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Ploughshares and Swords: India’s Nuclear Quest

For those keen on learning how India’s nuclear and space programmes were nucleated and developed, there is a new book. “Ploughshares and Swords: India’s Nuclear Programme in the Global Cold War (2022)” by Jayita Sarkar published by Cornell University Press. An eBook version is available for free download at

Sarkar is at the University of Glasgow, where she founded the Global Decolonization Initiative. A historian by training, she brings the historical perspective essential to understand the global context of India’s quest for acquiring nuclear and space technologies.

Ploughshare has an advantage over other books on the same subject. Because of being written later, it could access new archival material got from the declassification of many primary sources in eight countries. This enabled Sarkar to access nearly twenty-five different depositories. Sarkar also consulted the digitized collections of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Times of India.

The Summary of the Book

Sarkar’s narrative is in four parts. Part one, “World War and Decolonization,” describes India’s advantageous situation when it became independent in 1947 of having an abundance of atomic minerals essential for atomic research, which elicited global interest. Monazite sands, the source of Thorium, were found in the kingdom of Travancore, which joined the Indian Union in 1947. Realizing the value of these resources, India sought both British and French buyers to invest in plant development and buy the processed material.

The Government of India set up the Atomic Energy Commission of India in 1948, reporting to the Prime Minister. AECI was assigned control over industries and raw materials essential for atomic energy. Monazite and beryllium were marked as priority raw materials, restricting their exports. Sarkar describes the close cooperation between France and India, in contrast to the U.S. and to a lesser extent the U.K. The French scientists and laboratories recognized the potential of India’s nascent nuclear program. India’s leadership also played off the US and the Communist bloc. Concluding the first section, Sarkar shows that the U.S. could not dictate terms to the Indian nuclear program but needed to support this growing activity.

The second part, “Cold and Hot Wars,” opens with President Eisenhower’s ‘Atoms for Peace’ speech that opened the global nuclear marketplace. India’s Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) signed agreements with the UK and Canada for the Apsara and CIRUS reactors. Critical to India’s nascent interest in nuclear weapons was the purchase of the designs for a Plutonium reprocessing plant from the Vitro Corporation in US. Sarkar describes how the DAE got the design of a fast neutron reactor called PURNIMA which was based on the Soviet Union’s IBR-30 reactor. PURNIMA would allow DAE physicists to figure out the behaviour of neutrons in the core of a nuclear weapon in the early stages of its explosion.

By 1950s, India possessed Asia’s only research reactor. Homi Bhabha had emerged as an icon for Indian science and its achievements. The Indo-US relations had improved and aid through the Atoms for Peace initiative started.

The 1960s saw China’s aggression in the Himalayas and successful thermonuclear test. India became vulnerable once the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was proposed. In chapter five, “The Plowshare Loophole, 1964–1970.” Sarkar skillfully captures the complex nuclear debate of the 1960s and how anti-bomb sentiments began building up, making the Government defensive.

“Unmaking and Making of India”, the third section, is about the 70s and 80s and the narrative alternates between domestic developments and the foreign policy and regional security environment, focusing on the events that led to the creation of Bangladesh and India’s annexation of Sikkim. The tensions made both India and Pakistan speed up their weapons programmes. The section concludes with the run up to the 1974 nuclear test in Pokhran, and its geopolitical fallout. After decades of being an international aid beneficiary, the India of the late 70s was isolated and sanctioned.

Sarkar ends the book with an epilogue taking the story from the 1980s to the present. There is a contention that there was no Indian nuclear revolution. The nuclear-powered future never happened and atomic energy contributes only for a small fraction to power generation. A more secretive Indian government, which equates criticism of its nuclear program to anti-nationalism, is an outcome. Sarkar claims that India’s nuclear pursuit has led to “an antidemocratic culture”.

India’s second set of nuclear explosions was conducted in 1998. Sarkar examines India’s credentials as a non-proliferator as showed by its responsible response to middle east overtures for technology transfer. Instead of being a rogue nuclear state, it remained a responsible nation willing to share its knowledge for peaceful applications. Sarkar’s book ends with India’s success in its enormous undertaking, though getting diplomatically isolated and apprehensive of Pakistan’s growing atomic muscle. China’s growth and its growing ties with Pakistan resulted in India moving closer to the United States. Sarkar notes that the regional rivalries and the “ongoing nuclear arms race in South Asia raise concerns for the region’s geopolitical stability.”

The Key Points

Ploughshares and Swords makes several important points. First is that the Indian programme has benefited from technology collaborations and import from both the west and the Soviet Union. This contradicts the Indian official position that the technology has been acquired entirely indigenously.

Sarkar critiques the “myth of peaceful India,” built on “Gandhian ideals of nonviolence,” and contends that this “does not hold against the reality of the violence of partition and the wars that crafted India’s borders with Pakistan and China.”

The programme had a dual-use orientation from its inception. This derives from the fact that the technology is agnostic to its civil and weapon applications. It also took advantage of commercial partnerships, technological know-how exchanges, and good relationships with other countries, especially France. Sarkar contends that this “Janus-faced” nuclear program both developed and existed within the complex mass of India’s regional security concerns and its nonalignment strategy during the Cold War.

“Freedom of action” was the core element of India’s nuclear programme”. India’s leaders were against post-colonial control and west-imposed restrictions. Declining security guarantees or nuclear umbrella was part of this. India’s refusal to sign the NPT, realizing that it would not restrain China or Pakistan, followed this. This policy persisted even under the tectonic shifts of the early 1970s in the global political order — Nixon’s wooing of China, US-Soviet detente, the oil crisis led by OPEC’s price hike — and led India to conduct India’s first nuclear test. While these controvert the Indian official position in these matters, these arguments are timely as advocates of nuclear power play up its ability to solve the climate change threat.

The book’s contention is that “from the beginning, India’s nuclear program was closely related to its space program”. Both grew under “corporate-government collaboration” with financial support from philanthropic enterprises that supported scientific research.

Through nuclear and space technologies, India’s leaders aimed at both industrial development and national security. The scientists and engineers with political awareness and international connections at the helm of the programme got access to technologies, materials, and information through many channels, maneuvering around Cold War politics and the nonproliferation regime.

Sarkar makes implicit criticism of the US on its ‘strategic narcissism’ concerning international controls on atomic energy and nonproliferation. The US consistently failed to fully consider India’s geo-strategic position and nonalignment objectives. Instead, U.S. officials frequently viewed India’s maneuvering only in terms of whether it served American interests and goals.


Reviewers have hailed Ploughshares and Swords as the work that “scholars of India’s nuclear program have been waiting for; that it will be required reading for experts in fields as varied as foreign relations, science and technology, and de-colonization” (1). Despite the vast historiography available about India’s nuclear program, Sarkar’s work is also relevant for those interested in Cold War history and the rise of the developing world. Readers will appreciate the prevailing situation which drove India to take the steps to become a nuclear weapons state.

The book has an engaging style. The story ends rather abruptly in the ’80s, with a short commentary on the post-90s situation. Despite this, the book presents a convincing history of India’s nuclear and space programmes. It also presents new perspectives on de-colonization and the impact of cold war on developing nations.

Sarkar mentions the leaders of the programme like Homi Bhabha, Vikram Sarabhai, without giving them a personality. Passing mention is made of personnel like Homi Sethna, Raja Ramanna, P. K. Iyengar, Satish Dhawan and MGK Menon, who also played critical roles in the story’s development.


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