Atomic State (Big Science in Twentieth-Century India)

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Item Code: NAF816
Author: Jahnavi Phalkey
Publisher: Permanent Black
Language: English
Edition: 2013
ISBN: 9788178243764
Pages: 352 (7 B/W Illustrations)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 9.0 inch X 5.5 inch
Weight 450 gm
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“Is there an Indian way of doing science? All too often, the answer to this question has raised the possibility of alternative scientific worldviews. Phalkey’s outstanding study shows that the answer must vary according to the viability of alternative practices among scientists working in a particular discipline. Unlike their colleagues in medicine or the social sciences, Indian physicists have fully claimed as their own the universal practices of doing physics. And like big science everywhere, nuclear physics could only be done with state support. Phalkey shows with meticulous care the political desires that brought together the practices of scientific knowledge production and the priorities of state leaders. A valuable addition to the growing literature on the history of independent India.”


About The Book

In 1974 India conducted what it called “peaceful nuclear tests.” These demonstrated that the country possessed the technology required to make atom bombs. In historical accounts, this explosive achievement has come to be seen as the culmination of a state’s efforts at capacity building and self-reliance through “big science.”

Questioning the received wisdom, Jahnavi Phalkey provides a fascinatingly different history. Mining new data from personal and institutional archives, she contradicts persistent nationalist notions about early atomic science in India as the starting point of bombs. She shows that the emergence of the country’s nuclear science infrastructure was in fact tenuous, contradictory, and rich in faction fights which frequently determined outcomes and directions.

Phalkey traces the academic roots of India’s nuclear research to universities, industrial philanthropy, leading scientists, and laboratories: C. V. Raman, Meghnad Saha, Homi Bhabha, Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar, an Jawaharlal Nehru are among her book’s major protagonists; and Calcutta, Bombay, and Bangalore the institutional centres. Big science in India is located via three transitions: of nuclear physics from table-top experiments to electronic equipment systems; of India from imperial rule to independence; and of international relations from imperialism to the Cold War.

A brilliant contribution to its field, this book makes us rethink the place of science in India’s history, as well as the frameworks deployed for writing contemporary history.


About The Author

JAHNAVI PHALKEY is Lecturer in History of Science and Technology at the King’s India Institute, King’s College London.

“Jahnavi Phalkey has written a closely argued work which shows the tensions inherent even within Indian nationalism on the matter of science. The book is empirically rich, using hitherto unseen private archives. Beyond this empirical richness, it is located squarely within an argumentative tradition of linking science and political economy, but also a tradition where science is never simply reduced to politics. Its fluent style and accessible character mean that this book can be read not just by historians of science but by all those who are curious about the many paradoxes of South Asian state-building and modernity.”

“By examining the emergence of nuclear physics in India between the late 1930s and mid-1950s, Phalkey unravels a complex story of competing individuals and rival institutions. She shows in lucid detail how a crucial branch of theoretical and applied science struggled, across the colonial divide, to function and find support …An original, intelligent, and timely book, Atomic State will help provoke a radical reassessment of what science in twentieth-century India was for and who were its beneficiaries.”



Jahnavi Phalkey's remarkable book is the first properly historical account of the complicated relations between science and the state in modern India. It closely studies relations between individual scientists and political leaders, and between scientific administrators and state bureaucrats, who, between themselves, built the structures of scientific research and policy in the country. Unlike some other scholars, Phalkey abjures ideological leg-shaking in favour of a meticulous reconstruction of the multiple contexts, national and international, that shaped the choices of the historical actors who set India on the path to developing its capacities, unique for a once-colonized state, in the specialized, high-prestige field of nuclear science.

