Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan, Jai Vigyan: How former Prime Minister Vajpayee led India to new dawn in science after Pokhran tests

In 1965, India’s second Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri gave the slogan, “Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan” (Hail the soldier, hail the farmer) to encourage the soldiers and farmers when the nation was reeling under the effect of 1965 India-Pakistan war. A week after the Pokhran nuclear tests were carried out in May 1998, India’s former Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee improvised on the same slogan and said, “Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan, Jai Vigyan” (Hail the soldier, hail the farmer, hail science).

In May 1998, a series of five nuclear bomb test explosions were conducted in India at Indian Army’s Pokhran Test Range, Operation Shakti. This was India’s second successful nuclear test after Smiling Buddha (also called Pokhran 1) was conducted on 18 May 1974, Buddha Purnima.

During the 1998 general elections when the BJP came to power with an exclusive mandate, Atal Bihari Vajpayee had publicly lobbied for nuclear test explosion. Preparations for the test were carried out under complete secrecy for fear of being detected by spy satellites of the US and other countries. A very small group of scientists, senior military officers and politicians were involved in the preparation to ensure it remains a secret. The chief scientific adviser and the Director of Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), Dr Abdul Kalam, and Dr R. Chidambaram, the Director of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), were the chief coordinators of this test planning. The scientists and engineers of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), the Atomic Minerals Directorate for Exploration and Research (AMDER), and the DRDO were involved in the nuclear weapon assembly, layout, detonation and obtaining test data.

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Finally, 11 May 1998, which was also Buddha Purnima, India became a full-fledged nuclear-armed state. As per reports from archives,

The actual timing of the tests were dependent on the local weather conditions. It was hot in the Thar Desert in early May, it reached 43 C on the day of the test. But the critical factor was the wind. Although the tests were underground, they were shallow tests and the sealing of the shaft could not be guaranteed to be leakproof (a number of shaft seal failures had occurred in the U.S. despite much deeper burials). Winds blowing toward inhabited areas, as occurred on the morning on 11 May were not acceptable. But by early afternoon the winds had died down and the scientists decided to go ahead with the tests. Prime Minister Vaypayee and Brajesh Mishra, his Principal Secretary, had waited at the official residence since at least 9 a.m. to hear the test results. Kalam called at 3 p.m. to tell the Prime Minister that the winds were dying down and the tests could be conducted during the next hour.

K. Santhanam of the DRDO, who was in charge of the test site preparations, gave the two keys that activated the test countdown to Vasudev, the range safety officer, who was responsible for verifying that all test indicators were normal. After checking the indicators, Vasudev handed one key each to a representative of BARC and of the DRDO, who together unlocked the countdown system. At 3:45 p.m. the three devices detonated.

Addressing the nation after the tests, Vajpayee hailed the scientists and engineers who made Pokhran tests a success.

A week later, while addressing a Sainik Sammelan at the Pokhran test range, Vajpayee coined the above slogan. The Opposition, led by Congress criticised the tests and questioned the same. Senior Congress leader Salman Khursheed accused the BJP of conducting the bombs for the political gains and not national security. He even questioned why the tests were necessary. To that, Vajpayee gave a fitting response in the Parliament.

He asked whether one should be prepared for self-defence only in case of threat? This nuclear test was a way to prepare the country in case of threats to national security.

Other countries, however, weren’t too happy with the tests. The United States issued a strong statement condemning the same and in compliance with the 1994 anti-proliferation law, the United States imposed economic sanctions on India, including cutting off all assistance to India except humanitarian aid and banning the export of certain defence material and technologies. Japan, Pakistan and China too were condemned the nuclear tests.

Twenty years after the 1998 Pokhran tests, it is believed that India will make yet another bid for admission in the National Suppliers Group (NSG), an elite group of 48 countries which deals with fissile materials and nuclear technology. If India manages to become a member of NSG, it would mean access to cutting-edge technology from fields which vary from nuclear energy to medicine. In what might potentially be a major boost in staking a claim for an NSG membership, India became part of the “Australia Group” which strives to check the proliferation of chemical and biological weapons in January this year. With India now successfully being part of three prominent export control groups, the other two being the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and Waseenaar Arrangement, and the US too claiming that it is working closely with its international partners to secure India’s entry into the NSG, it remains to be seen whether China can be finally forced to forsake its opposition.

Vajpayee was admitted to AIIMS, Delhi following a heart attack on 11th August and his health has been deteriorating since. Currently he is critical and on life support.

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