Buddha is smiling

Former Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) chairman and one of the guiding lights of India’s first nuclear test, Homi Nusserwanji Sethna, died on Sunday at his Walkeshwar residence after a prolonged lung ailment. He was 87. Sethna passed away, surrounded by some of his family members, at around 11.15 pm. His funeral will take place on Tuesday morning at the Parsi Tower of Silence in Malabar Hill. Sethna’s family has made allowance for non-Parsis to pay respect to the legend between 8.00 and 9.00 am, after which the Parsi ceremonies will begin. A pillar of India’s nuclear programme, Sethna’s career started neither in a laboratory nor a workshop, but in the swimming pool of the Wellington Club near Haji Ali. Legend goes that Homi Bhabha met Sethna while the two men were enjoying a swim at the club circa late 50s. His talk with Sethna impressed Bhabha so much that he invited the young man to his office. The next day, a brief interview later, Sethna was offered a job. Those who worked with Sethna recall that he was a taskmaster, an extreme disciplinarian and a stickler for cleanliness who could be extremely brusque at times. The discipline, they say, was most visible on the days he helped India conduct its first nuclear test in 1974 at Pokhran. P K Iyengar, a key member of the team that conducted the blast said that Sethna and Raja Ramanna, the architect of the Indian nuclear bomb, were at ground zero, supervising the arrangements. “Sethna came to Pokhran 48 hours before the experiment. He was in Delhi meeting officials. Some officials at the PMO’s office wanted the test to be delayed,” recalled Iyengar. “Sethna telephoned us at Pokhran and explained the situation. We said ‘we cannot stop the test at this stage’. He then met Mrs Gandhi who gave the go ahead.” During their meeting, Sethna reportedly told Gandhi: “I am pushing in the device (bomb) tomorrow and after that do not say remove it because I cannot. You cannot tell me to stop.” “Go ahead. Are you frightened,” she replied. “I am not. I am only telling you there is no going back now. That is all,” he said. The nuclear test conducted successfully, Sethna sent a coded message to Gandhi, saying “Buddha Is Smiling”. The test, however, created a fissure between Ramanna and Sethna, with both claiming credit for the project. Their little battle even split the country’s nuclear fraternity, with engineers openly supporting Sethna and scientists backing Ramanna. During this period and later, Sethna’s wife Gul stood by him. A doctor by profession, Gul passed away last month.

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