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Reflections On India’s Nuclear Policy During The Nehru Era


“The atomic bomb has deadened the finest feeling that has sustained mankind for ages. There used to be so called laws of war which made it tolerable. Now we know the naked truth. War knows no law except that of might – The moral to be ultimately drawn from the supreme tragedy of the bomb is that it will not be destroyed by counter bombs even as violence cannot be, by counter violence. Mankind has to get out of violence only through non-violence.” – Mahatma Gandhi, Atom Bomb and Ahimsa (1)

One of the most outstanding statesmen of the twentieth century, Jawaharlal Nehru has left his indelible imprint on all aspects of modern India. An intense nationalist, a romantic revolutionary, a charismatic leader committed to social justice and individual freedom, Nehru was also an internationalist, conscious of the cross currents of global politics and India’s emerging role in the world scene. The two major strands of nationalism and internationalism blended beautifully into an ideal mould in this unique, yet humane, personality.

It is very difficult to fit Jawaharlal Nehru into any ideological framework. He was a product of evolution, of the stresses and strains as much as hopes and aspirations, which characterized the prolonged nationalist struggle. As his daughter, Indira Gandhi, has brilliantly summed up:

He drew much from the thought of the East and the West and from philosophies of the past and the present. Never religious in the formal sense, yet he had a deep love for the culture and traditions of his own land. Never a rigid Marxist yet he was deeply influenced by that theory and was profoundly influenced by what he saw in the Soviet Union on his first visit in 1927. However, he realized that the world was too complex, and man had too many facets, to be encompassed by any single or total explanation. He himself was a socialist with an abhorrence for regimentation and a democrat who was anxious to reconcile his faith in civil liberty with the necessity of mitigating economic and social backwardness. His struggles, both within himself and the outside world, to adjust such seeming contradictions are what make his life and work significant and fascinating (2).

In this paper I have tried to analyse the rationale of India’s nuclear policy during the Nehru era. To put the subject in proper perspective it is necessary to keep in mind certain salient features of the international system. The first and foremost question does the possession of nuclear weapons give additional leverage to a nuclear weapons state in the pursuit of its foreign policy goals. During the last days of the Second World War, when the United States was the only nuclear power, it was able to decisively turn the fortunes of the war to its side by dropping the atom bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But with the emergence of the bi – polar world from the early 1950’s and with Soviet Union acquiring nuclear weapons, the value of the bomb was only to deter the enemy. What is more, the massive nuclear arsenal in the hands of Moscow and Washington did not enable them to win victories in the battle fields of Vietnam or in Afghanistan. The two major powers suffered humiliating defeats in these two costly battles. Equally relevant, the argument put forward by Indian strategic specialists like K. Subrahmanyam and General Sundarji that if India and Pakistan went nuclear, there would be certain amount of sanity in their foreign and strategic policies has also been belied. As is well known, the conflict in Kargil in June 1999 took place after the two countries went nuclear. In fact if India had not exercised the nuclear option in May 1998 New Delhi could have embarked on a full scale conventional war against Pakistan to put an end to the Pakistani military incursion making use of its conventional military superiority. The lesson is clear, for dealing with Pakistan and China India requires both conventional and nuclear power.

Equally relevant, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) which was signed in July 1968 divided the world into two, the nuclear haves and the nuclear have nots. The objective of the Treaty was to prevent nuclear proliferation. By the mid-1960’s, as Jawaharlal Nehru has pointed out, India had made commendable progress in the field of nuclear research, what is more, Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri had given instructions to Homi Bhabha after Lop Nor to work toward reducing the time needed to develop nuclear explosives (3). If India had exploded a nuclear device before July 1968, however crude it might have been, it would have brought about a fundamental transformation in the international nuclear scene. There were powerful bomb walahs in India at that time, which included highly influential specialists like Homi Bhabha, KC Pant, K. Subrahmaniam, Prof. Subramaniam Swamy, Inder Malhotra, Prof. JD Sethi, Prof. Raj Krishna and Prof. Sisir Gupta. The author has not come across any convincing explanation why this policy option was not seriously considered in the corridors of power at that time.

