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Why Santhanam's Pokhran revelations are too late

By B Raman
Last updated on: September 17, 2009 21:18 IST
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Scientist K Santhanam's claim that Pokhran II was a fizzle will not change anything as India's nuclear deal with the US makes it very difficult for India to test again, says strategic affairs expert B Raman.

K Santhanam was one of the 'Kaoboys' of the Research and Analysis Wing R N Kao, the founding father of the R&AW, had very high regard for his professional qualities. He was a delightful person to get along with -- a Tamil to his finger tips with a very keen sense of humour, sometimes bordering on unsettling sarcasm.

Kao took him into the R&AW shortly after it was formed on deputation from the Atomic Energy Commission. He was one of the small group of scientists and technical personnel in the newly-created Science & Technology division of the R&AW and he ultimately rose to be its head. When Kao joined Indira Gandhi as her Senior Adviser after she returned to power in 1980, he persuaded the R&AW to place the services of Santhanam at his disposal as his S&T adviser. After the assassination of Indira Gandhi on October 31, 1984, Kao resigned from the post and his small set-up was wound up. Santhanam gravitated to the Ministry of Defence to assist Dr V Arunachalam and spent the rest of his career in the set-up of the Defence Research and Development Organisation.

Even though he never returned to the intelligence profession, he maintained close contacts with his former colleagues in the R&AW and retained his close personal friendship with many of them.

In its 50 years of history, one of the success stories of the R&AW was its ability to closely monitor the work of the Pakistani Atomic Energy Commission. Santhanam was the first to discover the plans of Pakistan to set up a plutonium reprocessing plant in the 1970s with the help of the French and the Kahuta uranium enrichment plant with stolen and smuggled equipment and technologies from different parts of the world. If one day a book is written on the success of the R&AW's S&T Division, Santhanam would be an important hero of the narrative from the first to the last page. There were other heroes too.

Santhanam had a phenomenal memory for facts and figures, a remarkable capability for analysis and the knack of arriving at conclusions, which often proved to be correct. Some of the Tamil officers in the R&AW used to call him "vazha-vazha kozha-kozha" meaning "slippery". Santhanam because of his way of talking could sometimes be incomprehensible and unnecessarily mysterious. The more charitable friends of his attributed his way of talking to his highly-developed security consciousness. There was never a leak from his division so long as he was the chief.

If there is one criticism which could be levelled against him it is that he never built up the institutional memory of his division. Everything was stored in his memory. He hardly maintained any detailed notes of what he did and how he did it. The result was that his successors had difficulty in stepping into his shoes when he moved out of the organisation.

Santhanam has never been a loose-mouthed or attention-grabbing individual. His recent statement that the nuclear fusion test of 1998 was a fizzle has, therefore, caused considerable confusion and consternation

There are some puzzling aspects of his recent statements and the article which he contributed to The Hindu of September 17, on this subject. It is evident that he felt that the test was a fizzle right from 1998. It was not a conclusion reached by him recently after studying some new data, which were not available in 1998.

That being so, why did he keep quiet for so long? He has been quoted in some sections of the media as saying that he decided to go public now after 11 years because he apprehended a US attempt to force India to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. His hint is that India needed to carry out more tests to master the fusion weapon. He should be knowing that after India signed the civil nuclear co-operation agreement with the US  and subsequently agreed to the safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency of Vienna, the question of its carrying out  any more tests just does not arise in view of the commitments, which it has already made not to carry out any more tests.

One would have appreciated his action if he had made this disclosure before India signed the agreement with the US. He did not do so. He refrained from joining the other critics of the Indian agreement with the US and the subsequent developments. He thereby gave the impression that he had nothing against the agreement with the US.

There is another aspect, which is even more puzzling. The first National Security Advisory Board set up by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government in 1999 a few months after the nuclear tests was given the task of proposing a draft nuclear doctrine. Santhanam evidently did not caution this NSAB that the fusion test was a fizzle. As a result, it reportedly prepared the draft doctrine under the belief that it was a success.

One can understand his not doing so because at that time he was still serving in the DRDO under Dr A P J Abdul Kalam and it might have been embarrassing for him to go over the head of Kalam and sound a warning bell before the NSAB. Santhanam retired in 2001 and was appointed the Director of the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi, in place of Air Commodore Jasjit Singh. In that capacity, he replaced Jasjit Singh as a member of the third NSAB in 2002. According to sections of the media, it reportedly suggested some amendments to the recommendations made by the first board. Despite being a member of this NSAB, Santhanam does not appear to have shared with it his conclusion that the test was a fizzle. As a result whatever recommendation was made by the third NSAB, of which Santhanam was a member, was also reportedly based on the belief that the test was a success.

To say now that the test was a fizzle and that he knew it all along has caused a lot of concern in the minds of our public. This could unwittingly encourage adventurism by India's adversaries.

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B Raman