28 January 1925: Raja Ramanna, eminent nuclear scientist, was born

Raja Ramanna, an eminent nuclear scientist who played a key role in carrying out India’s first nuclear device test in Pokhran in 1974, was born on January 28, 1925 in the then princely State of Mysore. He was introduced to Western classical music at a young age and this would remain a lifelong passion.

Recalling his childhood in an interview to India Today magazine in 1996, he said: “Growing up in the British days is one of the happiest memories. Bangalore, where I grew up, was an old cantonment and the British way of life early on had a strong impact on me. [M]y mother Rukminiammal…really taught me to appreciate the arts. An old British missionary, Margaret Moffet…developed my interest in piano.”

In his autobiography, Ramanna wrote: “My mother was born into a family of considerable influence and wealth and was the youngest of a large family of eight children...A voracious reader, she read much of Shakespeare and Dickens, though Sir Walter Scot was her favourite…[S]he was fascinated by and understood modern gadgets…My father, B. Ramanna, was in the judicial service of the Mysore state and earned the reputation of being a kind-hearted judge. Although he was reticent, he was nevertheless a sociable person.”   

Ramanna studied at Bangalore’s Bishop Cotton Boys’ School and later secured a B.Sc. in Physics from Madras Christian College. He followed this with a Master’s in Physics from Bombay University and then went to Britain on a scholarship. He secured a Ph.D. in Nuclear Physics in 1954 from King’s College,London. He did research at Britain’s Atomic Energy Research Establishment. 

After returning to India he was handpicked by the legendary scientist Homi Bhabha to become a part of India’s nuclear programme. Ramanna later described Bhabha as a visionary, perfectionist and an inspirational personality who saw the dream of India being a nuclear power. Ramanna would eventually head the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in Bombay twice and hold other crucial posts such as chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission.

In 1958 he was given the responsibility of developing a nuclear fuel cycle. After Bhabha’s untimely death in 1966 Ramanna became the de facto head of the nuclear bomb programme. When Indira Gandhi became prime minister in 1967, work on the nuclear programme became more active. Besides Ramanna around 75 scientists were involved in the bomb project including Homi Sethna, who played a key role in developing weapon-grade plutonium, and P.K. Iyengar, Ramanna’s second-in-command.

In September 1972, Indira Gandhi gave the green signal to the scientists for manufacturing a nuclear device and readying it for a test. The preparations were carried out in very high secrecy. Only a handful of people knew of the exact date of the test, May 18, 1974. In 1997, more than twenty-three years after the test, Ramanna said: “The Pokhran test was a bomb, I can tell you now... An explosion is an explosion, a gun is a gun, whether you shoot at someone or shoot at the ground... I just want to make clear that the test was not all that peaceful.”

In 1978 when Ramanna was on a trip to Iraq, the country’s dictator Saddam Hussein asked him to take over Iraq’s nuclear programme, much to the scientist’s shock and disbelief. 

Ramanna’s close association with India’s nuclear programme continued in the 1980s. As M.R. Srinivasan wrote in The Hindu in September 2004: “Ramanna was convinced that India’s geo-strategic interest could be secured only by India becoming a nuclear weapon power. During the period when Ramanna was Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (1983 to 1987), this question engaged his attention, especially after his stint as Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister (1977 to 1980).”

He received several awards in his career including the Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibhushan. In 1990 Ramanna was made the Union minister of state for defence. In 1997 he became a member of the Rajya Sabha. In a speech to the Upper House in December 2001 in the aftermath of the terrorist attack on Parliament, he said: “[W]e have taken a vow that we will not be the first to use nuclear weapons. It is a good thing because the spread of nuclear weapons will, in the end, gobble up all of us…We know now that it is a deterrence weapon. We must do everything politically to avoid such a use.  …[But if] there comes a terrorist government [in Pakistan], they will use it, whether it is the first use or the second use. We must take the necessary precautions of what we will do under such a circumstance.”

Raja Ramanna, who underwent bypass surgery and angioplasty, died on September 24, 2004. In a tribute in The Telegraph, Partha Sarathi Mukherjee wrote: “Till his death he [Ramanna] researched on everything from science and nuclear fission to comparisons of the ragas with notations in Western classical music. His greatest passion in life was not an atom bomb as many may think but the great Hungarian composer Franz Liszt, whom he felt to have ‘elevating and transcendental qualities in his music’.”

Also on this day:

1865 — Lala Lajpat Rai, Indian nationalist and freedom fighter, was born 

1930 — Pandit Jasraj, Indian classical vocalist, was born  

1955 — Vinod Khosla, Indian-American businessman, was born

1984 — Sohrab Modi, Indian stage and film actor, director and producer, passed away

2007 — O.P. Nayyar, Indian film music director, passed away  

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