For the few hundred residents of Khetolai, a dusty nondescript village on National Highway 11 in Rajasthan, May 11, 1998 was yet another sweltering summer day until Indian Army personnel walked in and asked them to evacuate quickly with their belongings. The abruptness was surprising, although the villagers were familiar with routine disruptions in their otherwise uneventful life, after having given up their land for the Army to test its weapons. Often, an officer would inform the village headman before firing sessions, and would return later to assess whether the testing caused any damage. But this time, it was different.
“We were not allowed to move in or out of the village. We were told a bomb was being tested,” said Ram Rattan, advocate and sarpanch pati (the sarpanch’s husband). “By afternoon, we experienced an earthquake, and saw a massive dust column rise in the sky. Army men clapped and raised patriotic slogans. They told us it was a nuclear bomb.”
Rattan had witnessed the 1974 nuclear test ordered by prime minister Indira Gandhi as well. “At that time, there was only a mild tremor, and we came to know through a radio broadcast that a nuclear device had been tested,” he said. “But in 1998, the tremors were significant. Two days later, more tests were conducted. The test site was three kilometres from our village. It was our land that was acquired for the test range. It was in national interest.”
The first test was conducted at 3:45pm. Only Khetolai knew about it initially. At 6pm, prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee addressed a hurriedly-convened press briefing and informed a stunned world about the tests. India entered the elite club of nuclear powers, and a wave of muscular nationalism swept across the country.
A day before, Vajpayee had greeted the people on the occasion of Buddha Purnima, saying Buddha’s message of non-violence had an eternal relevance to humanity. “Buddha smiles again” was the message he received from Defence Research and Development Organisation chief A.P.J. Abdul Kalam on the successful testing of the nuclear device.
After Kalam became famous, Khetolai residents realised that the “frail, long-haired man in military camouflage” who often visited the area was him. “He was here, and used to talk to us. It was only later that we realised that he was the main architect of the nuclear programme and went on to become the president of India,” said Kishna Ram, a villager.
Although Khetolai is the village closest to the testing site, it was Pokhran, a town which lies 45km away, which became famous. “It is because of political reasons,” said Kishna. “After the test, it was decided that Vajpayee would hold a rally here. But as our village is full of Congress supporters, the venue was shifted to Pokhran. And when the prime minister arrived at a nearby helipad, we waved black flags at him for not holding the rally here. It was held against us. We were not even allowed to go to Pokhran.” He said the village was against the royalty, so it had always sided with the Congress. And despite BJP coming to power several times in Rajasthan and at the Centre, Khetolai has been steadfast in its political beliefs.
Khetolai’s tryst with history started in late 1960s when two dozen villages in the region were acquired by the government for setting up a testing range for the military. “My 300 bighas of land (around 190 acre) was acquired for the test range. We were given Rs20 per bigha. Those who bought land with that money were the ones who later earned a lot,” said Mohan Ram, who retired as junior engineer from the Rajasthan Canal project.
There are four ranges which are used for testing weapons, including small arms and bigger missiles. What sets the Pokhran-Khetolai ranges apart is the facility to test nuclear devices. The barren patch of land is ideal for the purpose as the water table lies more than 1,000 feet below the ground.
Although the nuclear tests have devastated the fragile ecology of the region, being a test site has its advantages. The sighting of the great Indian bustard at the test sites has caught the attention of conservationists. Less than 200 of these birds are believed to be alive, and a significant number of them seem to have made the test site their home thanks to minimal human presence. After the birds started flying into high-voltage overhead power lines, the Supreme Court ordered that cables be laid underground.
Talking to outsiders about the nuclear tests is a bittersweet experience for the villagers. They are proud about the unique status of their village, but they are also worried about their future. “The tests were a matter of pride for us. When I used to drive a truck, I had proudly inscribed ‘Shakti 98 Khetolai’ on it, to commemorate the tests,” said Kishna. But the villagers have some concerns as well. “Our houses developed cracks after the tests,” said Rattan, pointing to the walls of his house. “We have had a few cancer cases since then, although no one is willing to believe that it could have been because of the nuclear tests.” Kishna said the livestock, too, faced problems. Sometimes our cattle develop complications and stop giving milk,” he said. The village keeps losing out on development projects because of security concerns. For instance, several other villages in the region were adopted by big companies as part of their corporate social responsibility campaign and were given solar projects, but Khetolai was left out because of its proximity to the testing range and the wildlife corridor.
Development thus remains a distant dream for Khetolai, which is dominated by members of the Bishnoi community. “It was our community which took actor Salman Khan to court for killing a black buck,” reminded a youth who was present at the sarpanch’s house. Although the village has achieved 100 per cent literacy, the predominant occupation of the villagers is cattle rearing. Others often flock to big cities in search of jobs.
“The nuclear tests made the country powerful, but we got nothing,” said Rattan. “It is as if we are forgotten.”