Nuclear science, or, less anachronistically, atomic science, has ever since August 1945 come to be inextricably associated with weaponry and hence with destruction. But for most of the earlier part of the century nuclear science represented a quest for the purest form of knowledge, a pursuit at the frontiers of human knowledge for capacities that could benefit all societies. For Indian scientists in the imperial period, nuclear physics represented a purity still further distilled-since, unlike most of the other sciences in the purview of the imperial Raj, nuclear physics could not be put to work in the service of the Raj. Much of Phalkey's account is focused on these early and middle decades of the twentieth century, when a number of exceptionally talented Indian minds, in different parts of the country, embarked on audacious projects to create nuclear laboratories and advanced research facilities: Meghnad 5aha in Calcutta, C.V. Raman in Bangalore, Homi Bhabha in Bombay, S.S. Bhatnagar in Delhi and across the country. Each shared a conviction that conditions had to be created within India to enable leading-edge nuclear physics research; none of them emigrated to the West to pursue their work. Yet the careers of each followed quite different trajectories, determined as much by their capacity to find political and financial patrons as by their intellectual abilities, as also by their intrepidness in negotiating the common historical landscape in which they all lived.

Phalkey goes on to trace how this initial, multiply decentred landscape of nuclear inquiry came, as a result of historical events as well as through contingencies of individual personality, to be concentrated in laboratories and facilities lodged at the heart of the Indian state. Crucial to this process was the figure of Jawaharlal Nehru, who defined India's science policy through an unnerving combination of imperiousness and laissez-faire. This is not the place to rehearse that story, told so well in the pages that follow. But it is important to insist, as Phalkey does in her account, that this was not a necessitarian story, impelled by the historical agency of abstract forces, malign or emancipatory according to one's preferred point of view. With considerable subtlety and nuance, Phalkey restores, to the individual projects she reconstructs, their autonomy. Thus, she desists from locating these variously motivated ventures in a singular plot whose climax is India's acquisition of nuclear weapons.

Several other features of her study should in particular draw our attention. While focused on the creation of a national scientific establishment, Phalkey is resolutely transnational in her approach-she shows first how imperial scientific networks and then Cold War imperatives at once constrained but also yielded opportunities for Indian scientists. By locating an important dimension of Indian state formation in this wider international context, her work challenges the habitual tendency to see state formation largely as the outcome of domestic processes. Second, her work erases the standard separation between the history of science and international and diplomatic history, between science policy and foreign policy, and invites us to connect the two in productive ways. Third, Phalkey subverts the conventional chronology of nuclear science research in India, and forces us to attend more carefully to institutional history and turning points which defined the scope and character of the Science that came to be done in India.

The embrace of science has been fundamental to the self-understanding of the contemporary Indian state. Unfortunately, the history of science in twentieth-century India has been dominated by ideological posturing about the ills of Reason, of State Power, and of the Nation-all too often in the name of the good or victimized Subaltern. Jahnavi Phalkey's research opens up the field in new ways, and ask us to think afresh about the place of science in India's history, and about how recovering that place might lead us to think differently about contemporary Indian history. She matches the archival instincts of the historian with a real understanding of (and enthusiasm for) the actual science, and frames both through a set of important historiographical and conceptual questions. Those questions concern the formation of the state in India; the shift from an idiosyncratic world of privately funded and university-based research to the creation of "big science" in twentieth-century India; the creation of a national architecture of research institutions, pursuing goals set as much by the state as by the imperatives of the scientific fields themselves, by what Phalkey describes as "the primacy of politics over nuclear physics" which came to characterize nuclear research in free India. They concern politics, patronage, and science policy.

Atomic State: Big Science in Twentieth-Century India skilfully places the history of advanced scientific research in India outside the usual frames-national, post-colonial, sociological-that have constrained It. At the same time, It manages to integrate this history more adequately into India's own history, and to open a challenge to the dominant narratives of big science, defined as those are by the historical experience of the West.



The "Peaceful Nuclear Explosions" (PNEs) carried out at Pokharan, Rajasthan, in May 1974 announced India's claim to the ranks of the five nuclear powers. Less than twenty-five years after the formal end of imperial rule, India had created a nuclear research infrastructure capable of supporting a nuclear programme. It was the first developing country to manage this.

Following the use of atomic bombs at the end of the Second World War (henceforth WWII), it was impossible not to connect nuclear research with global power and weaponry. Unlike the United Kingdom or the USSR, the realization for India of a nuclear programme was a remote possibility for the country's interim political government. There was the atomic bomb and there was wishful thinking. Which is why what many have thought of as an outstanding technological and scientific accomplishment has cast a rather long shadow on the history of physics-especially the practice of nuclear physics-in India in the twentieth century: the PNEs have imposed a teleological metanarrative within which the history of nuclear physics in India is embedded and written. This discursive arrangement by which the PNEs are positioned as an inevitable endpoint has, more than anything else, proved an obstacle to understanding what was in fact tenuous and contingent-the emergence of an infrastructure, as well as of the various alternatives that were considered at the time: all of which, in the first instance, made the PNEs imaginable and then possible.

