Just hours before the Agni missile was to be tested in 1989, its pioneer A P J Abdul Kalam received a hotline phone call from a top government official indicating tremendous pressure by the US and NATO to delay the launch.
The man on the other end was none other than T N Seshan, the then cabinet secretary to Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. This incident finds mention in “Advantage India: From Challenge to Opportunity”, one of the last books written by the late Kalam which will hit the stands soon.
According to Kalam, a hotline call at 3 AM, only a few hours prior to the launch, could not mean anything good. “Where are we on Agni?” Seshan asked.
“Then without waiting for me to answer, he said, ‘We are under tremendous pressure by the US and NATO to delay any impending missile test. There are strong diplomatic channels at work.’ Then almost immediately he followed again with the first question, ‘Kalam! Where are we on Agni?'” the book, published by HarperCollins India, says.
It was a difficult question for Kalam to answer.
“My mind raced vast distances in the next few seconds. There were intelligence reports of US satellites fixing their gaze on us. I knew the US was putting increasing pressure on the Prime Minister and his office to delay the launch. Worse, there were reports that Chandipur might be struck with very bad weather in the next few days.
“Then there was my team. Hard working, determined young men and women whom we had handpicked for this assignment about one decade ago. They had seen everything. Technology denials, evictions from other nations, tight budgets, media pressure and the frustration of restarting curtailed projects that had been shut down due to lack of critical apparatus…,” Kalam wrote in the book, co-authored by Srijan Pal Singh.
“…I calculated all my variables and then clearing my throat said, ‘Sir, the missile is at a point of no return. We cannot turn back on the test now. It is too late.’ I expected a debate and a barrage of questions from my boss and Seshan. But to my surprise, as the hour hand neared 4 AM, and the sun prepared to rise, Seshan replied, ‘Okay,’ and then with a deep breath and a pause. ‘Go ahead’,” the book says.
Three hours later, the Agni missile system was ignited on May 22, 1989.
“It was a flawless test of hope and aspirations of a bunch of young scientists who could not be deterred by any force on this planet. We had made history. The next day, there was a storm in Chandipur which partially destroyed our testing facility. But we all knew that we had already won the race for Agni,” Kalam said.