Updated: February 12, 2022 10:25:26 pm
Five episodes into the web series Rocket Boys, depicting the lives of scientists Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai, one comes across a most intriguing chapter in the story of India’s atomic revolution. Then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru is shown seated across from the last ruling Maharaja of Travancore, Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma, discussing India’s access to the southern state’s monazite reserves. The Maharaja makes clear that he is not obliged to follow Nehru’s instructions since Travancore is not part of the country.
Homi Bhabha played by Jim Sarbh is standing beside Nehru listening to the conversation. As Nehru leaves the room briefly, Bhabha takes over the exchange with Varma, explaining to him that access to monazite was crucial for the energy needs of Independent India. The scene takes a rather dramatic turn as Bhabha is shown to threaten the Maharaja about the repercussions of disclosing to the public the profits made by the former through the illegal export of monazite to the United Kingdom.
Immediately afterwards, Travancore is shown to have relented and the Atomic Energy Commission is formed. Bhabha is made its first chair on account of his ability to convince the Travancore Maharaja to hand over the state’s monazite reserves.
The surviving family of the Travancore princely state has accused the series of showing the last king of the state in poor light. Historians too believe that the scene is highly dramatised. No such meeting took place between the Maharaja, Nehru and Bhabha as per available evidence. Moreover, unlike what the series would have us believe, Travancore did not remain independent after August 1947. Although it was the first princely state to declare its intention to remain independent, Travancore had acceded to the union on July 30, 1947.
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Rocket Boys’ director Abhay Pannu agrees that the way the scene has been shot is not how things had unfolded. “This was the larger canvas and we painted within it. The events and conversations were dramatised,” says Pannu.
However, the narrative as presented by the makers of Rocket Boys does shed light on the lesser-known story of Travancore’s Thorium reserves and its bid for independence. It is also true that Nehru along with top scientists from the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), particularly its first director-general Shanti Swaroop Bhatnagar, along with Bhabha did have to negotiate and convince the Travancore state to hand over access to its monazite reserves.
“The scene helped in showing the challenges faced by the protagonist Homi Bhabha to get what he wanted. It was representative of the multiple challenges these people must have faced while they delivered on their dream of independent energy reserves for the country,” says Pannu.
Travancore’s monazite resources and the state’s bid for independence
Monazite is a phosphate compound composed of several rare earth elements. Among these elements found in monazite is Thorium, which is radioactive and thus has the potential to produce energy that can be used to fuel a nuclear chain reaction. Huge concentrations of monazite beach sands in Travancore were first discovered in 1908-09 by a German chemist, C W Shomberg.
The value of Travancore’s monazite reserves was first realised in the early decades of the 20th century when it was put to industrial use to produce gas mantles, a form of incandescent lighting based on chemical power. The British government controlled the supply of raw monazite to lighting companies all over Western Europe and North America. By the middle of the 20th century and with the onset of the Atomic Age during the Second World War, the value attached to Thorium underwent a transformation. That is when it came to be realised as a potential nuclear fuel.
The 1940s were also the decade when the Independence movement in India was reaching its culmination. The fate of the 500-odd princely states was an issue that was of prime concern at this point. The possibility of independence of these states was ruled out, both by the Congress leadership and the last British Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten. The states had to choose between acceding to India or Pakistan. A new states department was set up with Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and V P Menon being given the responsibility to cajole and convince the states to join India. While most agreed, some states like Hyderabad, Kashmir and Travancore held out, finding the moment a most opportune one to declare political independence.
Among the officials in the princely states, it was C P Ramaswamy Aiyar, the Dewan of Travancore, who was most vocal in bidding for the state’s independence. A brilliant and ambitious lawyer, Aiyer had complete disdain for the Congress leadership. “It was commonly believed that he was the real ruler of the state, whose maharaja and maharani were like putty in his hands,” writes historian Ramachandra Guha in his book, India after Gandhi (2007).
As early as February 1946, Aiyer had made clear Travancore’s ambition to be a ‘perfectly independent unit’, as it had been before 1795 when the state signed the treaty of paramountcy with the British. He made the argument, over and again, that Travancore’s strategic location with undisrupted access to the sea and its unique economic condition, allowed it a viable independent existence. As noted by historian Itty Abraham in his article, Rare Earths: The Cold War in the Annals of Travancore (2011), “Travancore’s economic resources, especially its valuable export commodities (including tea, rubber and coffee), allowed a favourable comparison with other similar countries. Belgium and Thailand, both small but independent constitutional monarchies, were his favourite examples. Then why not Travancore?”
It seems that Travancore’s bid for independence was welcomed by Muhammad Ali Jinnah. On June 20, 1947, he sent Aiyer a wire indicating that Pakistan was “ready to establish a relationship with Travancore which will be of mutual advantage.” Further, the same month, the government of Travancore announced the appointment of Khan Bahadur Abdul Karim Sahib, as the representative of Travancore to the Dominion of Pakistan, to take office after the lapse of British paramountcy. The Congress leadership reacted harshly to the development. As Abraham points out, Nehru sent a furious letter to the Viceroy. Aiyer was warned that “Travancore would be starved out,” and that there would be economic reprisals leading to the elimination of independence in three months.
Aiyer responded by making negotiations with Pakistan, Burma and Siam for the purchase of food grains. America and Britain, on the other hand, were approached for the purchase of textiles, since the mills of Ahmedabad and Bombay refused to make sales to Travancore at the behest of the Congress.
