Murali N. Krishnaswamy
The Hindu Archives Indira Gandhi at Pokhran, nuclear test site.
A year before India conducted its first nuclear test in 1974, a Bombay-based scientific representative of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission was quite certain it would do so ‘in the not too distant future.’ Concurring with his assessment, a senior U.S. diplomat felt Prime Minister Indira Gandhi would take the step to offset public disenchantment with her government and the country’s growing economic troubles.
The American scientist’s suspicions grew, according to a U.S. diplomatic cable obtained by WikiLeaks, when the Indian nuclear establishment shut its doors on him, afraid that he was being used by the U.S. government to spy on them and would find out too much.
It is generally thought that the world was taken by surprise when the ‘Buddha smiled’ in Pokhran on May 18, 1974. But the cable sent by the U.S. Consul General in Bombay on April 4, 1973, was quite certain that India was on the verge of testing a nuclear device.
“As aura of Indo-Pak victory and 1970/72 electoral successes dim and as public disenchantment with PM and GoI mount reflecting increased economic distress it occurs to us in Bombay that in addition usual scapegoats, ‘demonstration’ of a nuclear device for peaceful purposes in not too distant future,” the U.S. Consul-General in Bombay wrote in the cable (1973NEWDE03743_b, secret).
The main source for the assessment was the AEC representative, John Pinajian, who had shared his ‘personal evaluation’ of India’s nuclear position with the Consul General, based on his own observations at ‘various levels in India, broad extrapolations based on technical papers presented at Indian scientific meetings as well as impression gathered from public and personal comments made by member atomic energy community.’
Dr. Pinajian told the U.S. Consul General that it was “fully within the capabilities” of India to “demonstrate its nuclear capability by exploiting peaceful application of a nuclear device” in the “near future and indications available to this end suggest that GoI may be working to this end.”
Dr. Pinajian was also of the view that the Department of Atomic Energy was laying the groundwork for the export by India of “largely ingenous [sic] atomic reactors (200 MWe).”
His impressions, Dr. Pinajian told the diplomat, were based on several things. Although he had “excellent credentials and contacts dating back to Oak Ridge” (the Tennessee city where some U.S. nuclear research facilities are located), he was being rebuffed by top scientists at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) and the Tata Institute for Fundamental Research (TIFR).
Despite an agreement with AEC India that the USAEC was making Dr. Pinajian “available as an expert,” and a suggestion by Dr. Homi Sethna, then AEC India chairman, that the scientist should ‘immediately’ go to work at BARC, Dr. Raja Ramanna, the head of BARC avoided meeting him until Dr. Sethna personally intervened to get him the appointment.
But the meeting was fruitless for the American scientist, as the BARC chief said it would be ‘impractical’ for him to work in the particular division he wanted to be in, as that would require permission from the Centre.