In the labyrinthine corridors of India’s scientific history, a name often obscured by the dazzling spotlight of more celebrated figures emerges as a true luminary: Dr. Homi Sethna. A brilliant mind whose contributions to India’s nuclear pursuits remain largely unexplored, Dr. Sethna was not only a physicist of great acumen but also the force that steered India away from a crucial decision—signing the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Let us delve into the life of this unsung hero and understand the profundity of his influence on Prime Minister Morarji Desai’s decision that altered India’s nuclear trajectory.
Born on August 24, 1923, Dr. Sethna’s journey began with a fervent curiosity for nuclear physics. Armed with an education from St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai and further honed at University of Michigan for his MSE, he returned to India in the 1950s. His arrival coincided with a crucial epoch, where the dream of harnessing nuclear energy for peaceful ends was just beginning to take shape.
Dr. Sethna’s path led him to the Atomic Energy Establishment, Trombay (now Bhabha Atomic Research Centre), where he would become an integral part of India’s nuclear narrative. Collaborating closely with luminaries like Dr. Homi J. Bhabha, he played a pivotal role in pioneering nuclear projects, including the groundbreaking design of India’s first nuclear power reactor—Apsara.
When Dr. Homi Bhabha meet Dr. Homi Sethna- serendipity
The genesis of his contribution to India’s nuclear program can be traced back to a fortuitous encounter with none other than the esteemed “Father of the Indian Nuclear Program,” Homi J. Bhabha. This unexpected rendezvous took place at the illustrious Wellington Club’s swimming pool, nestled in the heart of Mumbai. The profound impact of their conversation on Bhabha was evident, as he extended a gracious invitation to the promising young man, beckoning him to his esteemed office the following day. In a stunning turn of events, Sethna emerged victorious after a rigorous interview process, securing the highly coveted position as the head of Indian Rare Earths in the picturesque town of Aluva, Kerala. In a pivotal moment that would shape the course of India’s nuclear endeavors, a formidable challenge presented itself – the arduous task of meticulously extracting precious deposits of monazite from the vast expanse of earth. This marked a significant milestone in India’s foray into the realm of nuclear material exploitation.
Sethna proved himself to be an asset to the Indian team of scientists as a pillar of its nascent nuclear project. He headed the development of the Canada India Research US (CIRUS) Reactor in the 1950s. The CIRUS Reactor was developed with 50% aid from Canada.
Ten years later, Sethna was appointed as the Chief Scientific Officer of the Atomic Energy Establishment at Trombay, now known as BARC or Bhabha Atomic Research Centre. Subsequently, he was promoted to the post of Director at BARC in 1966.
However, it was in the tumultuous times following Dr. Bhabha’s demise that Dr. Sethna’s paternal role truly emerged. India’s nuclear program, akin to an orphan in need of guidance, found solace in Dr. Sethna’s sagacity. He not only continued Dr. Bhabha’s legacy but also provided a sense of direction and stability that was indispensable during those uncertain times.
At BARC, Dr. Sethna spearheaded the reprocessing technology and played a pioneering role in the designing and setting up of the first plutonium separation plant in India. The plutonium, from this plant created in 1964, was instrumental in the nuclear device that was tested in Pokhran.
As Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission and Secretary to the Government of India, Department of Atomic Energy, Dr. Sethna stepped into the role of a guiding patriarch. His steady leadership navigated the program through challenging waters. He ensured that the aspirations and dreams that Dr. Bhabha had nurtured were not abandoned, despite his absence.
Dr. Sethna’s tenure was marked by challenges and opportunities alike. His influence during the historic Pokhran nuclear tests of 1974 was that of a fatherly figure imparting wisdom and strength to the younger generations of scientists. His strategic acumen and unwavering dedication ensured the successful conduct of the “Smiling Buddha” test, securing India’s position on the global nuclear stage.
It was Dr. Sethna who called Mrs. Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister of India and gave her the prodigious piece of news from the site of the experiment, he told her, “the Buddha has smiled.”
Dr. Sethna, India’s Nuclear Program and the peace preacher PM Morarji Bhai Desai.
Despite his paternal role in nurturing the Indian nuclear family, Dr. Sethna’s name often remains overshadowed by the more celebrated figures of the time. His humility and preference for working behind the scenes contributed to his relative obscurity, Dr Sethna’s contibution dont only lies with the realms of stretiic planning of the test but, it was his foresight and persuasive skills that would shape a watershed moment in India’s nuclear history. In the tumultuous 1970s, the world’s pressure mounted on India to sign the NPT, a pact that could have curtailed India’s sovereignty over its nuclear ambitions. This was the juncture where Dr. Sethna’s brilliance shone.
As Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission and Secretary to the Government of India, Department of Atomic Energy, Dr. Sethna astutely recognized the implications of yielding to international pressure. His resolute conviction that signing the NPT would compromise India’s strategic autonomy and national security interests led to a pivotal series of events. Dr. Sethna’s cogent arguments resonated with Prime Minister Morarji Desai, convincing him to prioritize India’s sovereignty over global pressures.
This singular episode not only exemplified Dr. Sethna’s strategic acumen but also his ability to navigate intricate geopolitical landscapes. His influence on Prime Minister Morarji Desai’s decision to abstain from the NPT not only underscored his astuteness but also fortified India’s stance as a sovereign, responsible nuclear state.
Dr. Sethna’s assertiveness and strong-willed character, however, created friction with notable figures within the Indian scientific community. His differences with Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam, later the President of India, were widely known. The two had diverging views on nuclear weaponization and the direction of India’s nuclear program. Similarly, his strained relationship with Dr. Raja Ramanna, the architect of the Pokhran-I test, was marked by professional and personal clashes, ultimately leading to a breakdown in collaboration.
Yet, it was during the tumultuous epoch of the Pokhran nuclear tests in 1974 that Dr. Sethna’s mettle truly radiated. In his capacity as the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission and the Secretary to the Government of India, Department of Atomic Energy, he assumed the helm of the scientific ensemble that orchestrated the “Smiling Buddha” nuclear test. This landmark feat not only christened India’s entry into the exclusive nuclear club but also underscored Dr. Sethna’s unparalleled leadership and technical prowess.
Despite these monumental accomplishments, Dr. Sethna’s legacy often remains in the shadows, overshadowed by the more prominent figures of India’s nuclear journey. His humility and preference for working discreetly contributed to this anonymity. However, it is time to cast a deserved light on his vital contributions.
Dr. Homi Sethna’s influence on Prime Minister Morarji Desai’s historic decision has irrevocably shaped India’s nuclear odyssey. His resolute advocacy for India’s autonomy, his diplomatic finesse, and his foresight exemplify the profound impact an individual can have on the course of history.
In closing, it is imperative to recognize and commemorate the contributions of Dr. Homi Sethna. His strategic brilliance and unwavering commitment to India’s nuclear sovereignty not only influenced decisions of the past but also reverberate in India’s present and future nuclear discourse. Dr. Homi Sethna’s legacy stands as a testament to his role as a fatherly figure in the Indian nuclear family. His unwavering commitment, strategic guidance, and nurturing leadership not only preserved the legacy of Dr. Bhabha but also paved the way for India’s continued nuclear advancements.