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Strategic Ambiguity, Origins of India’s Nuclear Program  by Cauvery Ganapathy

The preamble to India’s Atomic Energy Act, 1962, No.33 qualifies the document as “an act to provide for the development, control and use of atomic energy for the welfare of the people of India and for other peaceful purposes and for matters connected with other peaceful purposes and for matters connected therewith”. No clarification was made on what those matters connected with other ‘peaceful purposes’ might be. It has been contended by several scholarly studies on the subject that this arrangement effectively introduced sufficient ambiguity into India’s nuclear program.  The father of India’s nuclear program Dr. Homi J. Bhabha had contended that if India were to truly industrialize and come to par with the other industrialized nations, then every option open to them – including the nuclear – must be cultivated by the country. Nehru had voiced the same opinion and had supported the cause to help India’s desire of industrialization and development. However, the secrecy that the Atomic Energy Act induced into the field, begets a relook at the stated objectives to consider if the nuclear option had a deterrence component from its very inception.

The wisdom and, more importantly, the need for this ambiguity has often been questioned primarily because from the very outset, the avowed purpose of considering nu-clear energy in post-independence India was for only civilian matters of electricity generation. The express support extended by Pandit Nehru to the nuclear program undertaken by Dr. Bhabha, mandated the caveat of the nuclear option being employed purely for peaceful purposes. The very nature of the nuclear industry commonly requires that a certain degree of information being restricted. So any calls for the same in the Atomic Energy Act, should not normally have excited such great debate. Yet, it did. Enquiring into the reasons for this debate would adequately inform an understanding of the origins of the nuclear endeavour in India.

From the very beginning, Nehru had been managing a difficult tightrope between his own international calls of non-proliferation with the birth of India’s nuclear program. It was only very rare instances that saw Nehru even willing to discuss the bomb. In fact, if the documented instances were to be considered, one would be hard-pressed to come up with more than three or four- and even those were in answer to specific queries. Nuclear energy held a different attraction for much of the nation led by Nehru — it promised a satiating of energy needs that would only increase thereon. Given that peaceful objective, questions were raised by this call for the attendant secrecy and ambiguity.

Bhabha insisted on this ambiguity and Nehru validated the requirement by arguing that it was “necessary to protect Indian materials and “know-how” from exploitation by the industrialized countries and to assure the United States and United Kingdom that if they cooperate with India in this field, their secrets would be protected.” While making the Commission directly answerable only to the Prime Minister, the Act also brought the domestically available resources of thorium and uranium under Government control.

The argument of protecting India’s know-how does not really commend itself, simply because at the time, India’s nascent nuclear industry was reaping the benefits of years of research conducted by foreign scholars. In fact, one of the conditions Bhabha suggested in his 1948 note called ‘Organization of Atomic Research in India’, was permission to continue negotiations with Britain, France, and Norway under complete secrecy. These negotiations were sustained attempts to gain technical know-how and assistance from foreign countries. In fact, so stringent was the secrecy clause that even the British Atomic Energy Act, considered to be the model for the Indian Act, paled in comparison with its own reservations on transparency. 

The structure and terms of independent India’s first Atomic Energy Commission were just as Bhabha had deemed necessary. The small membership was with the expectation of being effective, and the accountability only to the PM was with a view to eliminate the tediousness of being subjected to scrutiny at every step. The proclaimed reason, though, was to maintain secrecy in India’s nuclear program. However, a dis-passionate scrutiny would perhaps indicate that the means to the end and even, the purported reasons for the endeavour have been shrouded in ambiguity- not always necessary, but of strategic compulsion always.

Also, the contention that the secrecy was required to protect the Indian reserves of thorium and uranium may be questioned. India’s sovereignty at the time of the Act rendered nearly impossible the chances of her domestic resources being claimed without her consent. In fact, even before Independence, in August 1945, the Dewan of Travancore, C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer had declared a ban on the export of monazite from Travancore, which yielded thorium upon processing. Again, in 1946, in answer to the proposals of the Baruch Plan at the General Assembly, India through the person of Vijayalakshmi Pandit made it amply clear that it was against any international claim to the Indian reserves of fissile ores. When so much had been done as a country not yet in full grasp of its sovereignty, it would perhaps be ill-founded to suggest that the secrecy about the availability of those same resources, domestically, was needed to protect them from external claim.

