Article January 12, 2023

Review—Ploughshares and Swords: India's Nuclear Program in the Global Cold War

Jayita Sarkar, Ploughshares and Swords: India’s Nuclear Program in the Global Cold War (Cornell University Press, 2022)
Review by Marc Reyes, University of Connecticut.


On May 18, 1974, at 8:05 AM IST, India detonated its first nuclear explosion. Indian scientists and politicians were quick to declare the blast a “peaceful nuclear explosion” or PNE. In the days following the PNE, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi characterized her nation as a “nuclear country, not a nuclear weapons country” (176) to reassure its neighbors that by testing a nuclear device, India had not decided to fully embark upon a nuclear weapons program but that it merely possessed the capability to do so. By dubbing the test a PNE, India downplayed its own achievement and likened it to blasts done by U.S. through its Project Plowshare, which conducted nuclear explosions for canal excavations or releasing natural gas deposits. India’s choice of language and the euphuisms deployed to describe its nuclear test have always been a head-scratching part of this story. After laboring for years and spending millions to produce a nuclear device and then successfully accomplishing the feat, becoming the first country outside the members of the United Nations Security Council to do so, India’s speed at declaring what the blast was NOT and what it did NOT mean surely made observers wonder what the test was for and what it meant for India. T.K. Mahadevan, an editor of the Indian journal Gandhi Marg, perhaps best captured the moment when he explained that “The bomb, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. If you are a hawk, you will know it is a bomb. If you are a dove, you will pretend it is a device.” (176)

The story of India’s nuclear program has been told many times and by many scholars. Researchers have been fortunate for works by security strategists, journalists, anthropologists, and political scientists. But few of these works were historical studies and even fewer incorporated the primary sources of archives from multiple countries. Historian Jayita Sarkar’s Ploughshares and Swords: India’s Nuclear Program in the Global Cold War is the work that scholars of India’s nuclear program have been waiting for; it will be required reading for historians of several different fields – foreign relations, science and technology, and decolonization – to name just a few. India’s nuclear program possesses a large historiography, but Sarkar produced a tome that scholars of the program cannot miss but also a welcoming work for readers interested in Cold War history and the rise of the developing world post-World War II. It is light on jargon, thorough in its examination of how independent India became a scientific power, and comprehensive in how it carries the story to the present. Readers will understand the decisions and stakes that were present when India debated the bomb and finally took the leap as a nuclear weapons state. Sarkar’s book asks whether nuclear programs help chip away at a nation’s democracy and instill anti-democratic elements where safety and security trump peace and prosperity.

Because of her extensive archival work (in over twenty archives in eight countries, weaving in French and Bengali sources, an array of digitized resources, and the published collection of Avtar Singh Bhasin, one of most prolific documentarians of Indian foreign relations history), Sarkar delivers on the promise of her subtitle: she fully places India’s nuclear program in a global context and its significance in Cold War history. Too often, scholarship on India’s nuclear program remains within the confines of New Delhi, the seat of India’s central government, or Mumbai, the site of India’s atomic research centers. This is unfortunate because to tell the history of a global project like India’s nuclear program, the work must be a global project itself. Sarkar succeeds in depicting the vastness of India’s nuclear program as well as its dual nature. As her title implies, India’s nuclear program was both ploughshare and sword. Whether for offensive or defensive purposes, military or civilian uses, domestic or international audiences, India’s nuclear program never had just one purpose. It was a multivalent force for whatever India needed at that moment.

Sarkar structures her narrative in three parts. Part one, “World War and Decolonization,” is the shortest section and explains India’s unique situation at the moment of its 1947 independence. While much of the decolonizing world was left to its own devices and struggled to build their own economies, India possessed an abundance of minerals needed for atomic research, such as monazite and beryl. Understanding the value of these resources, India immediately sought an eager Western buyer, at first British and later French, who would both invest in Indian mineral development – and buy them once there was a product. Sarkar’s first section is at its strongest when she examines the collaboration between India and France’s respective atomic energy commissions. In contrast to the U.S. and to a lesser extent the U.K., France partnered with India in atomic research, with French scientists and laboratories among the first to aid and recognize of the potential of India’s nascent nuclear program. By the end of her first section, Sarkar demonstrates that the U.S. could not simply dictate demands to India and its nuclear program or withhold its expertise, instead it needed to engage and even support this growing atomic power.

Part two is the book’s strongest section. If part one documented India’s earliest steps in atomic research, part two is about its earliest success. It skillfully weaves together numerous, nuanced themes about increasing scientific exchanges between India and developed world, an emerging nonproliferation movement, and shifting Cold War geopolitics. By the end of the 1950s, India had beaten its northern neighbor, the People’s Republic of China, to achieving the goal of possessing Asia’s first functioning research reactor. Its atomic commission chairman, Homi Bhabha, had emerged as a roving ambassador for Indian science, touting its new facilities and expanding growth. Even atomic relations with the U.S. had improved with India receiving aid through the Eisenhower administration’s Atoms for Peace initiative. Sarkar’s middle section shows how other countries, including Canada and the U.K., aided India’s nuclear program, helping bring more reactors online. But as Indian atomic progress unfolded, so did its atomic panic. The optimism of the 1950s was later met with the anxieties of the 1960s. The 1960s saw China embarrass India in a brief mountain war and successfully test several thermonuclear weapons. India had lost ground in atomic research and once the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was proposed, it feared the international community would permit China’s bomb but forever forbid India from developing one to counter Chinese threats.

