1869, Ep. 118 with Jayita Sarkar, author of Ploughshares and Swords
1:41PM Jun 22, 2022
atomic energy commission
Welcome to 1869, The Cornell University Press Podcast. I'm Jonathan Hall. This episode we speak with Jay Sarkar, author of the new paperback and open access ebook, Ploughshares and Swords: India's Nuclear Program in the Global Cold War. Jay Sarkar is Senior Lecturer in Economic and Social History at the University of Glasgow, and the founding director of the Global Decolonization Initiative. We spoke to Jay about how the history of India's first nuclear weapons test in 1974 has been overshadowed by the 1998 nuclear tests; why the conventional wisdom that India started off its nuclear program with nuclear energy first, is in fact incorrect; and the strong connections between India's nuclear program and their space program. Hello, Jay, welcome to the podcast.
Thank you for having me.
Well, we're excited to talk about your new book, Ploughshares and Swords: India's Nuclear Program in the Global Cold War. Tell us what was the backstory to this book? What inspired you to write this book?
Yeah, this book was inspired by real world events that I experienced, while growing up in India in the 1990s. Back in 1998, when I was a teenager, I remember being caught completely by surprise by the 11 nuclear tests in South Asia that took place in the same month, five by India, six by Pakistan. And I remember there was even celebration, a very celebratory mood in the country, celebrating the supposed movement moment when India got its nuclear weapons. But it was only when my grandpa to whom I have dedicated this book, mentioned to me in passing that, actually, that was a nuclear test back in the 1970s. But that was peaceful. You know, it was only then that I realized that there was an important backstory to what we were witnessing in 1998. And yet, no one seemed to be entirely sure what that backstory was. Soon after, there were several books that were published, that focused heavily on 1988, completely ignoring the 74, the 1974 nuclear explosion. So in graduate school, when I had some time to choose a dissertation topic, I picked one that was essentially going to meet three conditions, which I think are important for completing a book and a PhD, and completing a PhD book. And that is, it has to keep me up at night. Get me out of bed and then repeat it for at least a decade. And so here we are with the with the book now.
Fascinating, fascinating. Yeah. What you just said, the story you just told us, it shows the power of propaganda on how they are framing - the majority of people saying Oh, yeah, this this explosion, this nuclear test in 1974 was peaceful, a new a peaceful nuclear explosion shows the power of words. So yeah, so the conventional wisdom, not only in India, but around the world was that India's nuclear program started out peacefully, and it was focusing on nuclear power. And then as as with other countries that move more into a weapons phase, but your deep research definitely shows that that is not true. Tell us about your research and what you found.
The conventional wisdom, you're absolutely right divides India's nuclear program into distinct peaceful and military phases. So the peaceful phase theater have started in 1947, when India became an independent country, all the way until the 1980s. And the so called weaponization phase is said to have started in the 1980s, in response to Pakistan's nuclear weapons program, and then consolidated after the 1998 nuclear tests that I just mentioned. Now, what this received wisdom has done is that it has transformed the formative years of India's nuclear program. So the 1940s to the 1980s as essentially a prehistory of the nuclear weapons project. So what I do in my book is that I challenge that conventional wisdom by showing how the choices made from the 40s to the 80s were pivotal for what followed in the 1990s and thereafter. And so I made three main arguments in the book. The first is very briefly is that India's nuclear program was a dual use and dever simultaneously surveying the civilian and military hands, not because of the nature of nuclear technologies, but because of deliberate plans and decisions undertaken by the Atomic Energy Commission of India and later on the Department of Atomic Energy. And so I, I argue with historical evidence that the nuclear energy program aim did not develop into a weapons program over time, but it was conceived as both from the onset. And so here I'd like to draw the listeners attention to the title of the book. It is not a story of ploughshares to swords, but it's ploughshares and swords from the onset. The second argument is about the space program and that is the leaders of India's nuclear program pursued a deliberate dual use space program, and they kept the research for space separate from the nuclear program and the defense laboratories. Whether the space program was led by Homi Bhabha, Vikram Sarabhai, Satish Dhawan, they essentially kept space separate from nuclear at the same time they were they were also entangled the two programs, I mean, and why did they do that