Earlier this year, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists estimated that India has 160 nuclear warheads that can be delivered by aircraft, land-based ballistic missiles, and sea-based ballistic missiles—a small nuclear triad. How and why India developed nuclear energy and weapons programs in the midst of the Cold War is the subject of Jayita Sarkar’s fascinating and revealing book Ploughshares and Swords.
Sarkar, who teaches at the University of Glasgow and is the founding director of the Global Decolonization Initiative, benefited from “the declassification of a vast amount of primary sources in India and elsewhere [that] made it possible to write a comprehensive global story of India’s nuclear program during the Cold War.” She disputes the conventional view that India’s nuclear program developed in two distinct phases—peaceful and military. Instead, from its inception under the vision of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, the nuclear program had a dual purpose: civilian energy and military weapons.
Sarkar places the beginnings of India’s program in the context of decolonization, the then-emerging geopolitical rivalry between India and Pakistan, and the early years of the Cold War. Her book shreds the “myth” that India rose to independence on “Gandhian ideals of nonviolence”. From the beginning, she writes, India’s nuclear program was closely related to its space program. It was a joint “business-government partnership” that launched the program with financial backing of the Dorabji Tata Trust, a philanthropic enterprise that funded scientific research and closely collaborated with Nehru’s government—India’s version of America’s wartime Manhattan Project.
The Indian government created the infrastructure and institutions, including the Atomic Energy Commission of India, to acquire raw materials for nuclear fission, including monazite, thorium nitrate and beryllium. It also reached out to other countries, especially France, to help advance the nascent nuclear program. Sarkar writes that the guiding philosophy underlying India’s nuclear program was “freedom of action”. India’s leaders were determined to avoid post-colonial control and restrictions imposed by the great powers.
Sarkar notes that India’s nuclear program expanded in the wake of US President Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” speech which urged countries to cooperate in peacetime uses of nuclear energy. Eisenhower’s speech coincided with a United Nations Conference on the peaceful uses of atomic energy and the Bandung conference where “Nehru had emerged as one of the leaders of the non-aligned nations of Africa and Asia.” Between 1953 and 1962, Sarkar notes, the nuclear marketplace opened for business and India took advantage of loosening national and international restrictions on nuclear technology and products.
But the real driving force for India’s expanded nuclear program was geopolitics, especially the growing rivalries between India and Pakistan and India and China. Two years after the Sino-Indian War of 1962, China conducted its first successful nuclear explosion. And India and Pakistan clashed in 1965, and Pakistan’s leader suggested that “If India builds the bomb … we will get one of our own.” Sarkar notes that “India’s nuclear program expanded in response to China’s nuclear weapons program,” and India sought to exploit the US-Soviet rivalry to acquire the technology and know-how to conduct their own nuclear explosion. And they did this by taking advantage of what Sarkar notes the US administration at the time called the “plowshare loophole”—India’s development of nuclear weapons “under the guise of … [a] program for civilian uses.” It was mainly, therefore, “geopolitical insecurities” that propelled India’s nuclear weapons program.
And to preserve India’s “freedom of action”, India’s leaders refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which they knew would not restrain China or Pakistan. That “freedom of action” in the context of the geopolitical events of the early 1970s that Sarkar calls “tectonic shifts” in the global political order—Nixon’s opening to China, US-Soviet detente, the Indo-Pakistan War of 1971, the OPEC price hike and subsequent oil crisis—led India under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to conduct India’s first nuclear explosion in 1974.
India’s first nuclear explosion occurred in Pokhran on 18 May 1974 and had an explosive yield estimated to be equivalent to the Hiroshima atomic bomb. Sarkar notes that at the time of the explosion Gandhi was at the height of her popularity. But in the aftermath of the explosion and the annexation by India of Sikkum, Gandhi in the face of allegations of electoral misconduct declared a national emergency to “quell political dissent, suppress freedom of the press, and upend the fundamental rights of citizens.” Sarkar characterizes Gandhi’s actions as the creation of a “constitutional autocracy with ‘shadow powers and shadow laws.’” And India began to side with the Soviet Union in the Cold War.
In 1998, seven years after the Cold War ended, India conducted a second set of nuclear explosions. Meanwhile, China’s rise and its deepening ties with Pakistan caused India’s leaders to move closer to the United States in the Indo-Pacific’s geopolitical competition. Sarkar notes that “nuclear deterrence in South Asia balances on a knife’s edge,” and the regional rivalries and the “ongoing nuclear arms race in South Asia raise concerns for the region’s geopolitical stability.”
Sarkar concludes that India’s ongoing nuclear program remains deliberately clouded in ambiguity to maintain its leaders “freedom of action” and to stifle democratic dissent. “Ploughshares and swords,” she writes, “thus, sustain an antidemocratic culture in the largest democracy in the world in the name of freedom.”