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A 'cultural' bomb?


Published: Thursday 15 July 1999

-- (Credit: AKHILESH)THE making of the Indian Atomic Bomb puts forth a strange argument: that India did not make its nuclear bombs for reasons of security but for 'culture'. To vindicate this theory, it goes into details about how India began working seriously on nuclear science and technology right from the early 1950s with the officially declared policy that it would be for 'peaceful' purposes. On the other hand, Itty Abraham, the author, argues that there was a tacit understanding among the nuclear and political elite that all aspects of the programme did not necessarily have to be peaceful.

The development has to be put in the context of the post-colonial state, the author argues. The post-colonial state is constitutionally a democracy, a people's state, but the men running it are the same bureaucrats who had been running the oppressive colonial state on behalf of the British. The bureaucracy is not bothered about the interests of the people but of the ruling elite.

The elite running the state are mesmerised by the power of the 'atom' which is supposed to open the gates of 'development' with its endless yield of energy. As the years passed, nothing tangible emerged.

By 1960, the nuclear programme had been turned into a holy cow, above criticism and above public debate. This disturbed physicists like Meghnad Saha, who tried to strip nuclear scientists of their glory. Saha told the Indian Parliament that nuclear scientists were 'ordinary chemists and physicists' and there was no justification for putting them on a pedestal.

Saha, a world class physicist from Calcutta, was stung by the growing power of physicists of the Bangalore-Bombay coterie and the marginalisation of the Calcutta-Allahabad group. This had happened because Homi Bhabha, chief of India's nuclear establishment, was from the Bangalore-Bombay group and was close to Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister.

The nuclear programme was shrouded in extreme secrecy. Interestingly, as the decades rolled by, the initial enthusiasm about nuclear energy and its 'peaceful' uses turned out to be based on false assumptions, not only in India but all over the world. Even the most advanced countries began to realise that the cost of nuclear energy production was not low enough to be attractive, neither safe enough to be a viable option.

The Three-Mile Island accident in the United States and the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine almost sealed the fate of the nuclear power industry. Smaller accidents worldwide made governments realise that it was not wise to invest in it blindly. Most contracts for such power plants were cancelled and governments began working on enhanced safety and a gradual freeze on expansion. Many have been thinking in terms of phasing them out.

In India, people began to realise that the great secrecy around the nuclear programme and the exorbitant expense it had incurred had not produced even a kilowatt of energy by the end of the 1950s. The author argues that nothing exemplifies the post-colonial state's penchant for shrouding itself in secrecy and raising itself above public scrutiny than India's nuclear programme.

After the death of Nehru and the charismatic Bhabha, Vikram Sarabhai briefly headed the establishment. Sarabhai rejected the bomb option firmly.

When H N Sethna came along to head the nuclear-establishment, the bomb came quite clearly on the agenda. Meanwhile, China also exploded its atom bomb and followed up, a few years later, with a hydrogen bomb explosion. In 1971, India regained some of its lost confidence by defeating and dismembering Pakistan. The bomb-makers had the public on their side and they were immensely capable of carrying out an explosion.

The author argues that it was 'state fetish' that made India decide on Pokhran I, not any security compulsion. To 'prove' his theory, he quotes Indira Gandhi's directive to nuclear scientists in 1974 to 'demonstrate' India's capability. He rejects the claim that Chinese nuclear power compelled India to make the bomb. But the question that arises is whether India should throw up its hands in despair and stop working on its defence just because China is too far ahead of it?

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