The first nuclear test was carried out by India on May 18, 1974, in Pokhran, Rajasthan. From 1974 to 1998, no nuclear test was performed, until in the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the scientific advisor to the Defence Minister, Dr. Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam decided otherwise. They wanted to announce the entry of India into the elite nuclear powers with a huge bang.
Actually, Atal Bihari Vajpayee was keen on going in ahead with the nuclear test in 1996 but because of the political turbulence, he had to call it off. A couple of years later, when he came back to power he immediately gave a green signal for the nuclear test and it was successfully conducted.
While the administrative brain was of brain Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the scientific brain behind the multiple tests which were carried out at the Pokhran test range was of Dr. Kalam. After graduating in Aeronautical Engineering from Madras Institute of Technology, Anna University, he joined the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). Later, he was appointed as the scientific advisor to the Defence Minister and Secretary, Department of Defence Research & Development and served the post from July 1992 to December 1999.
It was during this period that Dr. Kalam led the development of strategic missile systems and performed the Pokhran –II nuclear tests in collaboration with the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE). And hence, India became a nuclear weapon state.
Dr. Kalam who has supervised the explosions as the chief of DRDO camped in the Thar Desert for over a fortnight before the explosions. He often described this testing as a “defining moment” in the history of the nation, second only to the adoption of new economic policies (liberalisation) in 1991.
Few days before Dr. Kalam left this planet, on May 11, 2015, he tweeted, “Today, I remember the hot day of 1998 at Pokhran: 53C. When most of the world was sleeping; India’s nuclear era emerged.”
A series of five nuclear bomb explosions were termed as the Pokhran – II explosions. On those five, first was a nuclear fusion bomb and rest all were nuclear fission bombs.
Another core member of the team that carried out these tests was Dr. R Chidambaram, then chairman of Atomic Energy Commission. He reminisced those days saying, “We recall the pleasure and excitement of May 11, 1998. It was just a coincidence that this day too, was Buddha Purnima (just like the day on the first test at Pokhran in 1974).”
Dr. Kalam was presented with a memento of a Banyan Tree Bonsai which had a statue of a smiling Buddha under it. From there came the idea of ‘smiling Buddha’ and the operation was declared successful by the scientists using the code “the Buddha has smiled”.
Another feather to the cap of scientists was the fact that they were able to deceive the spy satellites of the United States and other countries. Pokhran site was under surveillance soon after Atal Bihari Vajpayee gave the authorization to undertake the test in 1996. But none of the countries was successful in predicting it.
Editorial Director (publishing) of India Today Group has said in ‘Weapons of Peace: The Secret Story of India’s Quest to be a Nuclear Power’, “The 58 Engineers were specially chosen for the crucial task of maintaining the shafts in which India’s nuclear devices would be tested. They were told to take all measures to ensure total secrecy. So effective were the regiment’s tactics that when India carried out five nuclear tests in May 1998, it went down as one of the CIA’s biggest intelligence failures.”