The day Buddha smiled at Pokhran

Former Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) chairman and one of the guiding lights behind India’s first nuclear test, Homi Nusserwanji Sethna, helped India conduct its first nuclear test way back in 1974.

Homi Nusserwanji Sethna

A pillar of Indias nuclear programme, Sethna’s career started neither in a laboratory nor a workshop,but in the swimming pool of the Wellington Club near Haji Ali.

Homi Jehangir Bhabha - The Father of Indian Nuclear Program

His talk with Sethna impressed Bhabha so much that he invited the young man to his office. The next day,a brief interview later, Sethna was offered a job.

Those who worked with Sethna recall that he was a taskmaster, an extreme disciplinarian and a stickler for cleanliness who could be extremely brusque at times.

The discipline, not surprisingly, was most visible on the days he helped India conduct its first nuclear test in 1974 at Pokhran.

Raja Ramanna - Father of the Indian nuclear programme

Sethna actually came to Pokhran 48 hours before the experiment. He was in New Delhi meeting officials. Some officials at the Prime Ministers Office office wanted the test to be delayed,  recalled Iyengar.  Sethna telephoned us at Pokhran and explained the situation. We said we cannot stop the test at this stage. He then met Mrs Gandhi who gave the go-ahead.

Smiling Buddha (Pokhran-I) Site

During their meeting, Sethna reportedly told Gandhi:  “I am pushing in the device (bomb) tomorrow and after that do not say remove it because I cannot. You cannot tell me to stop. “

“Go ahead. Are you frightened?”,  she replied.

“I am not. I am only telling you there is no going back now. That is all”,  he said.

On the day of the test, Sethna said to his colleagues:  “Whose head will be chopped if the test fails?”

Iyengar replied:  “If the law of physics works, no head will be chopped. ”

With his wife Dr Gooloo Sethna

The test conducted successfully, Sethna sent a coded message to Gandhi,  saying Buddha Is Smiling. The test, however, created a fissure between Ramanna and Sethna, with both claiming credit for the bomb project. Their little battle even split the countrys nuclear fraternity, with engineers openly supporting Sethna and scientists backing Ramanna.

During this period and later, Sethnas wife Gul (a doctor by profession) stood by him.

BORN ON August 24,1923
SCHOOLED AT St Xavier’s High School in Mumbai

1944: Enrolled for a BSc(Tech) degree at Mumbai University
1946: Joined University of Michigan to specialize in chemical engineering
1949: Joined Indian Rare Earths Limited, a PSU,and set up a rare earths plant at Alwaye in Kerala a step that marked the beginning of exploitation of nuclear materials in India
1959: Joined the atomic energy establishment at Trombay as its chief scientific officer.Conferred with the Padma Shri
1966: Became director of Bhabha Atomic Research Centre and was honoured with a Padma Bhushan
1972: Appointed chairman of Atomic Energy Commission following the death of Vikram Sarabhai in 1971. He held the position till 1983
1974: Led the team of luminaries like Raja Ramanna, P K Iyengar and R Chidambaram to conduct India’s first nuclear test
1975: Awarded Padma Vibhushan
1991: Appointed the Sheriff of Mumbai
1995: Elected a member of The New York Academy of Sciences
1998: Appointed chairman of Tata Electric Companies and a director of Tata Sons

Words of Peers

Sethna was an excellent project manager and executor.He went into the minute details of every project.Though a tough taskmaster,he went out of his way to help his employees:  M R Srinivasan FORMER AEC CHAIRMAN (1988- 90)

I had the privilege of working with him and I found him to be a very daring engineer.He was responsible for speeding up various projects and was the architect of the reprocessing plant at BARC: P K Iyengar FORMER AEC CHAIRMAN (1990- 92)

He provided excellent leadership to the department of atomic energy and was a pioneer in the nuclear energy programme: R Chidambaram FORMER AEC CHAIRMAN (1993- 00)

His death is a big loss to the world of atomic energy.He was our leader.He led with courage and boldness.I benefited from his advice when he was the AEC chairman and when I became the chairman: Anil Kakodkar FORMER AEC CHAIRMAN (2000- 09)

I witnessed his inspirational leadership during this period which motivated our scientific community to rise to the challenges and successfully pursue our atomic energy programme. I will cherish warm memories of Dr Sethna not only as an outstanding nuclear engineer but as a great patriot whose paramount goal was to promote India’s national interests.: Ronen Sen, FORMER INDIAN AMBASSADOR TO THE USA

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3 Responses to "The day Buddha smiled at Pokhran"

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