The success of foreign policy depends upon correctly understanding the likely trends in international relations and using them to one’s advantage. To Jawaharlal Nehru’s credit, it must be pointed out that more than any other political leader, except perhaps VK Krishna Menon, he was conscious of the Sino-Soviet differences and its possible benign fallout for India. Nehru was the first statesman to foresee the emergence of more liberal trends in the Soviet Union. In his book, The New Dimensions of Peace, Ambassador Chester Bowles has mentioned that Nehru told him in early 1950’s that Sino-Soviet convergence of interests was unlikely to last for more than few years. In September 1959, in a speech in Parliament, Nehru referred to the statement in TASS on September 9 and how it indicated that Soviet Union was taking a calm, objective and dispassionate view of the Sino-Indian border situation. The TASS statement, as is well known, was the first indication of the Sino-Soviet differences being aired in the public. Nehru was, unlike the opposition and the military brass, sensitive to the widening schism between the two communist giants. He knew of the sharp exchanges that took place between Kruschev and Chen Yi in Bucharest in June 1960, the Chinese anger at the Soviet Union for selling MIG planes to India, the withdrawal of Soviet technicians from China and skirmishes in the Sino-Soviet border in 1960. Nehru delinked China’s policy from communist ideology and characterized it as an outcome of what he called “Chinese expansionism” (4). Such a stance enabled India to take advantage of the Sino-Soviet dispute and get considerable Soviet support in the years to come. It is interesting to note that while large number of countries expressed their sympathy and support to India in the India-China War, only two countries supported China, namely North Vietnam and Albania. North Vietnam’s policy was dictated by its dependence on China during those years and Anwar Hoxa’s policy must be viewed in the background of Albania’s support to China in the ideological conflict with the Soviet Union. At the same time, it must be mentioned that Nehru miserably failed to understand that Beijing will have no hesitation to use force to buttress its territorial claims. And China had used force not only against India, but also against Soviet Union and Vietnam in later years.

In order to focus attention on ramifications of the subject under discussion, it is necessary to highlight the thinking of three influential figures who dominated the Indian scene, namely, Homi J. Bhabha, Jawaharlal Nehru and VK Krishna Menon. .Homi Jehangir Bhabha was undoubtedly the father of Indian nuclear research and the architect of India’s nuclear strategy and diplomacy. In the 1930’s, Bhabha studied with the eminent nuclear scientist Lord Ernest Rutherford. He also associated himself with other great experts in the field like Niels Bohr, James Franck, Erico Fermi and WB Lewis. On his return to India, Bhabha convinced the Tatas to finance the establishment of a centre for research to study nuclear physics. Thus India’s nuclear progamme predates the dawn of independence. The Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) was established in Bombay on 19 December 1945, four months after Hiroshima and months before India became independent Bhabha was already in command of India’s nuclear future. He dominated the Indian nuclear scene till his unfortunate demise in an air crash twenty years later.

Bhabha was a personal friend of Jawaharlal Nehru, having met him in his voyage home in 1939. Bhabha addressed the Prime Minister even in official correspondence as “Bhai” and Nehru addressed him as “My dear Homi”. When Nehru became the Prime Minister, he entrusted Bhabha with complete authority over all nuclear related matters. Not only functional autonomy was given, it was also above parliamentary and administrative scrutiny. At Bhabha’s request the Atomic Energy Act was passed by the Constituent Assembly, creating the Atomic Energy Commission. With remarkable prescience, Bhabha wrote very early in life, “When nuclear energy has been successfully applied to power production, in say, a couple of decades from now, India will not have to look abroad for its experts but will find them ready at hand” (5). As a scientist, familiar with realpolitik, Bhabha was convinced that India’s voice will be heard in international gatherings only if India became powerful and had nuclear weapons. Bhabha told Raja Ramanna, “We must have the capability. We should first prove ourselves and then talk of (Mahatma) Gandhi, non-violence and a world without nuclear weapons” (6).

