His eyes light up, and he reaches for a packet of cigarettes. For the man in charge of the Pokhran II tests, the 10 years since have done little to blur the momentous event in all its many details.
The shafts holding the devices for testing were so deep, they were sloshing with water. “There was water cascading about,” says K. Santhanam, who was in charge of the test site as Colonel Srinivas.
“The water was a lovely colour of sambhar,” he says, adding quickly, “though inedible of course.” Santhanam was then with the state-owned and ultra secretive defence research outfit the DRDO. And that’s how the former senior operative of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), which is India’s external intelligence agency, happened to play a critical role in Pokhran II.
The other key players were APJ Abdul Kalam, the then DRDO boss and the defence minister’s scientific adviser, and Rajagopala Chidambaram, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission.
Santhanam was in charge of test site preparation. He was at the heart of India’s most secretive operation and is widely credited with erecting the smokescreens that so embarrassed US intelligence agencies. “I knew about the satellites and knew what to do,” Santhanam recalls, without a hint of arrogance at having fooled the world’s most resourceful spooks. He has a theory on that, but not for publication, he insists.
The whole fool-the-Americans operation is the stuff of legends and has been written about a lot — how the scientists wore Army OGs to avoid attracting attention — as this part of Rajasthan is crawling with Army personnel. “It was easy for us to pass off as army personnel,” he says. That area being close to the border with Pakistan is easily accessible to spies and moles. The whole disguise thing was essential.
And who better than a former RAW man to pull it off? Santhanam had been involved with the nuclear programme from the time he shifted to DRDO from the spy agency. And from then on, he was the one man absolutely in the know of what was happening.
He says India had been ready to test its weaponised nuclear armory since 1995, having being sent down this path by Rajiv Gandhi and then enthusiastically kept on course by PV Narasimha Rao. In fact, India actually had devices ready for testing in the Pokhran shafts for five or six months, before they were dismantled and shipped off to their respective parking bays in Trombay and Chandigarh.
“It must be an entry fit for the Guinness book of world records that nuclear devices were kept in a state of readiness for testing for such a long time,” he says with a smile.
Santhanam is a slight man in his early 70s. He laughs easily and a lot, and has a bulging bag of jokes about former US president Bill Clinton and his Oval Room distraction, Monica Lewinsky.
Now, he asks, is it true the government wants to underplay this milestone, 10 years of Pokhran II? “A nation can ill afford to ignore its heroes and their heroic deeds.” He looks fleetingly somber. And then the smile returns.