His denunciation of India’s thermonuclear test on May 11, 1998 (Shakti-I), has generated a furious debate over whether India’s nuclear deterrent is actually credible. But now, his salvoes fired, K Santhanam sits alone in his South Delhi home, sipping Tajik vodka and watching Cartoon Network playing on the TV. He calls this refuge, “the calm in the eye of the storm”.
Santhanam is a slight, grey-haired figure with a puckish sense of humour. His conversation is peppered with repartee and jokes that range from off-colour ‘Santa Singh, Banta Singh’ cracks to sophisticated plays on the English language.
But for now, Santhanam has taken a three-week vow of public silence, to allow the government to appoint a panel of experts to examine the data from Shakti-I. Not a kangaroo court consisting of bureaucrats, he insists, but a blue-ribbon panel of genuine scientists, studying factual data from the tests.
“Liars will figure”, Santhanam twinkles, “but figures will not lie.”
This rumpus is uncharacteristic rebellion from a man who describes himself as “the ultimate insider”.
“I didn’t intend to trigger such a controversy,” Santhanam explains. “But once it began, I decided not to back down. I stuck to the ethics of my profession.”
His career story is the stuff of Kollywood. Born in Madras, and schooled in Tamil, Santhanam got a scholarship to Loyola College, Madras, moving on to a physics honours degree from that city’s prestigious Presidency College. In 1958, he joined the Atomic Energy Establishment, which meant another year at their in-house training school in Trombay.
Scientists traditionally dismiss revolts from renegades of their own community by blackening their credentials. It is difficult to do that to Santhanam after his 15 years at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Trombay, where he specialised in radiation hazard control and evaluating nuclear accidents.
Between 1961 and 1963, Santhanam went to the US, under the Atoms for Peace programme, studying nuclear physics at the Arbonne National Laboratory in Lamont, Illinois. A conventional nuclear scientist would have stuck to fission and fusion formulae. Santhanam claims he also mastered cocktails, working part-time as a bartender “to understand the American people”.
He certainly imbibed a healthy respect for the US, which he describes as the 900-pound gorilla in the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Last year, an unambiguously pro-establishment Santhanam supported the Indo-US nuclear deal.
In 1973, Santhanam’s unconventional streak took him in a dramatically new direction: He became a nuclear spook!
He describes being called in by R N Kao, the legendary founder of the Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW), to examine an Indian strategic nightmare: The suspected nuclear nexus between China and Pakistan. Over the next 11 years, says Santhanam, “I unmasked the cooperation between China and Pakistan, providing a comprehensive analysis of A Q Khan’s enrichment programme and his clandestine procurement.”
In 1986, Santhanam joined the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), where his assignments were apparently related to simulation, war-gaming, and software engineering. But, because of his old relationship with the BARC’s bomb-makers, Santhanam was covertly back-ending India’s nuclear programme. From his DRDO perch, he interacted with the PMO and liaised with the armed forces to prepare the Pokhran test sites for the 1998 tests. His BARC background and his experience with RAW made him perfect for the job.
But that same background, combined with his individualism, led him to question the thermonuclear test when measurements appeared to show it as less earthshaking than predicted. The weight of the establishment has come down on him, but Santhanam is at the battlements.
“(National Security Advisor) Mike Narayanan, who is trying to judge me, has been a cop and a spook all his life. He is totally ignorant about science and technology,” says Santhanam dismissively.
Santhanam’s deepest apprehension is that the global non-proliferation lobby will succeed in “freezing India on the nuclear curve”, preventing fission bomb know-how from being developed into fusion weapon capability.
“An arsenal based on fission weapons is not enough to deter China”, says Santhanam, all humour gone from his face. “A couple of 20-kiloton bombs over Beijing are never, never, never going to bring China to its knees.”