Friday, May 9, 2008

Games bomb makers played to keep the tests a top secret

Ten years ago, India’s bomb makers played a little game of deception in the scorching deserts of Pokhran in Rajasthan. “Colonel Prithviraj,” called K. Santhanam, the chief pointsman for the weaponization programme for India’s second nuclear test. His voice quivered in the desert air.

He was addressing A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. But all he could get from the missile man, who was later to become the president of India, was a blank stare.

Similarly, R. Chidambaram, then head of the Atomic Energy Commission, looked the other way when Santhanam addressed him as “Col. Natraj”. Santhanam was known in the desert as “Col. Srinivisan”.

Dressed in battle fatigues, these were no battle-hardened soldiers, but the prized quartet of India’s top scientists - Chidambaram, Kalam, Santhanam and Anil Kakodkar, then head of Bhabha Atomic Research Centre. They had been entrusted by prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee with the top secret job of detonating a bomb and making India a nuclear power.

“It was difficult in the beginning to recognise our code names which we had given to ourselves in the course of Operation Shakti (codename for the nuclear test),” recalls Santhanam, then chief adviser (technology) to the government of India.

“Anil Kakodkar was called Mamaji. We adopted these code names so that we didn’t arouse suspicion of local people and of countries who may be spying on us,” Santhanam, who thought of this brilliant subterfuge, told IANS.

“Naturally, there was a lot of confusion initially. If Kalam were to call me ‘Col. Srinivisan’, I would not know he was addressing me. Or when I will call him ‘Col. Privthiraj’, he would look blank, wondering who I was calling.

“But soon we got used to it,” the 70-year-old Santhanam recalled with relish.

The deception and camouflage was not confined to just adopting code names for the one-month secret mission that culminated in the dramatic emergence of India as a nuclear weapon state after three blasts May 11 and two more blasts May 13.

The moment Vajpayee gave the green signal around April 10, the quartet, along with 100-120 scientists and nearly 1,000 sappers of the Corps of Engineers, headed to the Pokhran range to engineer the blasts that were to shock the world.

They were all dressed in olive green fatigues.

Pokhran was where India carried out its first nuclear tests in 1974. In 1995, an Indian attempt to test a nuclear device had to be scrapped after American satellites got the whiff of it.

No one was taking any chance this time.

“The logic was simple: as the Pokhran range was swarming with army personnel, we decided to dress in battle fatigues so as not to raise unnecessary eyebrows,” said Santhanam.

“Since it was a border area, there was a high likelihood of informers in the place. Scientists in trousers would have attracted unwanted attention. Some scientists were also potbellied. The locals would not have thought them to be soldiers, who are a fit and sprightly lot.”

All this was done to avoid the stealthy gaze of spy satellites, particularly the American ones. “Compared to the 1974 tests, we were more knowledgeable about surveillance systems,” he explained.

“That’s why we avoided any movement during the satellite hours. We normally worked at night and carried on till the small hours without any sleep. Chances of detection in the night are zero and the quality of satellite images is very bad.”

One month of tiring, sleepless nights paid off in the late afternoon of May 11.

“The earth trembled a little. As the blasts were in a shaft deep down, we couldn’t feel much. I called it a bum tickle.”

The bum tickle was followed by a spontaneous eruption of joy among scientists after the tests were confirmed.

“We hugged each other. The team as a whole had a feeling of self-fulfilment, a feeling of having contributed to national security,” said Santhanam. “There was a sense of collective jubilation rather than individual triumphalism.

“When we called Vajpayee (in Delhi), he was absolutely delighted. He was happy and complimented the team.”

Kalam took off his Gorkha cap and his silvery mane fluttered in the desert air.

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