Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The cloak-and-atom bomb story

by Kuldip Dhiman

The Making of the Indian Atomic Bomb — Science, Secrecy and the Postcolonial State by Itty Abraham. Orient Longman New Delhi. (Published by arrangement with Zed Books Limited, London). Pages 180. Rs 300.

IN the mid-fifties Homi Bhabha took a bet with Sir John Cockcroft, the then head of Britain's Atomic Energy Authority facility at Harwell, that India's first nuclear reactor "Apsara" would be ready in a year's time. Although the one-megawatt reactor finally went critical on August 4, 1956, Bhabha lost the bet because the reactor was late by a few days. But with that event the hyper-traditional met the hyper-modern in the shape of the atomic reactors, the most modern of objects so similar in shape to the lingams found in countless Shiva temples across the country."

Contrary to popular belief, India decided to develop nuclear energy, albeit for peaceful purposes, the moment it gained independence. This was rather ironical because Nehru, who was a great champion of science and technology, was one of the first to propose a complete ban on testing nuclear devices. And 50 years after India set up the Atomic Energy Commission, the question arises why did India not conduct nuclear tests in the fifties although it had the capability to do so; why was the Chinese nuclear test not followed by an Indian one although India was way ahead of China in nuclear technology?

Most importantly, if the Indian nuclear test of 1974 was in response to the Chinese one, why did India take a decade to respond? And, then, why did India "not behave as we have grown to expect of nuclear states such as China, France, both of which followed their first fission bomb tests with thermonuclear explosions a few years later, leading finally to the deployment of these weapons?"

These are some of the pertinent issues Itty Abraham raises in his well-researched book "The Making of the Indian Atomic Bomb – Science, Secrecy and the Postcolonial State". India claims to be a nuclear power now but, barring a few autobiographies, and sporadic accounts, nobody has bothered to make a serious study of India's nuclear programme. The author, a former student of economics, Loyola College, Chennai, and currently Program Director for South Asia and South East Asia at the Social Science Research Council in New York, gives us perhaps for the first systematic account of how and why India split the atom. It is rather ironical that in order to write a book on the Indian nuclear programme, he had to take the help of Center for International Security and Arms Control at Stanford University, because of Indian bureaucracy's obsession with secrecy.

Taking the 1974 explosion into account, Abraham tries to establish the balance of political forces at the moment of Indian Independence. He tells us "how atomic energy filled a discursive vacuum in the production of the post-colonial state and met the strategic needs of India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru". He tries to examine why the Atomic Energy Commission was set up in 1948 with Bhabha as chairman; how Bhabha used his contacts all over the world to set up India's first reactor; the petty rivalry between the two factions of Indian physicists: the "Calcutta-Allahabad axis" headed by Meghnad Saha and the Bangalore group under the leadership of C. V. Raman; the endless debates in Parliament whether India should go nuclear or not; the role played by Britain and Canada in our search for nuclear technology; international pressure and the developments in neighbouring countries.

Commenting on the relationship between national development and national security, Abraham observes that the past 50 years has seen a move from a civilian nuclear energy programme to a nuclear weapons programme. Here we might rather go along with Nehru's response to this issue: "I do not know how you are to distinguish between the two."

Stretching the argument a little further it could be asked if national development is possible without national security. It is rather unfortunate that nuclear energy has become such a touchy subject the world over. Although nuclear energy could be tapped for the benefit of mankind, it has sadly come to be associated with nuclear bombs and the destruction that follows.

In her book "Men and Women behind the Atom" Sarah R. Riedman states ironically that on December 2, 1942, for the first time energy from the heart of the atom was released by a machine, the nuclear reactor. The actual energy was hardly enough to light an electric bulb, but the tiny speck of matter from which it came was three million times more powerful than any fuel ever used by man. And though atomic energy could be used for various useful purposes atom's first duty was to go to war.

Nuclear energy by itself is as harmful or useful as electricity or fire, and it is up to us what we choose to do with it. All the test ban treaties in the world are useless if the superpowers themselves keep violating them blatantly. Abraham himself concedes that various plans to control atomic energy globally, whether initiated by scientists or by policy makers, have led to nowhere.

And what about the double-standards adopted by the super powers when it comes to declaring a country a nuclear offender? "Even among the potential proliferators post-1964," Abraham points out, "some states are treated differently than others. Countries like Japan and Germany have both the means and, some would argue, the desire to develop nuclear weapons, but are not classified on the checklist of suspected proliferators. North Korea, Iran, Libya — countries with considerably different abilities and resources which have yet to take the final step toward nuclearisation — are habitial members of the suspected proliferator family."

There are other quesions, too. If, as some believe, the 1974 test was conducted in order to boost Indira Gandhi's declining popularity, why didn't she conduct the tests in the late 1960s, when she was battling the "syndicate" of regional political leaders, or after the victory over Pakistan in 1971? "In other words, it is equally possible to argue," writes Abraham, "that the1974 explosion was an expression of power rather than weakness, especially when we recall that the decision to conduct the explosion was taken nearly two years before the actual event."

Notwithstanding the turgid prose and the tiny font size used by the publishers, the author deserves accolades for painstakingly reconstructing the events that led up to the nuclear test of 1974. Indians had a good reason to be proud, but by then India was about 32 years behind the USA, 25 years behind the Soviets, 22 years behind the British, and 10 years behind the Chinese. If only we had exploded an atomic device in the fifties or even the sixties, we would have found a place in the UN Security Council, rather than being considered a pariah.

Pokhran II came too late for India because atomic energy, Abraham sums up, "no longer has the significance it once had. A country acquires neither international respect nor prestige by developing, or continuing to hold, nuclear weapons. The latest movement against nuclear weapons is not led by the super powers eager to monopolise atomic energy for themselves and to prevent other countries from obtaining them, but rather by non-nuclear countries. . . . India has demanded its right to become a nuclear power just when the atomic age has come to an end, and thus remains an outsider. . . ."

In spite of all ideological concerns, the prime duty of a nation is to be strong and be prepared for any external aggression; otherwise it should be prepared to be ruled by others. Let us remember Robert Frost's words — strong fences make good neighbours.

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