Former Atomic Energy Commission ( AEC) chairman and one of the guiding lights behind India’s first nuclear test, Homi Nusserwanji Sethna, died on Sunday at his Walkeshwar residence after a prolonged lung ailment. He was 87 years of age.
Sethna passed away on Sunday night, surrounded by some of his family members, around 11.15pm. His funeral will take place on Tuesday morning at Parsi Tower of Silence in Malabar Hill. Sethna’s family has made allowance for non-Parsis to pay their respects to the legend between 8 and 9am on Tuesday, after which the Parsi ceremonies would 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 legendary nuclear scientist 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, not surprisingly, 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, told the Times of India on Tuesday that Sethna and Raja Ramanna, the architect of the Indian nuclear bomb, were at ground zero, supervising the arrangements.
"Sethna actually came to Pokhran 48 hours before the experiment. He was in New Delhi meeting officials. Some officials at the Prime Minister’s Office 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.
On the day of the test, Sethna said to his colleagues: "Whose head will be chopped if the test fails?" Iyengar replied: "If the law of physics works, no head will be chopped."
The 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 bomb 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.
Read more: Homi Sethna, nuclear legend, passes away – The Times of India http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Homi-Sethna-nuclear-legend-passes-away/articleshow/6509481.cms#ixzz0yyHeqmpC