A coincidence underpins this historical narrative. India became independent in 1947, two years after the first terrific demonstration of the power of the atom, both taking place within a particularly volatile international order. A self-aware community of physicists and scientist-statesmen found in this conjuncture-the arrival of the nuclear age and the departure of the British-a unique opportunity to promote their physics, their careers, and their country. In this book I have teased out the possible paths available to and considered by physics practitioners in India between the late 1930s and the 1950s.

The end of WWII coincided with accelerated plans for the transfer of power to India and the next three years saw contest, bitter struggle, disappointment, and perplexity. Neither the exact form of the new state, nor the shape of post-war nuclear research, was clear. It only seemed imperative that the scientific community in India find ways of continuing research and producing credible science amidst these shifting local and international political contexts. I have traced the gradual consolidation of these paths in contest and collaboration, and, within constraints, through the motivations and strategies of those desirous of establishing and extending nuclear physics as a research field. In doing so I have, like those I write about, crossed the boundary of 1947 which has tended to limit histories with a nationalist component. It also becomes increasingly clear in this history that the activities of physicists in India were not dominated by the desire to "build a bomb," certainly not at the outset and only tenuously for at least a decade after 1945. Only a retrospective reading of their decisions can make them appear crucial to the political decision of conducting the nuclear tests in 1974.

Let me briefly outline seven specific features within this history of nuclear physics as well as the book's organization. First, I have chosen to write about nuclear education and research-the academic roots of India's nuclear research-focusing on the role of universities, leadership, and laboratory activities pertaining to the building of particle accelerators, or "atom smashers" as they were then called. These projects were led by Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman and Rappal Sangameswara Krishnan at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore; by Meghnad Saha and Basanti Dulal Nagchoudhuri at the (Saha) Institute of Nuclear Physics, Calcutta; by Homi Jehangir Bhabha and D.Y. Phadke at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Bombay; and by Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). It would be fair to ask if this is a history of particle accelerators alone, or whether their trajectories are also meant to tell another story. While this narrative manages to weave in and out of the laboratory to show the meaningful implications of labs in larger contexts, the special nature of the apparatus nevertheless warrants a history with a specific focus on the equipment that lies at its core. This aspect of science in modern India cannot be told through narratives about dams and steel plants; equally, it cannot be told through those of reactor building, thorium mining, and plutonium processing.

In the period of my study, and in relation to the facilities I examine, the scale of the particle accelerators has to be kept firmly in mind. The equipment was far larger than any procured by physics departments before-in India and elsewhere; and it was still possible to argue for particle accelerators to exist within a university setting on account of their instructional value. In the 1930s and early 1940s this machinery was the equipment for basic research in nuclear physics, its roots and connections being still with the university laboratory. The end of the war saw many physicists, the world over, convinced that the apparatus would only get bigger, and so arguing the need to position particle accelerators in national laboratories instead. In fact, by the early 1950s the argument for state-of-the-art atom smashers to be located in university laboratories became increasingly impossible. This period is, therefore, a critical juncture in the history of experimental nuclear physics. It has specific implications for university laboratories, the nature of the discipline, and the changing relationship between science and politics. The peculiarities of this configuration suggest a history that cannot be told through a research technology other than the one in focus.

That brings me to the second aspect of the nuclear research technology examined in this book. Beginning in the early 1930s the focus in physics research had shifted towards the atomic nucleus, enabled in part by the feasibility of particle accelerators as large experimental apparatuses for smashing atoms. While a section of the community Continued and preferred to work with cosmic ray physics, by the late 1930s physicists from India, like their colleagues internationally, began to take an active interest in nuclear physics, the most "modern" branch of the subject. Continuing to work with cosmic ray physics instead of smashing atoms in the laboratory was one option; enrolment in the leading laboratories of Western Europe and North America was the other. But the four leading physicists that form the centre of this book were convinced of the imperative to create within India the facilities and capabilities required for international participation in nuclear physics research. With the use of atomic weapons at the end of the war and the approach of formal Indian independence, the nuclear imperative was recast in nation-statist terms. It became a choice increasingly buttressed by yet another constraint that I discussed before-that of the significantly altered nature and scale of nuclear research technologies.