they did that to benefit from foreign cooperation in outer space without arousing suspicion of the global Non Proliferation regime. And the third and final argument, and it's related to the conventional wisdom that you start your question with. The third and final argument is about borders and and the significance of understanding the importance of borderlands. And so I argue that in the US nuclear programs, geopolitical aspects were evident in the intermestic nature of territorial threats and their entanglements of the Cold War. And so here I use, Frederick Logevall and Campbell Craig's important work on the intermastic, meaning the interface between international and domestic. So argued that securing these borderlands mattered to the postcolonial Indian nation state just as much as protecting the borders itself. And indeed, policymakers were responding to these threats. As they were doing that we can get a clearer sense of the geopolitical dimensions of the nuclear program. And what that meant to the policymakers. Because as we think about the implication of the conventional wisdom, it is that the first 40 years were peaceful. And as a result, the key motivations for prestige are and/or domestic politics. So what I argue is, it's not the case, the leaders of India's nuclear program are pursuing weapons and energy from the onset. And that pure politics was a key motivation. Not the only one. I do say that not the only one, but a significant one during this time period. And we can get a clearer sense of that by expanding our understanding and paying attention to intermerstic and not just interstate wars.
Interesting, interesting. Going...thank you. Going back to that you may have made many points, but one of the points you made that I thought was really very smart and strategic, was this dual track, not only peaceful and, you know, more warfare oriented, but the whole two-tier track of the space program, where they could ask for international assistance? And then oh, yes, this is for the space program, but in reality, they could they can integrate that into the nuclear program. So so this this program that develops since the 40s, who were these, who were these countries and non-state suppliers that were helping India, both in the space program but also with the nuclear program itself?
Yeah, these suppliers are of various types. Frankly, the suppliers range from foreign Atomic Energy Commission's private companies, public companies and science societies to just name a few types of suppliers. And they were located in North America, Western Europe, Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Some of the major foreign Atomic Energy Commissions were the French, the CEA, the Commissariat à l'énergie atomique. The UK Atomic Energy Authority, the Atomic Energy of Canada Limited, which is the company that actually exports but it's close to the Canadian government, and the US Atomic Energy Commission. On the Soviet side, the Soviet Academy of Sciences was also an important partner of India's nuclear program. And what I found in my research is that the leaders of the nuclear program really adopted this strategy of hyper diversification through these foreign partnerships. And what they were trying to do is that they were trying to get multiple types of research and power reactors. So power reactors will produce electricity research will help them together know how, so that they can become independent over time, independent foreign support, multiple types of research in power reactors, plutonium reprocessing designs, heavy water plants and others. And they were very innovative and you rightly point out it's very strategic and a very well thought out approach to get New technology and know how to very innovative in the quest of suppliers. And I know we this is gonna be a short interview but I'll quickly share this fascinating early episode of foreign cooperation. That's okay. In in late 1948 S. S. Bhatnager, one of the founding members of the Atomic Energy Commission of India, visited East Berlin to meet former personnel of our Auergesellschaft, which was this company involved in the Nazi nuclear weapons program. And what he was trying to do is that he was trying to know what could be procured or learned from that German company and reported back to Homi Bhabha, who was the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission of India and the Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who had always taken a keen interest in the nuclear program in general. I do find that in the end, the Indian Atomic Energy Commission signed a contract with the French company STR or Société de Produits Chimiques des
Terres Rares, which is the full name. And the French company itself was closely linked to Auergesellschaft during the Second World War, but it did not have a very evident Nazi heritage. And at the end, STR was the first partner of India's nuclear program. So you can tell how how India's the leaders of India's nuclear program from the very beginning are just here to spread their web far and wide and very, very innovative in trying to develop foreign partnerships.
