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Sarabhais vision

Print edition : Nov 02, 2007 T+T-

A useful addition to the literature on Indias nuclear programme.

GOVERNMENTS lay down policies, but their implementation depends a lot on the personality and outlook of officials who, in turn, influence policymaking. Jawaharlal Nehrus world-view was not shared by the first Secretary-General of the Ministry of External Affairs, Sir Girja Shankar Bajpai, though he loyally carried out the Prime Ministers wishes. India was fortunate in having at the head of the nuclear establishment in its formative years men of high stature: Homi J. Bhabha, Vikram A. Sarabhai and Homi N. Sethna.

Amrita Shah, a journalist of note, demonstrates that one does not have to be a specialist in the nuclear field to write an excellently insightful biography of a man of enormous creativity and versatility, who was denigrated unjustly for his grave reservations about Indias move towards nuclear weaponisation. Public disavowals notwithstanding, the move was begun by none other than Nehru. He loathed destruction but realised the need for nuclear power, in the military realm no less than in the civilian.

Sarabhai was a sensitive soul who saw it coming. He pleaded with the West to be fair to India, ardently and persuasively. It is unfair to judge him by the developments after his premature death in 1971. He might well have gone for a peaceful nuclear explosion as enthusiastically as his successor and critic, Homi Sethna, did in 1974.

In 1967, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi sent Sarabhai and her envoy L.K. Jha on a mission to Washington and Moscow in quest of a guarantee against a nuclear attack (Frontline, June 22, 2001). What Sarabhai told the U.S. Defence Secretary, Robert McNamara, on April 18, 1967, came straight from his heart. The minutes record: The Indian purpose in these Washington talks is to point out the need for security assurances. The present Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is not saleable in India, but he hoped the Indian recalcitrance would not be the same as hiding a secret desire to build a bomb. The Secretary said he accepted that Indian statement; the difficulty is that people dont see their own self-interest. Dr. Sarabhai said that the developing international nuclear situation possesses the characteristics of a Greek tragedy in which the actors are drawn inexorably to fates which they are seeking to avoid.

Amrita Shahs interest was aroused by Arvind Singhal and Everett M. Rogers book Indias Information Revolution (1989), which was dedicated to the memory of Sarabhai who saw a revolution coming, and helped to make it happen. It mentioned the institutions he had established the Indian Space Research Organisation, the Physical Research Laboratory, the operations Research Group, the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and the National Institute of design.

This is an independent, not commissioned, work. It was executed despite paucity of archival material in a country obsessed with official secrecy. Undaunted, the author worked hard and she grapples ably with her subjects complex personality, his varied interests, philosophical inclination and moral ambiguities. Her insights are matched by a lively style. The familys influence, the early years of a fascinating career and the subjects interaction with colleagues, friendly or critical, are well described, at places with more than a touch of impish humour. In todays context, interest in the book will naturally focus on his stand on the nuclear programme.

Sarabhais early reservations were based on his doubts about the infrastructure, the international climate and such factors. The reaction to Pokhran I and its consequences proved him right. Indira Gandhi ordered it for domestic gains, as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) did in 1998.

Two nuggets from the book bear recording here. Early in 1964, K. Subrahmanyam, then Director of the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses, met Sarabhai and enquired of a move to procure a contract to develop the phased array radar, an instrument for detecting invading missiles. If you are not keen on this sort of militarisation, then why is BARC vying for this contract? he asked. Sarahbai gave an answer which Subrahmanyam recalls vividly: Who am I to shut off all these options for future generations? I am only saying at present I am not for the bomb. The author adds: Sethna is of the opinion that Vikram changed his stand on nuclear weapons, turning more pro than anti, after the failure of his mission with L.K. Jha to convince the superpowers of his alternative approach to the issue of non-proliferation.

The idea of a guarantee is hare-brained enough to make one wonder whether it was sincere or a game to expose the U.S. and the Soviet Union before going ahead with the scheme. Archival disclosures reveal the starkly realistic to be a critic of the enterprise. The results vindicated him. The book is a useful addition to the literature on the history of Indias nuclear programme.