A man of vision

Print edition : October 22, 2004

Dr. Raja Ramanna, 1925 - 2004.

"Out of the uncertain beginnings in the 1950s, if we have today achieved the status of a `developed country' in nuclear science and technology, it is in large measure a consequence of Dr. [Raja] Ramanna's ideals, policies and efforts"

- Dr. P.K. Iyengar, former Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), in The Hindu, September 25, 2004.

FOR about 50 years, Dr. Raja Ramanna guided the nuclear energy establishment in the country. This protg of the founding father of the Indian nuclear programme, Dr. Homi Bhabha, was the central figure behind the first underground nuclear test, conducted on May 18, 1974 at Pokhran, Rajasthan. At the time of the "Peaceful Nuclear Experiment", H.N. Sethna was the Chairman of the AEC and Raja Ramanna the Director of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), Trombay, the nerve-centre of the country's nuclear energy establishment. He skilfully coordinated the work of several teams that made Pokhran I possible.


His passing away at the age of 79 in Mumbai on September 24 is viewed with a genuine sense of loss not only by the nuclear energy institution but by the scientific and defence establishments too. Raja Ramanna, former Chairman of the AEC, was also Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister. Later, he had a brief stint as Minister of State for Defence in the 11-month V.P. Singh Ministry.

"For all of us, he was always a source of sage counsel," Dr. R. Chidambaram, former chairman of the AEC, told Frontline insisting that the word "always" should not be omitted. Chidambaram added: "Dr. Ramanna was responsible for bringing me to BARC and he brought me into Pokhran-I too." (Chidambaram was the chief designer of all the six nuclear explosive devices that India tested, that is, the one in May 1974 and the five in May 1998).

Raja Ramanna was an eclectic personality. He was an internationally renowned nuclear physicist, an institution builder, administrator, teacher and, indeed, a philosopher with a penchant for Sanskritic studies. An excellent pianist, with several concerts to his credit, he was a Licentiate of the Royal School of Music, London.

He is the only former Chairman of the AEC to have penned an autobiography (Years of Pilgrimage: An Autobiography, Penguin Books, 1991). He has authored a book on music too titled The Structure of Music in Raga and Western Systems. It was published by the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in 1993.

A man of science, Raja Ramanna also had a deep philosophical streak. He had several dialogues on various systems of Indian philosophy with late Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati Swami of Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam and once had a marathon discussion with him on Advaita philosophy.

His interest in philosophy gave him a holistic understanding of science. For instance, he said in an interview: "The Greek understanding of an atom was more from a philosophical point of view; but the current idea of dividing until we come to an ultimate indivisible unit, is very clearly explained in Visheshika theory. Thus, the idea of an atom has been hovering in people's mind for a very long time more deeply in India than anywhere else."

FROM the late 1950s, Raja Ramanna had been the driving force behind the Department of Atomic Energy's (DAE) annual nuclear physics and solid state physics symposia. "For many years, his concluding remarks were a treat to hear. He would superbly summarise what happened during the conference," said Chidambaram. He gloried in the achievements of the nuclear establishment and bristled at any unfair criticism of the DAE's performance. He was proud also of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), and the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).

Although Homi Bhabha conceived the BARC Training School (then called AEET School - Atomic Energy Establishment, Trombay), it was Raja Ramanna who executed the plan. From its inception in 1957, the BARC Training School has been supplying scientists and engineers to the DAE facilities, laboratories, nuclear power plants and so on. Although the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore, was J.R.D. Tata's brainchild, it was Raja Ramanna who shaped it, and Tata invited him to be its first Director.

It was during his chairmanship of the AEC that several of the DAE's laboratories, critical facilities and research reactors were built. He was responsible for setting up accelerators; the Van-de-graff at BARC, Trombay; the pelletrons at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR); and the Variable Energy Cyclotron Centre in Kolkata. The second reactor at the Madras Atomic Power Station; the Fast Breeder Test Reactor; the Purnima-II reactor with Uranium - 233 as fuel; and the Dhruva reactor reached criticality during his stewardship of the AEC. "This way, he was an architect in the true sense," said Dr. Anil Kakodkar, Chairman of the AEC. Although he was for mission-oriented programmes, he inculcated in scientists an interest in basic sciences as well.

He was instrumental in setting up the huge, sophisticated facility called the Centre for Advanced Technology at Indore, Madhya Pradesh. He felt that CAT should concentrate on fusion and high-energy accelerators, together with associated technology. "The Centre for Advanced Technology will be devoted entirely to the development of fusion, by several methods... It will be a very powerful centre, and by the end of the century we should have a very strong input to the newer types of energy sources like fusion, accelerator breeding and so on."

RAMANNA was born on January 28, 1925, in Tumkur, Karnataka. After he graduated in B.Sc. (Honours) in Physics from Madras Christian College, Tambaram, in 1945, he went to the United Kingdom to study nuclear physics at King's College, London, and received his Ph.D. in 1949 at the age of 24. He was one of the earliest to join Homi Bhabha, first at the TIFR, then at the Atomic Energy Establishment, which was later renamed BARC in memory of Bhabha.

