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The Desi ‘Oppenheimers’ And How They Were Treated In India

The Hollywood movie Oppenheimer is a biopic of the scientist who made the atomic bomb for America, but who made India’s atomic bombs? On the 25th year of India becoming a nuclear weapons state, let us revisit the hard work and sacrifices of those Indian nuclear heroes.

The Hollywood film Oppenheimer depicts the reality of how Dr J. Robert Oppenheimer, the man who is credited with being the ‘Father of the Atomic Bomb’, made the nuclear bomb for the US as part of the Manhattan Project. Later, his own government classified him as a ‘communist’, which, to Americans, almost meant being a traitor. He was put through a wringer of a trial and his security clearances were withdrawn; from being an influential political voice in the US, he was reduced to being almost an outcaste.

After the 1945 Trinity atomic test, Oppenheimer, having read Sanskrit, quoted the Bhagavad Gita as saying, “Now I become Death destroyer of the worlds”. His own country destroyed his reputation in his lifetime. Other countries like China and Pakistan have also heaped humiliation on their atomic bomb-makers. Pakistan jailed AQ Khan for five years for running what was described as the ‘nuclear Walmart of the world’. Qian Sanqiang, a Chinese nuclear physicist, was deported to the Chinese countryside as part of the Cultural Revolution.

India, on the other hand, respects the “Swadeshi Oppenheimers” who made the country proud. Leading the pack is Homi J Bhabha, the father of India’s atomic energy programme. Jairam Ramesh mentions that there is now evidence that Oppenheimer was offered Indian repatriation when he was going through his ordeal.

Twenty-five years ago, India carried out five underground nuclear explosions at Pokharan in 1998 and declared itself a ‘nuclear weapons state’. While about 100 scientists and engineers were involved but the most prominent were, APJ Abdul Kalam, then head of the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO); R Chidambaram, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission; Anil Kakodkar, Director of the Bhabha Atomic Research Center (BARC) Mumbai; and K Santhanam also of DRDO.

India even elevated those leading the country’s efforts to become an atomic weapons state. APJ Abdul Kalam, an aerospace engineer considered the ‘guiding force’ for India’s atomic bombs, later endeared himself to billion-plus Indians in his avatar as the eleventh President of India. Also called the ‘Missile Man of India’, he famously dubbed the atomic bombs as ‘weapons of peace’ and asserted that they were the currency of global power. What a crowning glory for the man who led Team Pokharan.

R Chidambaram, a physicist considered the chief designer of the bombs, headed India’s vast atomic energy establishment, and later became the Principal Scientific Advisor to the Government of India. A shy person of few words, who shuns the limelight, he effectively warded off the criticism of India after the nuclear explosions. As a young man he was also involved in the 1974 ‘peaceful nuclear explosion’.

Anil Kakodkar, a mechanical engineer dubbed ‘the perfectionist’, was Director of the Bhabha Atomic Research Center (BARC), Mumbai, India’s main nuclear weapons laboratory. He was responsible for all the radioactive components of the atomic bombs. In the run-up to the secret testing, he lost his father and had to rush home for the funeral. After the grim task, he went back to create India’s largest explosions ever, that reverberated across the globe.

He later became the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission and was the brain behind the landmark Indo-US Civilian Nuclear Deal that ended the pariah status of India’s strategic sector. Incidentally, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh offered to nominate him to Rajya Sabha, which he politely refused – not unusual for a man who embodied ‘simple living and high thinking’. He was also involved as a very young engineer in the 1974 ‘Buddha Smiles’ tests.

K Santhanam was “the Blacksmith’, the big logistics person who tied the teams together during the 1998 atomic explosions. He was elevated as director of the now renamed Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis, Delhi. He later became a critic of the Pokharan tests and questioned the yield of the Hydrogen Bomb.

There are other heroes from the 1974 atomic blasts like Homi J Sethna, the then chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission; Raja Ramanna, considered the true ‘janak’ of the atomic bombs, who became a Minister of State in the Union Council of Ministers. PK Iyengar was a key brain behind the 1974 atomic explosion who later became chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. All recognized as worthy sons of India.

For the successful ‘Shakti’ series of tests, India awarded high civilian honors with different Padma awards to four members of the atomic energy team. Two from the DRDO team were also honored with Padma awards. Dr Kalam was awarded the highest civilian award of India, the Bharat Ratna, in 1997. India has a history of acknowledging the scientific heroes who made India a nuclear weapons state. A Bollywood movie, ‘Parmanu’, showcases the tense moments the scientists went through and how the satellites used by the American spy agency to snoop on Pokharan were hoodwinked.

In contrast, Robert Oppenheimer was hounded in the US.

Jairam Ramesh, a technocrat and MP, writes, “Robert Oppenheimer is credited with being the father of the atomic bomb. When he witnessed the first nuclear explosion in the deserts of New Mexico in the US on July 16, 1945, by his own admission he immediately thought of a verse from the Bhagavad Gita – ‘Now I become Death, the destroyer of worlds’. This is a reference to Chapter 11, Verse 32. Virtually all translations of the word “Kaala” in this verse render it as “Time” or “the eternal Time-Spirit”. But Oppenheimer used “Kaala” to mean “Death”. This is because he had studied Sanskrit in the early 1930s at the University of California at Berkeley under Arthur Ryder whose translation of the Bhagavad Gita had appeared in 1929. It was Ryder who had translated Kaala as Death”.

In a big revelation, Jairam Ramesh says, “Incidentally, Bakhtiar Dadabhoy, in his recent 2023 biography of Homi J. Bhabha writes that when Oppenheimer was under attack in the early 1950s for his communist leanings, Bhabha, after consulting Nehru, sounded him out on immigrating to India. There is really no conclusive archival evidence for this, but Bhabha may well have verbally sounded Oppenheimer out. But ironically, Bernard Peters, who was betrayed as a communis t by Oppenheimer to the American authorities in 1949, was invited by Bhabha to the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai in 1951. Peters made very important scientific contributions in cosmic rays and nuclear research at TIFR before immigrating to Denmark. He was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1985”. Such are the palace intrigues that played out in the nuclear world.

(Pallava Bagla is a New Delhi-based science communicator)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.

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