At Pokhran, a makeshift museum awaits visitors, funds

May 11th, 2008 - 5:51 pm ICT by admin  

By Devirupa Mitra
Pokhran (Rajasthan), May 11 (IANS) Just outside the west Rajasthan town of Pokhran, an alert driver will probably notice a signboard pointing to bright red walls, advertising a museum that celebrates India’s nuclear tests. It marks the city’s only officially-sanctioned association with the nuclear tests conducted 25 km from here inside a military range in 1974 and 1998.

But, over an year after it was inaugurated, the small museum, located on a land of the khadi society, lies unfinished and awaits both visitors and funds.

The Pokhran range is where India exploded its first nuclear device in 1974. It was then called a Peaceful Nuclear Explosion (PNE). The five nuclear tests conducted between May 11 and 13 in 1998, were not for peaceful use - they were for making bombs.

Located right opposite the entrance of the Pokhran Military Station, the brightly-painted compound wall of the museum is emblazoned with the words - “Shakti Sthal Shaurya Sanghrahalaya”. There is also a design of a shield around the symbol of an atom with criss-crossing ellipses on the gates.

The museum, housed in a long, rectangular tin shed that was earlier used by weavers of the khadi society, was built when local residents felt something should be done to celebrate the place’s link to the momentous feat.

“When tourists ask us about the nuclear tests, we could not show them anything. The site was inside the military firing range and not accessible, so we thought that we needed to have some physical bond with the event,” convenor of Pokhran Khadi Gram Udyog Sansthan, Ashok Kumar Vyas, told IANS.

Two years ago, they decided to finally create a shrine-like stone structure and the museum.

“First, we had thought about locating it in Khetolai (nearest village from the 1998 test site), but due to security considerations, permission was denied. So, we started to scout for land in Pokhran,” said a government official, who had been associated with the museum but would not like his name to mentioned.

The society found an active patron in the then district collector, K.K. Pathak, who got some of the exhibits from the military authorities.

The museum was inaugurated on Jan 30, 2007. But within four months, the collector was transferred. “Since, it was a personal initiative (of the former collector), we have not been able to get more funds or attention, as district officials have been busy in other development projects,” said Vyas.

On the right side are three rusted models of the warship Vikrant, Agni missile and a Pakistan tank captured during the battle of Longewala in the 1971 war. “We were told that we will get a real Mirage airplane, but it is still awaited,” said Sansthan secretary Om Prakash Gaur.

Towards the end of shed is a small structure of a water tank embedded into the soil - topped with the atomic symbol, the electrons made out of small plastic bottles. Two milestones - “18 May 1974″ and “11 and 13 May 1998″ - line a small path to this exhibit.

“We wanted to have an illuminated display inside the tank of a nuclear chain reaction, but we did not have the money,” said the official.

Behind it stands real-size mock-ups of two-layered fencing at the border, a bunker with a ‘model’ soldier standing guard inside and an underground war room - courtesy the Border Security Force.

At the far periphery are three blackened, gnarled tree stumps placed at the rear of the compound. “This symbolises what happens to stuff if they are near the test site,” Gaur told IANS.

The museum is nowhere near what museums are supposed to look like, sanitised spaces with precious objects encased in glass cases with information tags. But this one was more like a high school project made by amateurs.

Several heavy stones placed on a shelf represent the early method of warfare, followed exhibits of maces, a bow and quiver, spears and toy airplanes

In one corner, there are three models of human skull in mud to depict the destructive nature of nuclear war. “Actually, they were supposed to be under the trees, but we brought it inside to protect it from the rains,” said Gaur.

Ironically, in the front of the shed, a small room displays photographs depicting the life of Mahatma Gandhi - the man who was the apostle of non-violence and would have been against the very idea of nuclear weapons.

The nuclear issue may still be part of debates and discussions in major cities of the country. But few visitors come to the museum at Pokhran.

“Only a few thousand people have come to see the exhibition in the beginning, mostly townspeople and tourists. But, now there are hardly any people coming here,” said Gaur.

Now, they are also running short of money. A loan of Rs. 400,000 taken by the society from a bank for constructing the museum has to be repaid.

The museum authorities are now banking on an annual fair at a local temple, Ram-Deora held every autumn. “About 20-25 lakh people come to the fair on foot. If even one to two percent come to the museum, it will tide us over,” said Vyas.

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