India, like Europe and including Britain, framed the problem in similar terms when scientists and administrators began to pose the question in the mid-1940s. The choice between creating a centralized "top class" research facility with comprehensive provisions for time- and resource-intensive nuclear research, was necessarily weighed against continuing support for broad-ranging physics education and research in the university that was not overwhelmed by the changing nature and scale of nuclear research. Only the United States had the resources to invest in several university-based facilities for nuclear research: some of these had begun work before 1939, with their research activities intensifying during the war. By the early 1950s, even in the United States, the technology was only affordable and research feasible collaboratively, as evident in 1947 when a group of universities pooled their resources to establish the Brookhaven National Laboratory. The European answer was the establishment, in 1954, of the Conseil Europeen pour la Recherche Nucleaire (CERN)-the European Council for Nuclear Research.

A crucial third aspect of this book is its simultaneous negotiation of two registers: the political-administrative, and laboratory practice. On the one hand we have assessments of the place of nuclear research in imperial and free India and the attitudes of the country's first government led by Jawaharlal Nehru. How did they think about the future, and how did they present this elite scientific project to the larger constituency at home and abroad? On the other we have scientific practice in the laboratory-what it meant to build, or want to build, particle accelerators under circumstances of scarce funding, the unavailability of materials, inadequate training, and the denial of international nuclear knowledge-sharing. In negotiating these two dimensions I depart from mainstream scholarship on the history of science in India. By prioritizing scientific practice without losing sight of the place of science in the planning-more than imagining-of independent India, I try to shift the discussion away from stressing the role of the ideology and the "authority of science" towards the practice and material culture of science. To this end, I have stayed with the vocabulary of my historical actors, who preferred "imperial India" and "free or independent India" as descriptive terms to "colonial and post -colonial India." I have deviated from this vocabulary only when tackling the historiography.

By being the history of a rather small elite, my stories necessarily revolve around "a few great men." Given the Subaltern turn in history- writing, especially on the subcontinent, as well as critical revaluation of the "heroic lone genius" in the historiography of science, this approach may need a little justification. The sources available for my period reveal a rather small number of men involved with nuclear research in universities and national laboratories; in fact I came across only one woman nuclear physicist. At the end of WWII this was not unique to the Indian context at all. In most countries there were no established state organizations to take over the task of nuclear research on the unprecedented scale called for, and demanding highly specialized personnel. Individual physicists and their political patrons thus came to enjoy a large and significant role in the shaping of nuclear research in the post-war period. A study of thorium mining or plutonium processing may enable more inclusive histories, but my materials do not show me a world too far beyond scientific and political elites. I am consoled by the fact that there is now a renewal of sophisticated historical interest in the Indian princely states (especially Travancore).

Moreover, in the absence of institutional archives to study the nuclear programme in India, it is necessary that historians make full use of the archives that are available and accessible in order to comment on the larger question from different but relevant perspectives.

An important aspect of nuclear research, especially after WWII, was securing funding and political support. So the fifth aspect of this history is patrons and patronage. The Tata trusts and endowments were the main supporters of research in all three laboratories, directly in Calcutta and Bombay and indirectly in Bangalore, especially for the period before Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Subsequently too, these trusts continued to support nuclear research in Bombay, the centralized national facility in independent India. Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhoy (JRD) Tata of Tata House was also nominated to the Atomic Energy Research Board. With the arrival of state interest in the control and management of nuclear research, the most audible question relating to the period after WWII is about military involvement through funding, or through the creation of an interested research agenda. This is a remarkable particularity of the Indian nuclear establishment and extends to the university laboratory in this period. Itty Abraham uses the term "strategic enclave" to describe the complex of interests that surrounded Indian nuclear research. This enclave did not include the military as an organ of government, but the exclusion did not mean that nuclear research was divorced from its war-related potential. This manner of organizing nuclear research was actively argued for and presented during bur period by all the actors involved. Meghnad Saha, leading efforts to establish nuclear physics in Calcutta, does not appear to have pursued, or been successful in pursuing, funding from the Ministry of Defence-to which Daulat Singh Kothari, his student, was appointed Scientific Advisor in 1948.

