

He recruited the best talent. How did he do that?

I don't know how he did that. He was more and more interested in creating an organisation that would be a success even when he was not there. He was supposed to go to a meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] in Vienna. He said, So and so in BARC had committed suicide. He was in the biology department. He has taken poison because he was disappointed in love or something. So Bhabha said to me, You go. I said, All right. But tomorrow is Amavasya [new moon day], his mother was saying. I gathered together all my bags. He again changed his mind, Hey, Homi, I am going. You need not bother. That day was Amavasya. He died. I would have been on Mont Blanc.

Dr Bhabha's mother said he must not go on Amavasya day. Dr Bhabha's mother, who was alive at that time, believed in all that. She belonged to an aristocratic Parsi family. Petit. She said, Go tomorrow.

But he went on Amavasya day.

Yes, on Amavasya It was sheer misjudgment on the pilot's part. He mistook a peak for a cloud. He ran straight into it. Bhabha's body has not yet been found. But the person sitting next to him, who was Thelly Tata's

[Mrs. Sethna chipping in: That was J.R.D. Tata's brother-in-lawHe was Bartolli. His suitcase was found. But Bhabha's never was.]

Sethna: And also the ring.
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