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When the Buddha smiled
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August 20, 2007
When you live in a nation like India -- with its vast landmass, varied people and ancient history -- it's quite possible that there are many things you may not know about her.

In this series, we hope to satisfy your curiosity with interesting nuggets of information about India.

Smiling Buddha -- an incongruous title for one of Independent India's most important achievements. This was the code name for India's first peaceful nuclear explosive, indigenously designed, and tested in May 1974.

The seed was sown in the aftermath of the 1962 Indo-China war. The belief that India needed an effective nuclear deterrent crystallised in 1964, when China conducted a nuclear test at Lop Nur.

The result was something the world would have never imagined from a country whose leadership professed its distaste for nuclear weapons in every fora, and had yet commenced an ambitious nuclear programme in the late 1940s under the leadership of Dr Homi J Bhabha and, after the maverick scientist's death in an air crash on Mount Blanc in January 1966, under the gentle guidance of Dr Vikram Sarabhai, who passed away prematurely in December 1971.

Under the leadership of Dr Homi Sethna, Dr Sarabhai's successor as chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, and Dr Raja Ramanna, director of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in Trombay, Mumbai, India designed and manufactured its first nuclear explosive.

A top secret project, it used the services of only 75 scientists and engineers in a span of seven years (1967 to 1974). The core was put together at BARC in Trombay, then India's premier nuclear centre, before being transported to Pokhran in Rajasthan where the test took place.

As part of the effort to maintain secrecy around the test, then prime minister Indira Gandhi [Images] was not present at Pokhran; she turned up a couple of days later with Dr Sethna and Dr Ramanna. The only other people who were in the loop were her trusted advisers Pran Nath Haksar and D P Dhar; even the Cabinet was kept in the dark.

The test, scheduled for 8 am on May 18, 1974, was delayed because a jeep would not start, leaving V S Sethi, an engineer, stranded at the test site. Sethi hiked out in time, but the army's efforts to recover the jeep further delayed the shot. The test was finally conducted at 8.05 am.

Underlying the solemnity of the occasion was a twist of humour. When the hotline between Delhi and Pokhran did not work, Dr Ramanna apparently made his way to a nearby village, where he called Indira Gandhi on an unsecured phone line. 'The Buddha,' he is supposed to have told her, 'has finally smiled'. According to, though, this is more in the nature of urban legend.

What is undeniable is that India's 1974 test was the first confirmed nuclear test by a nation that was not a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.

This was followed by a series of successful tests at Pokharan on May 11 and 13, 1998. The fact that India has now been accepted as a responsible nuclear power is underlined by the 123 Agreement between India and the United States.

Information courtesy Wikipedia,

Name India's first airport
Rs 350 -- An IAS officer's salary

Indo-US nuclear tango
1998: The bomb and after

Smiling Buddha
Operation Shakti
Going nuclear, for peace

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