This brings us to the sixth aspect of our story: the spectre of the atomic bomb. I began research on this book with the idea of recovering the academic roots and material prehistory of India's nuclear capability, and the impact of Hiroshima and Nagasaki upon these facilities. This history is increasingly relevant because historians, political scientists, and contemporary political regimes in India have suggested a somewhat longer history of nuclear weapons and a somewhat dwarfed history of nuclear physics-both beginning only in 1945. I show that the former cannot be convincingly dated before 1953 and the latter dates back to 1938. I have kept this contemporary turn in Indian history in mind while recovering the alternative paths that were considered, taken, and not taken. There is, however, no getting away from Hiroshima and Nagasaki: therefore no history of nuclear research after 1945 can escape association with warfare and aspirations to global power. Nuclear researchers in the post-war period could hardly claim innocence of the possible implications of their work, and the historian has no good reason for claiming such innocence either. This makes it all the more necessary to be cautious against the charge of teleology: the meanings one can attribute to research in 1938 or even in 1947 are not determined by 1974; the view that nuclear research was organized early on towards a weapons programme does not hold much water because the necessary scientific and technical interest, apparatus, skills, materials, political sovereignty, and political will had not consolidated into such a possibility. Even after Independence, the technology and its experts structured the horizons of possibility: the skills required for the peaceful and wartime use of nuclear technology were now mutually exchangeable but there was no critical mass of research manpower; nor was there a clear political decision. Only with the first reactor, in 1956, can one begin to re-examine the official narrative of the nuclear programme. I show what kind of nuclear research was under way in the approximately two decades before any sustainable claim about a nuclear programme could be made in the Indian case.

The relation of nuclear research with global power was obvious to political leaders and scientific statesmen alike, but exactly what could they do with their resources, and to what effect? What were the most attractive solutions that could be viably pursued in a newly-independent country with limited resources, scarce university laboratories, scarcer nuclear researchers, and a fragile position in world politics? This book shows earlier research agendas-including the training of students, contributions to medical physics, and the quest for the discovery of sub-atomic particles-proving significant in shaping the strategies, devices, and interests in nuclear research of the small but eminent physics community in India for at least a decade after Independence.

Finally, histories of nuclear research in India are necessarily transnational. This book is written "above national context in which the exchange of scientific and commercial information can be read as international, trans-national and between particular individuals and institutions and by a concern to explore the local nature and site of scientific knowledge:" The meanings and significance of nuclear research in India were never separate from their larger meanings globally. I do not deny the specific circumstances of the configuration in India-on the contrary I argue it-but my argument is necessarily tempered by the fact that physics laboratories on the subcontinent nurtured global ambitions and were networked with laboratories and people internationally as well as with each other. Their exchanges involved students, experts, and artifacts. The nation-state and the world system of nation-states constituted frames of reference that were gradually introduced in the context of scientific practice during this period, even as they remained deeply contentious players on the Indian subcontinent. I will show how this framing at the intersection of nation-state and international politics eventually transformed equipment, research agendas, and expertise in the three Indian laboratories.

The chapters in this book are organized chronologically. A thematic organization may have allowed for a synthetic narrative on the development of the nuclear field in India, but in compromising on the details of laboratory work and scientific practice the narrative would have more easily fed into dreaded teleology. In decentring "science" as well as India's "nuclear programme" I have instead explored a range of trajectories of men and machines that converge in and at the same time exceed their local context. The trajectory from global ambitions in the laboratory into the emerging nation-statist space thus relocates the context of their scientific practice from the very same site. The chapters therefore unfold locally and chronologically, but with the frequently unavoidable overlap. Two of the three histories were set in motion in 1938. The quest to establish nuclear physics at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc.), Bangalore, began in 1938 and was resolutely truncated in July 1947. Efforts at the University Science College, calcutta, also began in 1938 and building work on the cyclotron was effectively completed in 1954. Bombay was the last of the three to enter the field in 1944, and the particle accelerator building groups were more or less dissolved by 1959.