Untitled-2cFinally, Bhabha’s insistence, through all the foreign aid and assistance to the Indian nuclear enterprise, to disallow safeguards or verification in any form, perhaps elucidates the true objectives of the endeavour. In his multiple capacities as heading the EC, TIFR, Atomic energy Establishment at Trombay, Director of Rare Earths Limited and secretary of the new department of Atomic Energy, Bhabha personally deter-mined India’s approach to the safeguards issue. Bhabha’s formulation of the Three Phase Nuclear Fuel Cycle in 1954 to “tap the power of the atom” brought forth the

intention to produce both, “power and plutonium”. India’s reserves of fissile ore were limited. Especially, uranium. Thorium was in abundant supply; but for it to be usable as fuel for reactors, plutonium had to be obtained from the reprocessing of the nuclear waste from the first stage. If India were to sustain its nuclear industry forever, it could not possibly be dependent on a foreign supply of uranium. The leap of logic that was put forward was that the imposition of safeguards would impede plutonium acquisition. Hence, safeguards were not considered acceptable.

In fact, the secrecy clause also invited dissent from some of Bhabha’s luminous contemporaries. Dr. Meghnad Saha, Dr. C. V. Raman and D. D. Kosambi voiced concern over this insistence on secrecy in something as vital as the country’s nuclear energy industry. Although, many have suggested a clash of interests and competition between Bhabha and his contemporaries, the truth probably lies in a very real concern that the latter harboured; human experience has often borne testimony to the spread of technology being more rapid than the capacity to analyze and control its implications. So their concern, in truth, was the fear that the shroud of secrecy would perhaps negate the necessary checks and balances that an industry of such nature required.

Dr. Bhabha’s plan to make use of the limited uranium resources to take India into the technological comfort zone of generating nuclear power from a combination of thorium and plutonium, was no doubt a gift of his genius to India’s future development. The catch, however, is in the nature of Plutonium. Separated plutonium is an essential raw material for the building of nuclear weapons. Worth considering here perhaps, is the case of the Japanese Nuclear industry. The absence of sufficient uranium has made it necessary for Japan also to separate plutonium from spent fuel to sustain the nuclear industry. However, as the only nation in the world to have borne the tragedy of nuclear attack, on principle, the Japanese nation since 1956, under the Basic Atomic Energy Law, limits nuclear research, development and utilization to peaceful uses. The “Three non-nuclear principles” forbidding the nation to possess or manufacture or allowing nuclear weapons to be introduced into the nation, have incidentally, since 1956, been Japanese State policy.

There is a basic merit in a nation bearing formidable arms. Possessing nuclear weapons does not make imperative its use. What it very ably does, is provide a potent deterrence. For a nation emerging from nearly 200 years of colonial domination, there is an understandable need to fortify its defense. The need to preserve territorial integrity even if by force, was a lesson the subcontinent had learnt most belatedly. However, this understanding should not be interpreted as an advocacy for the use nuclear weapons per se. The intent is to support the cause of a credible deterrence, which is perhaps what formed one of the fundamentals of India’s nuclear enterprise, thereby introducing the need for strategic ambiguity.


Cauvery Ganapathy is a research analyst in the fields of International Relations and Strategic Studies. As a Fellow at Global India Foundation, she has also been the Foundation’s Program-Outreach Coordinator focussing on CSR mandates. She has focussed successfully on research clusters spanning a wide gamut of concerns and themes – such as, Oil Politics, Nuclear Proliferation and Security, China, Eurasia and Iran. Having worked on a monograph on ‘The Nuclear Enterprise in India: Promises and Pitfalls’, as an intern at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore, Cauvery has honed her understanding of the strategic milieu in Asia during a stint at the School of Politics and International Studies (POLIS), University of Cambridge as Visiting Research Fellow. She is currently engaged as a Research Assistant on a project being conducted for the Office of Net Assessment and the Department of Defense, US. A Fulbright Doctoral Fellow from the University of California, Berkeley, and awaiting the final submission of her thesis at Jadavpur University on the Politics of Energy Security, her area of specialization has been Energy Security, in which she has presented and published research at several national and international forums. She is currently based in the UAE.

© Cauvery Ganapathy


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