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Global Affairs Desk

Tue Jun 18 2024

The Atomic History of India: from Smiling Buddha to Shakti (Part-1)

~ By Samidha Jain on 7/9/2023

The Atomic History of India: from Smiling Buddha to Shakti (Part-1)

“Only strength respects strength. India needs to be a nuclear weapon state, so that she can walk on her own shadow.”
- Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam

On a burning summer afternoon of May 11th, 1998, India became a nuclear weapon state by testing five atomic bombs in Pokhran, Rajasthan. It was Homi J. Bhabha who laid the foundation of a nuclear India 5 decades ago. This article gives an interesting look at the relentless efforts and the struggle of our scientists, and the beautiful journey they embarked upon right after independence to make us a self-sufficient, fearless and responsible nuclear power we are today, the new-age India which is standing at the threshold of the great power status quo, ready to color the world as its own. This is the tale of the Atomic Success of India.

1948, AEC is established

After Independence, a group of scientists led by Homi J Bhabha also known as the “Indian Oppenheimer” and “Father of Indian Nuclear Program” convinced Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to invest in the development of nuclear energy. In 1948, Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was set up. The Nehruvian outlook went against the weaponization of nuclear power, he called the bomb, a “symbol of evil” and was adamant that India’s nuclear program pursue only peaceful applications. Nevertheless, he still opposed the Baruch Plan of USA which proposed the international control of nuclear energy, on the grounds that it “sought to prohibit national research and development in atomic energy production”. Of-course the silver lining behind it was to keep USSR under check and develop a hegemony over nuclear power production.

1954, BARC, APSARA and CIRUS

On 3rd January, 1954, after Bhabha realized that Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), granted by Dorabji Tata could not accommodate the nuclear research and development to its potential, Atomic Energy Establishment Trombay (AEET), now Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) was established, with TIFR retaining its original focus for fundamental sciences. Asia’s first arc reactor APSARA achieved criticality on 4th August, 1956. APSARA was conceptualized by Bhabha and was a pool type reactor made with the assistance of United Kingdom.

Initially AEC and DAE (Department of Atomic Energy) (AEET) received international cooperation. In 1955, Canada agreed to provide India a nuclear reactor whereas, USA also agreed to provide heavy water for the reactor under the auspices of the “Atoms for Peace” Program. The Canada India Reactor Utility Services, CIRUS gained criticality on 10th July, 1960. Although billed peaceful, Bhabha’s vision to use western assistance, against the western hegemony led to CIRUS producing most of the weapon grade plutonium used in the nuclear test of 1974.

The Sino- Indian war provocation and Peaceful Explosions

While the whole world was concentrated on the Cuban Missile Crisis, China and India were engaged in a war in 1962. The war ended with a humiliating defeat of India. On top of that, China became nuclear in 1964. This led to Indian Officials like Bhabha urging the heightened need for a nuclear deterrent. Homi J Bhabha in a speech quoted, “atomic weapons give a State possessing them in adequate numbers a deterrent power against attack from a much stronger State.” Bhabha then convinced Shastri over the idea of “peaceful nuclear explosions” (PNEs), which will be used for development and not military aggression. From here, the idea of “Operation Smiling Buddha” emerged.

During this period, the looming fear of China exemplified and Pakistan became another security threat. Bhabha frequently appealed USA to support Indian PNEs. He even visited Washington DC in 1965 to pitch the idea of cooperation. Bhabha wanted a bomb for India, badly. He even proposed and explained to Under Secretary George Ball how India is capable of making an atomic bomb and test it in 18 months but, with USA’s support the time frame could get cut shortened to 6 months. In the end, USA decided to not support India and its Nuclear Program.

Serious events took place next year. Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri passed away in Tashkent, USSR (now Uzbekistan) under mysterious circumstances. The leadership at the centre was replaced by Indira Gandhi. She unlike her father had a bold and proponent view of nuclear weapons. Less than two weeks after the demise of Shastri, Bhabha died in a plane crash on 24th January, 1966. It is suspected that CIA under Crowly’s directions had placed a bomb in cargo and planned to crash the plane in the Alps during his Geneva visit.

Raja Ramanna, the Heir to Bhabha’s throne

Ramanna was appointed as the chairman of BARC and was the principal designer of India’s first nuclear device. Under the leadership of Indira Gandhi, with the help of Vikram Sarabhai, a plan started to solidify to make India nuclear state. The decision to finally test a bomb was largely motivated by India’s desire to be independent from Western interference. In 1968, at the height of cold war arms control, India created an international controversy by refusing to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The Treaty accepted only five nuclear powers, who indigenously made and tested an atomic bomb in its soil before 1967. India accused the nuclear powers of “atomic collusion” and took particular issue with the fact that NPT did not differentiate between military and peaceful nuclear explosions.

“There was never a discussion among us over whether we shouldn’t make the bomb,” affirmed Raja Ramanna. “How to do it was more important. For us it was a matter of prestige that would justify our ancient past. The question of deterrence came much later. As Indian scientists we were keen to show our Western counterparts, who thought little of us those days, that we too could do it.”

And on May 18, 1974, The Buddha Smiled.

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Asmita JainCommented on 7/10/2023

Great work done by you dear. Waiting for 2nd part of it💯