During the early years of independence, India pursued what Nehru called “a peaceful nuclear programme”, implying that the programme was developed not to manufacture nuclear weapons, but instead to provide energy to the people. But certain important figures in the Indian nuclear establishment, including Homi Bhabha, thought differently. Prof. Sumit Ganguly refers to a conversation between Homi Bhabha and the British Physicist Lord PMS Blackett about his interest in acquiring nuclear weapons (7). In a paper delivered in the 12th Pugwash Conference in January-February 1964, Bhabha elaborated his views as follows: “Nuclear weapons coupled with an adequate delivery system can enable a state to destroy more or less totally the cities, industry and all important targets in another state. It is then largely irrelevant whether the state so attacked has greater destructive power at its command. With the help of nuclear weapons, therefore, a state can acquire what we may call a position of absolute deterrence even against another having a many times greater destructive power under its control” (8). Homi Bhabha was able to influence not only stalwarts in the scientific community, but also political leaders to his way of thinking. SS Khera, former Cabinet Secretary, is of the view: “Those who knew Dr. Homi Bhabha and worked with him were aware of his urge to work towards having everything ready for the bomb” (9). Bhabha’s colleagues in the Atomic Energy Establishment had the same passionate commitment to make the nuclear bomb at the earliest so that India could become a great power. According to Raja Ramanna, “There was never a discussion among us over whether we shouldn’t make the bomb. 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. Also, as Indian scientists we were keen to show our western counterparts, who thought little of us those days, that we too could do it” (10).

Let us turn now to the thinking and policies of Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru was one man foreign office, controlled both foreign office and Department of Atomic Energy. What is more, as mentioned earlier, he emphasized the importance of secrecy in nuclear matters and immunized himself and his colleagues from public scrutiny. Brought up in Gandhian traditions of non-violence, and given his abhorrence of violent conflicts and commitment to peaceful resolution of international disputes, it was but natural for Jawaharlal Nehru to openly oppose the manufacture of nuclear weapons. What is more, one of the major aspects of India’s foreign policy was its strong advocacy of universal nuclear disarmament. On November 13, 1945, Jawaharlal Nehru declared, “The revolution caused by discoveries having to do with atomic energy can either destroy human civilization, or take it up to unheard of levels” (11). The peaceful use of nuclear energy was the official policy of the Government of India. This point was highlighted in bilateral agreements with Canada, UK, USA and USSR.

A careful reading of Nehru’s speeches and policy declarations clearly reveal that he did not foreclose the nuclear option for ever. It goes to the credit of Jawaharlal Nehru that he laid the strong foundations of atomic research, so that when the country decided to exercise the nuclear option, it could do so without much difficulty. As is well known, given his scientific temper, he wanted to channelise science for developmental purposes. But the nuclear energy was dual technology, it could be used for constructive and destructive purposes. On June 26, 1946, Nehru declared, “As long as the world is constituted as it is, every country will have to devise and use the latest scientific devices for its protection. I have no doubt that India will develop its scientific researches and I hope the Indian scientists will use the atomic force for constructive purposes. But if India is threatened she will inevitably try to defend herself by all means at her disposal (Emphasis added). I hope India in common with other countries will prevent the use of atomic bombs”.(12). In January 1956, Nehru announced in Parliament that if adequate resources were delivered, an Indian bomb could be made in three or four years (13). In 1961, when the Zerlina reactor went critical, Nehru stated that although India could make the bomb in two years, it chose not to do so (14). In December 1959 speaking before the Parliamentary Committee on Atomic Affairs, Homi Bhabha declared that India has progressed to such a stage where, if a political directive was received, a bomb could be made without external assistance. The time period, however, was not specified.15).

What sort of interaction took place between Homi Bhabha and Jawaharlal Nehru? Who influenced whom? We do not have any exact information, because all the important documents are kept behind the stone walls of official secrecy. Prof. Ashok Kapur, the well known authority on India’s nuclear policy, has written that India could have proceeded into nuclear weaponisation at any time after 1957, but it did not (16). Recently I came across a purported conversation that took place between Homi Bhabha and Jawaharlal Nehru in mid-1958. The quotation given below is attributed to Kenneth D. Nichols, an American military engineer. Nehru asked Homi Bhabha, “Can you develop an atomic bomb? Bhabha assured him that he could and in reply to Nehru’s next question about time, he estimated that he would need a year to do it.” He concluded by saying to Bhabha, “Well, don’t do it until I tell you.” (17) I am skeptical about this conversation, because it is very unlikely that high ups in the Indian Government would have discussed such matters with American Generals in the late 1950’s.