I realize that placing the history of the facility in Bombay as the last empirical chapter, even if chronologically justified, can have the effect of privileging the facility, thereby supporting the teleological bias of nuclear histories of India. However, by concentrating on the declining fortunes of particle accelerator builders in Bombay within the ambiguous mandate of the "centralized national facility" for nuclear research, I want to show the similarity of their reduced conditions with other builders, especially those in Calcutta. There was a moment when scientific practice, even in a privileged national laboratory, was subject to shifting political priorities.

In sum, this book is an account of political leaders, industrial leaders, science administrators, and physicists in India who were brought together in conflict and collaboration. These people shared a concern to establish institutions and extend nuclear research in India in acute awareness of, and in conjunction with, the world at large. By the end of the narrative I hope I will have shown how difficult and yet remarkable this moment was, even as its eventual political destination and implications remain deeply disturbing.




  Tables and Figures ix
  Series Editors' Preface xi
  Acknowledgements xv
  Introduction 1
1 At Home In The World 11
  The Not-so-Long History of Physics in India 12
  Nuclear Physics, State Formation, and Development in India 1945-1959 26
  The Organization of Nuclear Research in India 34
2 Give Science A Chance 52
  Science-based Industrialization at the Outbreak of War 52
  National Planning Committee 61
  On the Necessity of a Disjunction 64
  Archibald Vivian Hill 66
  Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark 72
  The Nuclear Question 76
  The Commonwealth of Science 79
  A New India 83
3 A Question Of National Importance 98
  C.V. Raman and Nuclear Physics 100
  "Mecca of Physis for the Empire" 101
  Nuclear Physics at the Cavendish 102
  Krishnan and Wartime Transformation of the Cavendish 105
  Raman and the Establishment of Nuclear Physics in Bangalore 108
  Homi J. Bhabha and Cosmic Ray Physics in Bangalore 109
  A Scheme for Power Production from Uranium Fission 112
  June 1945: Proposal for the Expansion of the Physics Department 116
  August 1945: Krishnan and the Atomic Bomb 118
  Early 1946: Call to Propose a High Voltage Generator 119
  September 1946: Sharing the High Voltage Engineering Department Generator 121
  January 1947: The Last Proposal 124
  January 1947: The Last Proposal 127
  Nip it in the Bud! 130
  Committee on the Question of a Nuclear Physics Laboratory 132
  September 1947: The Bhabha-Taylor Report 134
  Raman and Krishnan Respond 141
4 Not Only Smashing Atoms 161
  University Science College (USC), Calcutta 164
  Meghnad Saha and Nuclear Physics 165
  An Indian in Berkeley 168
  1940-1944: Beginnings of the Calcutta Cyclotron 170
  Nag Comes to Calcutta 177
  Organization of the Cyclotron Group 178
  Organization of Other Groups in the Palit Laboratory 180
  1944-1945: Saha as a Member of the Indian Scientific Mission 181
  1945-1950: Atomic Energy Research Committee and Board 183
  1947-1948: Towards in Atomic Energy Commission of India 186
  1946-1950: An Institute of Nuclear Physics 190
  Saha in Parliament 201
  A Working Cyclotron 205
5 The Importance Of Being Nuclear 229
  1944-1945: Bhabha Goes to Bombay 229
  1945-1946: The Founding of the TIFR 232
  1946-1947: A National Laboratory for the AECI 233
  Research at the TIFR 238
  1948-1949: The Atomic Energy Act of India 240
  1950: Elementary Particle Physics Meeting 249
  1951-1955: A Particle Accelerator Programme for the TIFR 250
  The Three Accelerator Groups 254
  1953: A Philips Cascade Generator 256
  1955: No Large Machine 257
  1955: An Indian Delegation to Atoms for Peace 261
  1955: Atoms for Peace 263
  The Crisis of 1959 266
  Conclusion 289
  Coda 299
  Note on Sources 304
  Select Bibliography 310
  Index 323
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