The standout chapter in the book’s standout section is chapter five, “The Plowshare Loophole, 1964-1970.” In a thirty-seven page tour de force, Sarkar gracefully captures the complex nuclear debate in 1960s India. With so many political, economic and cultural developments marking the decade, it can be difficult to connect them and show their influence on India’s atomic energy program. But Sarkar documents how the country’s leadership began to wobble on opposition to a bomb and did not want a security guarantee or to be under a larger nation’s nuclear umbrella. At the same time, U.S. intelligence recognized that Indian scientists could produce a bomb through their own type of Project Plowshare. If the stakes were not atomic, it would be amusing that both sides, hoped that the other would never notice how close India was to a bomb and that the problem would melt away. What chapter five covers and impressively analyzes is nothing short of outstanding, and readers will never forget reading about the dangerous proposal offered by the head of the Atomic Energy Commission of India, Vikram Sarabhai, to use nuclear waste as a means of stopping the Chinese military by mining the Himalayan pass with it. Only after he was told that since the India-China border is topographically inclined toward India, the radioactive material would contaminate Indian rivers and streams, did Sarabhai drop his Strangelovian suggestion (110).

The book’s third and final section, “Unmaking and Making of India” carries the story into the 1970s and 1980s. Sarkar covers well-worn territory such as India’s overwhelming victory over Pakistan in their 1971 war. Both countries saw the end of the war as a reason to accelerate their atomic programs and push for eventual weapons. For India, this reflected confidence after a clear knockout of its longtime regional rival. In Pakistan’s case, an atomic program was the ultimate deterrent against a rising India. As Sarkar reminds readers, we’ll probably never know if there was an exact moment or foundational document stating India’s intention to test an atomic device. Nearly four decades after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s 1984 assassination, such records are classified or were never put to paper (155). Even before the tragedy of India’s Emergency (1975-1977), Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s secrecy and disregard for democracy were clear to Indians. The book concludes with the runup to the 1974 PNE, and the geopolitical fallout India experienced following the blast. After decades of international aid, the late 1970s saw India locked out of the nuclear club, isolated, and even under sanctions. When it detonated devices again in 1998, and explicitly referred to them as weapons, it was undeniable that they were a solely Indian production. Sarkar’s last section examines India’s quest to be seen as an atomic innovator, not a proliferator. Once India had successfully detonated its device, countries such as Egypt and Libya, sought Indian aid for their own programs. These insights from Sarkar reveal a sensitive India trying to flip the diplomatic script: instead of a rogue state secretly testing nuclear devices, it was an advanced nation sharing its vast knowledge of atomic matters with those in need, especially countries critical of the U.S. Sarkar’s book ends with India having succeeded at its enormous undertaking, but diplomatically isolated and fearful of Pakistan’s growing atomic research. The India that Sarkar portrays is one always looking over its atomic shoulder and fearful of the next nuclear shoe to drop.

Even a work as strong as Ploughshares and Swords is not immune from critiques. Its sixth chapter, “Fractured Worlds, 1970-1974,” focuses too much on India’s 1971 war with Pakistan. The clear focus on India’s nuclear program is momentarily lost and even though there is a connection to the 1971 war, it is not enough to justify an entire chapter when many other articles, chapters, and even books (such as Srinath Raghavan’s seminal work 1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh) already exist. And for this reader, the book would have benefitted from deeper profiles of the people behind the stories. Sarkar brings in the usual suspects in Indian atomic history like Vikram Sarabhai or Homi Sethna as well as lesser-known figures like Sir Chetpat Pattabhirama (C.P.) Ramaswami Aiyar. Sometimes works on India’s atomic program spend too much on Homi Bhabha and analysis of him can skew toward hagiography. With such fascinating figures, and some who are under-analyzed, a little more digging into the backgrounds and biographies would have gone a long way.

Such minor critiques do not dent this excellent work. Sarkar attempted and succeeded in the monumental task of capturing India’s nuclear program as the global project it was. She crafted a work that speaks to multiple groups of scholars and disciplines, and her book will be the work on Indian atomic energy for the foreseeable future. Sarkar concludes with a short epilogue. In only three pages, she takes the story from the 1980s to the present. Sarkar posits that an Indian nuclear revolution has not occurred; despite all the bluster and promises of a nuclear-powered future, atomic energy only accounts for a tiny amount of India’s power, a figure stagnant over decades (203). But what atomic power has produced is a more secretive Indian central government, one that equates any criticism of its nuclear program to anti-nationalism. Sarkar’s final sentence claims that India’s pursuit of ploughshares and swords has led to “an antidemocratic culture” in the world’s largest democracy. This critique: the increasingly antidemocratic nature of modern India, is a common one, fueled in part by the aggressive Hindu nationalist movement of the current (and popular) Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But scholars, especially historians, must go beyond the anti-democracy argument and reckon with the reality: that for most of its India’s seventy-five-year history, India has been backsliding on democracy. As scholars of India debate its future and see further weakening of its civil liberties and secular values, we must confront the possibility that Jawaharlal Nehru’s rule, from 1947 to 1964, was the democratic exception, not the democratic rule; that since his passing, India has been ruled by party hacks, bland bureaucrats, and petty autocrats who would shred Indian democracy to survive the next election. Maybe atomic power did not create this antidemocratic culture, maybe the culture was already that way.

But scholars, especially historians, must go beyond the anti-democracy argument and reckon with the reality: that for most of its India’s seventy-five-year history, India has been backsliding on democracy.



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