Unlike Jawaharlal Nehru, who adopted an ambivalent stand on the issue of nuclear weapons, VK Krishna Menon was dogmatic to the core. Menon was spokesman for the Government of India in all negotiations relating to disarmament. He emphatically maintained that India should not manufacture nuclear weapons, come what may. Menon was not a pacifist, he justified the use of violence in Jammu and Kashmir and forced Nehru’s hands in Goa. As Michael Brecher puts it, Menon was “emotional to the extreme” and his image of nuclear weapons was “fuzzy” (18). Menon was emphatic that if India manufactured nuclear weapons, India’s image would suffer considerably for India played a big role in the finalization of Partial Test Ban Treaty. The nuclear bomb, Menon asserted is not “a weapon of war or a weapon of defence; it is a weapon of mass destruction – The bomb has no value; it has not even a deterrent value. This is quite apart from the futility of weapons of annihilation and all the consequences of atomic war” (19). The conversation with Michael Brecher took place when Menon was in political eclipse; in fact, he could not influence the policies of wither the Government or the Congress party after his resignation from the Cabinet following India’s humiliating defeat in the India-China War in October-November 1962.

A study of the contrasting styles of Homi Bhabha, Jawaharlal Nehru and VK Krishna Menon on the issue of India’s nuclear policy highlights the fact that the Indian political system was resilient and provided space for dissenting views. The role played by the three great nationalist leaders are today being subjected to close scrutiny, but despite their inadequacies and imperfections, there is no denying the fact that the three leaders made yeoman contributions to the building of modern India.

Prof. V. Suryanarayan was the founding Director and Senior Professor of the Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras. He is currently Senior Research Fellow in the Center for Asia Studies, Chennai. He is also a Member of the National Security Advisory Board, Government of India.)

This paper was presented in the International Seminar on Rajiv Gandhi’s Disarmament Initiatives: Global and South Asian Contexts organized by the Madanjeet Institute for South Asia Regional Co-operation, Pondicherry University, March 9-11, 2010.


1. Mahatma Gandhi, “Atom Bomb and Violence”, Harijan, July 7, 1946
2. Indira Gandhi, “Foreword”, Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Second Series, Vol. 1 (New Delhi, 1984)
3. For further details, refer Sumit Ganguly, “Explaining the Indian Nuclear Tests of 1998”, Raju C. C. Thomas and Amit Gupta, Eds, India’s Nuclear Security (New Delhi, 2000), pp. 37-66.
4. “Homi J. Bhabha: The Man who Visualised India’s Nuclear Capacity”.
5. Ibid.
6. For further details refer K Subrahmanyam, “Nehru and India China Conflict of 1962”, B R Nanda, Ed., Indian Foreign Policy: The Nehru Years ( New Delhi, 1976) p. 113
7. Ganguly, n.3, p.40
8. Ibid., p.41
9. SS Khera, India’s Defence Problem (New Delhi, 1968), pp.317-18
10. Quoted in Major David J Creasman, The Evolution of India’s Nuclear Program: Implications for the United States (Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, 2008), p. 12.
11.. Quoted in Ashok Kapur, “Nehru’s Nuclear Policy”. Milton Israel, Ed, Nehru and the Twentieth Century (Toronto, 1991), pp.217-32.
12. Ibid.
13 Quoted in Rear Admiral Raja Menon, A Nuclear Strategy for India (New Delhi, 2000), p. 70
14. Ibid, p. 72
15. Ibid, p. 71
16. Ashok Kapur, Pokhran and Beyond: India’s Nuclear Behaviour (New Delhi, 2001), p. 46
17. Creasman, n. 10, p. 17
18 Michael Brecher, India and World Politics: Krishna Menon’s View of the World (London, 1968), p. 313.
19. Ibid, p. 228

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