He was Director of BARC from 1972 to 1978, and again from 1981 to 1983. From 1978 to 1981, he held simultaneously the post of Scientific Advisor to the Defence Minister; Director-General of the Defence Research and Development Organisation; and Secretary for Defence Research.

On September 1, 1983, he became Chairman, AEC and Secretary, DAE and retired on March 1, 1987. After he retired as AEC Chairman, he became Director, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore. He held that post from August 1987 to December 1989 and, at the time of his death, was its Director Emeritus. He was also Chairman, Governing Council, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.

Ramanna has won many awards: Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Memorial Award, Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan, Padma Vibhushan, Meghnad Saha Medal, Om Prakash Bhasin Award and so on. Several universities conferred D.Sc. (Honoris Causa) on him.

Raja Ramanna admired Bhabha as a great visionary. In 1985, in a wide-ranging interview he gave to Frontline he talked about Homi Bhabha (Cover Story October 4, 1985). He said: "Well, I always say that we started on the peaceful use of atomic energy even before the Americans and the Soviets. Because of the famous statement by Dr. Bhabha, which has often been quoted, but has not been fully appreciated either in this country or abroad. To say even before the Hiroshima and the Nagasaki bombs, that there is a thing called atomic energy, that there is a thing called economics and that India would not be found wanting in trained people - this is a fantastic prediction, which makes Bhabha, our founder, really a man with great vision. Now, he said this at a time when the world knew little about the peaceful uses of atomic energy...

"There is no doubt that we were among the earliest to start and there is no doubt that that is the reason for whatever success we have had. Success not in the sense that we are producing lots of power, which some other countries have done, but success in the sense that we are deeply rooted in our own soil in the development of atomic energy. All this is because of the early start."

The interview was interesting also for the insights he gave about the relationship between Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Homi Bhabha, and about Prime Ministers Indira Gandhi, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Morarj Desai and Rajiv Gandhi. Ramanna said: "The relationship between Nehru and Bhabha was not that of Minister and Secretary; they were just an older friend and a younger friend writing to each other. `My dear Bhai' on the one side; `My dear Homi' on the other side... . So it was such a personal connection - which is unique in atomic history."

In 1964, Shastri became the Prime Minister and Raja Ramanna noticed a lack of continuity in the policy perception on nuclear energy, especially in the early days. "I don't think he was fully able to appreciate the importance of atomic energy - except that it was a strong destructive force," he said.

"Morarji Desai was not against the peaceful uses of atomic energy. On the contrary, he took some very sensible positions on non-proliferation and related matters because he saw the inequalities of various Treaties and suggestions... . But he always had a feeling that since he took a B.Sc. degree before I was born [laughter], he knew more about it than me... he actually said so," Raja Ramanna said.

On Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, he made these observations: "But I must say that during our worst days, Mrs. Gandhi supported us totally and completely. She could have easily said, `Let's stop atomic energy and do something else', but she had faith in the people and saw that in spite of severe criticism, the public and Parliament stood by us, in the belief that we would come out of it all. Then Madras [Atomic Power Station] came into operation and things began to improve... . Now, of course, our present Prime Minister [Rajiv Gandhi] knows a lot about engineering. In fact, he prefers information in graphs and things like that... therefore, one saves a lot of time in explaining things. And Madras has almost worked too well."

Raja Ramanna played a pivotal role in India's first underground nuclear explosion in May 1974 when Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister. He brought together several teams that had expertise in the various disciplines that go into the making of a nuclear explosive device. In an interview to C.V. Sundaram, former Director, Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research, Kalpakkam, on September 24, 1996, which was published by the DAE in 1998, Chidambaram said that Dr. Ramanna "had been thinking" about India developing a nuclear explosive even before Bhabha's death (on January 24, 1966).

Chidambaram said: "I got involved in this round about 1967, I think, when Dr. Ramanna called me and told me about this project for the development of the nuclear explosive." How did Raja Ramanna keep the mission a secret? "Of course, Dr. Ramanna had decided at the outset that we will not put anything in writing. That itself was one important factor for keeping it secret. The other, more important thing, was that all of us were working on it part-time," he said.

Chidambaram added: "Once the clearance (for conducting the test) had been obtained by Dr. Ramanna, the crucial thing was to move the plutonium. That was moved with the help of a military convoy - in an unannounced box - and the people in the convoy were wondering why Roy and I were always keeping close to the box. I remember the excitement when we safely reached Pokhran with the consignment... . Incidentally, when we lowered the device, there was a dust storm that worried us. But in the event it helped us. For no spy satellite picked it up."

Chidambaram spoke of the friendship between Raja Ramanna and Dr. Nag Choudhuri, then Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister. "The mutual confidence and the trust between the two was an important factor in the success of the collaboration," said the former AEC Chairman.

Dr. Ramanna is survived by his wife, son and two daughters.

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