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1974: Operation Smiling Buddha

Print edition : Sep 20, 2022 T+T-

1974: Operation Smiling Buddha

Dr Raja Ramanna.

Dr Raja Ramanna. | Photo Credit: THE HINDU PHOTO ARCHIVES

The Indian bomb went off exactly a decade after China exploded its device.

After China tested its first nuclear device in 1964, India was keen to prove that it was not lagging. The 1962 defeat still rankled. In fact, Homi J. Bhabha, the father of India’s nuclear programme, had announced that same year that India could build a bomb. Bhabha died in a mysterious air crash in 1966. The Indian bomb went off exactly a decade after China exploded its device.

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Though China provided an immediate impetus for India’s political establishment, the beginnings of India’s scientific trajectory were first laid during the Nehru years. The 1950s and the 1960s are seen as the infrastructure-building phase. The establishment of four IITs and the Indian Statistical Institute and the commissioning of India’s first nuclear reactor, Apsara, happened in the 1950s. The Institute of Mathematical Sciences was established in 1962. 

The Atomic Energy Commission aimed for self-reliance: building research reactors, plutonium separation plants, uranium mining; fuel rod manufacturing and reprocessing facilities, and developing capable manpower at all levels of operation, maintenance and management. Nehru’s nationalist view of science seemed to be accepted by two generations of exceptionally gifted, intelligent, and articulate scientists such as Meghnad Saha, Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar and Homi J. Bhabha. The next generation of scientists included the likes of Vikram Sarabhai and Satish Dhawan.

Also read: India at 75: Epochal moments from the 1970s

The D-day for the test was May 18, 1974, in Pokhran. The pointsman was Raja Ramanna, whose team extracted plutonium for the device from CIRUS (Canada – India Reactor US) research reactor. It was not a deliverable weapon, which had been a point of contention among top scientists. What was the point, Sarabhai had asked, if India did not have a delivery mechanism? Sarabhai’s concern, research scholars have noted, was because of the international fallout an explosion would entail. He was right. Pakistan accelerated its nuclear programme soon after.