Wow, wow. So I love history, because it, I mean, it, first of all, it's so fascinating. But secondly, it allows us to see the present more clearly. So with that, with that in mind, knowing what you now know, and knowing through the deep dive of research that you've done for this book, what what are some of the, what are some of the things that you follow in the news now that are informed by your research?
Yeah, one of the things that I find in my job through the research in my book is that you know, India's relationship with the global nonproliferation regime is, is very stable in the sense that India is opposed to it, just like it was during the time period of my research, and the arguments as to why India is opposed to it and shall remain in the future going forward, are essentially the same that were given in the 1960s, it was the same set of arguments provided during the 1998 nuclear tests, same set of arguments in 2008, during the US-India civil nuclear agreement. So I find that that India's nuclear program, you know, has has a set of milestones as opposed to breaks or, or specific, specific turning points, obviously, there was an explosion in 74, and then five nuclear weapon tests in 1998, I would consider them set of milestones in in this long process. And I don't see a lot of change in the present time, I see more continuity. And in the context of the 21st century, I would say India's nuclear program is still very much to all us. One of the things that India was expected to do, because of the 2008, US-India civil nuclear agreement was separate civilian and military facilities, which to an extent it did but not fully. So from a nonproliferation perspective, you know, folks in Vienna or Washington, DC, looking at India's nuclear program, they still consider the whole nuclear enterprise of India's, you know, very confusing, ambiguous, very difficult to access. And India has maintained a rather similar position of opposition to the regime on the basis of sovereignty. And it's, it's its belief that the regime functions on nuclear apartheid. That's what Indian policymakers have said throughout the 60s, in some ways still today.
Okay. And moving to the nuclear energy side of the equation, some proponents of nuclear energy are saying this is this is the way we need to move forward to address global warming and climate change. What's what do you what is India's stance on that? Are they moving forward and building more generators and reactors? Or are they staying still? What's their current policy when in regards to nuclear energy?
Yeah, that's a great, great question. Here, I would say that I just mentioned the 2008 civil nuclear agreement. Now, that agreement was in the context of this, this believes in a potential nuclear renaissance in the world, that finally because of climate change, countries will find nuclear energy to be the response and they will expand or they will try to build more reactors. So India definitely made several commitments to that effect. In 2008, Fukushima, put a wrench not just in India's plans, but in the global nuclear industries plans to expand. And now in 2022, as our, I mean, as a historian that I wouldn't count myself there or I wouldn't count you because you're, you would talk to historians all the time. But we tend to forget the effects of Fukushima. And we are. And so I'm seeing a lot of discussion of a nuclear renaissance again, in the context of 2022. And that expansion of nuclear energy production. And so India very much has the current government has recommitted to building more reactors and, you know, putting more emphasis on nuclear energy, again, in the 2020s. They had done that in 2005 2008. With Fukushima, putting a wrench in 2011. I think those calls and those commitments are back again on the agenda.
Great, great. Wow. Well, you are a wealth of information. We're so grateful and proud to be publishing your book. And we thank you for all the hard work and research that you've done, and put into this book, your new book, Ploughshares and Swords: India's Nuclear Program in the Global Cold War. Thank you so much, Jay.
Thank you so much, Jonathan. It's a delight to be on the podcast.
That was Jay Sarkar, author of the new paperback and open access ebook, Ploughshares and Swords: India's Nuclear Program in the Global Cold War. Follow Jay on Twitter at Dr. J Sarkar. If you'd like to read Jays new book right now, download the free open access ebook on our website at Cornell press.cornell.edu. You can also use the promo code 09POD to save 30% on the new paperback. If you live in the UK, use the discount code CSANNOUNCE and visit the website combined academic.co.uk. Thank you for listening to 1869, The Cornell University Press Podcast.