Amidst all of this, there was a crucial role that the state’s Thorium reserves were to play. One of the many ramifications of the Cold War that had started out at this time was the American desire to maintain its military dominance over the world through a monopoly over atomic expertise and materials. “The US was engaged in a furious effort to control all sources of nuclear fuel worldwide, either by outright purchase or by seeking a veto over sales to third parties,” writes Abraham in his article, Rare Earths.
An independent Travancore was important to America in that regard. Although no official correspondence was made on the issue, US diplomats soon found covert ways to begin direct talks with the Dewan of Travancore. At the same time, there were secret negotiations that the Dewan had with the British.
India’s atomic ambitions and Travancore
As the uses and misuses of atomic energy were revealed to the world following the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the Second World War, India too realised that it must not be left behind in the global race for nuclear power. Bhabha’s work was instrumental in this regard and even before the dawn of Independence, he had drawn Nehru’s attention to the uses of atomic energy in an Independent India.
Initially, Bhabha had focused his attention on the country’s meagre uranium reserves for extracting nuclear power. But once the use of Thorium in this regard became known to the world, he shifted his attention to the southern Indian princely state.
The Dewan of Travancore was aware of the atomic potential in the state’s monazite resources. Only days after Nagasaki he wrote to the Maharaja: “If Thorium can be utilised for the manufacture of atomic bombs (there is no reason why it should not be), Travancore will enjoy a position very high in the world (as quoted in Abraham’s work).”
Meanwhile, in April 1946, the newly-established Board of Atomic Energy Research of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) announced that they would soon begin “intensive geological and physico-chemical surveys of” the Travancore Thorium deposits. This drew a sharp response from Aiyer who made it clear that Travancore was the sole owner of the Thorium deposits and would not allow its control to any outside agency including the British government. “Travancore was using its thorium reserves to increase its leverage by pitting India against foreign powers — hoping to join the Union of India on its own terms, in other words, which may well have included retaining the Maharaja as titular head of the state,” Abraham explains to indianexpress.com.
Further, the Dewan announced in the Legislative Assembly that a ban had been placed on the export of monazite from Travancore and that any decision with regard to it will be taken in close consultation with the Indian government. This was in fact false, since by early 1947 Travancore had already concluded secret negotiations with the British government to export 9000 tonnes of monazite over the next three years.
Rumours of this arrangement, however, had reached Nehru. In ‘Princestan: How Nehru, Patel and Mountbatten made India’ (2020), journalist Sandeep Bamzai says his grandfather K N Bamzai, who was chief of bureau of Bombay-based news weekly Blitz, had scooped the story of the deal going down. “He went to Nehru with the story, who asked him to hold on to it for the moment,” says Bamzai, adding: “In January 1947 at the Indian Science Congress, Nehru outed the information and used it to trash Travancore for trying to stay out of the ambit of India.” The same morning Blitz carried the story.
In April 1947, while speaking to the Indian Cabinet, Nehru is reported to have said that he would “approve the use of airpower against Travancore if necessary to bring them to heel.” The full nature of negotiations with the British and their implications, however, was yet to be understood by Nehru. He was in doubt that the government of India must be involved in all dealings with foreign parties with regard to the country’s mineral resources.
In early June 1947, Nehru sent the head of CSIR, Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar, along with Bhabha to Travancore to acquire information on the nature of the agreement between the state and the British. Surprisingly, soon after their visit, Aiyer yielded and the [Travancore-India] joint committee on Atomic Energy was announced. Of the nine members in the committee, six would be appointed by the CSIR and three by Travancore. A press note that followed soon after made clear, “the public may rest assured that the atomic energy resources of India will not be frittered away or go to waste.” The note thanked Aiyer for his cooperation in the matter and stated that the negotiations carried out by Bhatnagar and Bhabha resulted in these arrangements.
The whole furore over Travancore’s decision to export Thorium made Bhabha realise the need for exclusivity on the mineral resource. He convinced Nehru to make Thorium a national asset that could be used to obtain foreign technologies and expert assistance.
Abraham writes that soon after Independence, Bhabha wrote to Nehru, “The development of atomic energy should be entrusted to a very small and high-powered body composed of say three people with executive power, and answerable directly to the Prime Minister without any intervening link.” Thereafter, in 1948, the Indian Atomic Energy Commission was created with Bhabha as its first chairman. “Thorium and all atomic minerals were now legally under the control of the new state, and Bhabha was in charge,” notes Abraham.
The Dewan, however, still did not give up on his ambitions for independence. On July 21, 1947, in a two-hour-long meeting with Mountbatten in Delhi, Aiyer launched an excoriating attack on Gandhi, Nehru and the Congress. “The viceroy let him go and sent V P Menon to work on him,” writes Guha. “Menon urged him to sign the Instrument of Accession, but the dewan said he would prefer to sign a treaty with India instead.”
Itty Abraham, Rare Earths: The Cold War in the Annals of Travancore in ‘Entangled Geographies: Empire and Technopolitics in the Global Cold War’, Gabrielle Hecht (ed.), MIT Press, 2011
Sandeep Bamzai, Princestan: How Nehru, Patel and Mountbatten made India, Rupa Publications, 2020
Ramachandra Guha, India After Gandhi, Pan Macmillan, 2007
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