Twenty years ago the earth shook and India became a nuclear power

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Manvendra Singh

The signs were there early enough in the day, but I was poor at reading signals. A Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission never has to go to office on a government holiday, but here was Father, Jaswant Singh, sitting at breakfast early. Whilst eating he was on the phone to his Private Secretary, instructing him to be at work by a particular time. My brain was wired for the next story – I worked at ‘The Indian Express’ those days — so I didn’t register the importance of this command. If I recall correctly, he didn’t ask for much staff to be present.
He left soon thereafter, and I got on the phone to connect with Ministry of Defence (MoD) sources, but none were available. On a government holiday, the ministry shuts down completely. Other than the Directorate General of Military Operations (DGMO), none would be available, and there was no question of getting access to anyone there, at such short notice anyway. No story was expected from the MO Directorate in any case, or so I believed. Calls to sources in Defence Research & Development Organisation went unanswered.
Later regrets could not compensate for the lapses on my part, for both organisations were key to the story as it unfolded in the sand dunes far far away.
South Block Room # 161C was a regular Saturday halt, half day of work, and then lunch at India International Centre. On May 11,1998, the only line that answered led to SB 161 C, for Joint Secretary (Europe West) was at work. I reached him, Hardeep Singh Puri, now Union Urban Development Minister, before noon. He said he’d been called to work by the Foreign Secretary, so I could drop in. He had once been Joint Secretary (Navy) in the MoD, so we went back some years. He was always a good guide on policy issues, clearing the wheat from the chaff.
The first question he asked when I entered his room was, Where is Boss? Planning Commission, I said. We both let it pass.
A little later Foreign Secretary K. Raghunath called to ask him his plans, and he said, As usual, IIC lunch, Sir. To which he was told to stay put and keep his lunch plans on hold. We let that pass too, and began making local food arrangements.
Soon enough his phone rang and it was a colleague, Rakesh Sood, then Joint Secretary (Disarmament) on the line. He had been sitting by himself in his office, tucked away in one corner of MEA’s South Block. The plot was thickening but none of us as yet had a clue. Not even my father’s Private Secretary, allegedly, who later told me, Boss left the office around 11am and said he’d be back later, but didn’t say where he was going or when he’d be back. He left with a very serious expression, the Private Secretary recounted.
Some time later I got up to make a trip to the toilet and in the corridor met Vivek Katju, then Joint Secretary (Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan). (The order of country names has now been changed for some reason.) He asked what I was doing, and when I told him, he said he’d drop in. By the time he came, we were joined by Alok Prasad, Joint Secretary (Americas).
I was the lone non-official witness to this gathering in which the cast was complete, but none knew what the plot or script was, or who’d written it. Far away in the desert, near a village called Khetolai, many miles from Pokharan, the scene was being enacted.
Early in the morning that day when Indian Army engineers had gone around telling villagers to vacate their homes, the common response was, ‘Why, are you going test the big bomb again!’ I would hear of this later when I travelled through the area, but for the time being I was clueless in South Block. Certainly not as sharp and clever as the villagers around the test site.
As the clock ticked, so did the brain. Something was up, for the head count was taken often enough to arouse extreme curiosity. Until either Hardeep Puri or Vivek Katju said very casually, ‘Wow, today is Buddha Purnima, wasn’t the first test on this date?’ Rakesh Sood instantly slapped his head, used an expletive, and said, ‘Wonder if we’ve tested’. After that it was a blur of conversations as the day’s events were analysed threadbare, for definite clues or even remote hints.
With a wry smile Rakesh Sood added, ‘Well, the US disarmament guys were over here in April for bilateral talks, and one of them asked me pointedly, ‘I hope you guys are not going to test. I was, of course, clueless, so I told them, ‘Certainly not as far as I know.’
The bombshell call was not long in coming. Hardeep Puri’s room erupted with much back-slapping and congratulations amongst all of us. I was privileged enough to have been sitting with some key diplomats when the seminal event announced India’s arrival into the most exclusive club in the world.
The call also announced that Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was to have a press conference announcing the tests to the world, and before that the four joint secretaries were to inform the Ambassadors of countries to whom they were responsible. Just then Hardeep Puri realised that Vice-President Krishna Kant was in Cairo and that he needed to be informed before a public announcement from the PM in New Delhi. Turned out that his wife, Lakshmi, also a diplomat, was accompanying the Vice-President, so now there was a debate about how the information could reach the VP securely, without eavesdroppers figuring out on an open line.
Time was running out. The sun would soon reach the eastern coast of the United States waking up officials in Washington DC. The idea of finding a secure line to Cairo was dropped and native common sense took over. A Marathi speaker was found who spoke to Lakshmi in her mother tongue and briefed her about the tests as well as the statement to be placed before the VP.
It is 20 years to the day that the earth shook in Khetolai in the Pokharan desert in Rajasthan – I represent a part of that land today, as a BJP politician. Many of the characters who were critical to that dramatic day have since passed on to the blue yonder, some are still with us. The BJP had come to power only months before, promising that India would go nuclear – Atal ji had had “the file” on his desk during the 13 days he was prime minister two years before, but it hadn’t been long enough. He had now fulfilled his and the party’s promise.
In 1974, Indira Gandhi had been forced to back off by the Western world after the earth shook in Pokharan and she was forced to call India’s first nuclear test a “peaceful nuclear explosion”. In 1995, then prime minister P V Narasimha Rao was forced to call off preparations for a nuclear test when the US ambassador in Delhi at the time, Frank Wisner, showed then External Affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee “proof” – photographs, it was said – of the hole being dug in the nuclear test site.
On May 11, 1998, the countdown had been foolproof. India, a Third World nation, had blasted its way into the world’s consciousness, demanding to be heard. Sanctions would follow, but it wouldn’t matter. That moment of reckoning heralded a new world order – India was part of it, whether the world liked it or not.
Manvendra Singh is the BJP MLA from Shiv constituency in Barmer district, Rajasthan, not far from the Pokharan nuclear test site. (Courtesy: IE)