Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Dr Homi Jehangir Bhabha – The Man Behind India’s Nuclear Capabilities

Written By Darshan M (Grade 10)

In May 1974, a pivotal moment in India’s history unfolded as Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Dr Raja Ramanna, Chief of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, discussed a matter of utmost importance. The following day, India’s nuclear journey began as Buddha smiled upon the nation with its first peaceful nuclear explosion. Our country did what many of us could not even imagine. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi announced that India had created a peaceful nuclear explosion. This event elevated India’s status among the world’s nuclear-capable nations. This was the birth of India’s peaceful nuclear explosion. The story of India’s nuclear journey is incomplete without acknowledging the significant role played by Dr Homi Jehangir Bhabha, a man who deserves a movie like Oppenheimer, a remarkable scientist whose dedication to physics and his country shaped the nation’s scientific destiny. 

Homi Bhabha was born into a prosperous Parsi family in Bombay in 1909, with good relations with the Tata Group of Companies. Jehangir Hormasji, Homi’s father, served on the board of directors of the Tata Group of Companies. Sir Dorabji Tata requested Bhabha to go to Cambridge to study engineering. And then come back to India to lead Tata’s Jamshedpur Steel Plant. In 1927, at the age of 18, Homi Bhabha left for Cambridge University to study engineering, initially influenced by his family’s expectations of him becoming an engineer. In 1928, Homi Bhabha wrote a letter to his father, expressing his growing fascination with physics and his decline in interest in business or engineering. He believed that his success would hinge not on others’ opinions but on his dedication to his work. This letter revealed two critical aspects of his life: his passion for physics, nurtured at Cambridge, and his belief that India lacked the scientific infrastructure for him to achieve great things in the field. Bhabha’s decision was influenced by the thriving physics community at Cambridge, where intellects like Heisenberg, Niels Bohr, and Wolfgang Pauli were making ground-breaking discoveries.

Upon obtaining his Ph.D. in 1935, Bhabha became deeply involved in physics research, collaborating with eminent scientists such as Niels Bohr, who researched the atom’s model. Wolfgang Pauli, who won the Nobel Prize, and Enrico Fermi, who made the world’s first nuclear reactor. The university played a significant role in advancing physics, with scientists like Paul Dirac working on Einstein’s special theory of relativity. Bhabha’s decision to study physics at Cambridge was likely influenced by these developments. His passion and intellect earned him numerous fellowships and established him as a respected physicist. Four years later, Dr. Bhabha applied for a full-time position at a university in Liverpool. He was taught by James Chadwick, who discovered neutrons. He was going to set up a new department in physics. But James Chadwick rejected Dr Bhabha’s offer. Chadwick said that Bhabha was too good. The kind of student quality he was expecting, which he got in Cambridge, he wouldn’t get at this university.

Then Bhabha went to India for a holiday. And he hoped that after this holiday, he’d come back to England to research physics. But God had other plans. World events soon reshaped Bhabha’s plans. With the outbreak of World War II in 1939, restrictions on scientific exchanges in Europe impeded his return to England. Bhabha initially intended to return to England for further research, but World War II disrupted international scientific collaborations. The war led to a decline in continental physics, and Bhabha struggled to secure permission to return to England from colonial India. Despite his efforts, the colonial government of India did not permit him to leave the country. This led him to stay in India, where he began contacting physicists and building relationships in the scientific community. Bhabha found solace in the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, under the mentorship of renowned physicist C.V. Raman. It was in Bangalore that he met Vikram Sarabhai, a young scientist studying under the guidance of C.V. Raman who would become his close friend and collaborator.

The friendship between Bhabha and Sarabhai flourished, leading to their shared passion for science. Sarabhai supported Bhabha’s research on cosmic rays, strengthening their bond. Bhabha’s deepening connection to India compelled him to stay and contribute to the country’s scientific progress. He advocated for the establishment of a research school for fundamental physics in India, emphasizing the importance of promoting science through education. After five years of working in India, Bhabha decided to remain in his home country. He expressed a deep commitment to India’s scientific development and wrote to the chairman of the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust, advocating for the establishment of research institutions to promote science.

In 1945, many Indian scientists formed an Atomic Energy Committee to think about India’s atomic energy resources. This committee asked Dr. Bhabha to become the chairman. On August 26, 1947, this committee formed a new Board of Research, chaired by Homi Bhabha. Remember that this was just 11 days after India’s independence, we all know that it was an unpredictable time for our country. After over two centuries of colonial rule, a devastating partition, and a country suffering from issues such as starvation, was thinking about nuclear energy. In April 1948, Prime Minister Nehru introduced legislation to the Constituent Assembly. This bill was drafted by Homi Bhabha, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Shanti Swaroop Bhatnagar, an Indian scientist. This legislation created the Atomic Energy Commission, which gave Bhabha’s Atomic Energy Committee formal powers. Jawaharlal Nehru said that India’s nuclear research should be kept secret.

Bhabha recognized the limitations of using thorium reserves directly in nuclear reactors. He formulated a three-stage nuclear program to address this challenge to harness India’s uranium resources. This program aimed to develop India’s indigenous nuclear capabilities and reduce dependence on foreign sources. India however had to secure uranium from external sources. Bhabha’s diplomatic skills came into play as he reached out to the UK and France for uranium resources. At that time, Dr. Bhabha wasn’t just a scientist. He had become a diplomat. After getting uranium from the British, our country built the first nuclear reactor in 1956. It was called Apsara. 

In 1962, there was a war between India and China. The Indian army had to face defeat. And two years later, China conducted its first nuclear test. On October 24, 1965, Dr. Bhabha went on All India Radio and said that in 18 months, India could make a bomb from the plutonium that the Indian reactors had produced. At that time, India’s official policy was that it wouldn’t make nuclear weapons. However, Bhabha had a different opinion. For example, John Cockroft, a friend of Dr Bhabha, said that Dr Bhabha was following the government’s policy, but his attitude was different. It’s said that Dr Bhabha told the US State Department officials that India could produce as many bombs as it wanted every year. Dr Bhabha became more passionate about nuclear tests. But something happened in 1966 that shattered all these hopes. On January 24, 1966, an Air India flight was flying from Bombay to New York. Halfway through, the flight crashed in the French Alps 117 people were killed, one of whom was Homi Bhabha. After Dr. Bhabha, Vikram Sarabhai was made the head of the Department of Atomic Energy by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

Vikram Sarabhai assumed leadership of the Department of Atomic Energy, but he held differing views on nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, India’s nuclear ambitions continued to evolve. Homi Sethna, appointed as the head of the Atomic Energy Commission, played a pivotal role during a critical period. The early 1970s witnessed intense global discussions on the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). India advocated for the prevention of nuclear weapon proliferation but also sought differentiation in nuclear tests.

In 1972, a collaboration between the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) and the Atomic Energy Commission began. India selected a test site in Rajasthan and, on May 18, 1974, conducted its first nuclear explosion under the code name “Smiling Buddha” or Pokhran-1. Although the Indian government claimed it was a peaceful nuclear explosion, international pressure persisted. The test marked a significant turning point in India’s nuclear journey. In 1978, American President Jimmy Carter signed a Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act, after which the United States declined India from providing any kind of nuclear aid. This changed 27 years later when Manmohan Singh’s government signed a civil nuclear deal with the United States, which almost brought down the Congress government.

And 24 years later, another test was conducted, which completely changed India’s nuclear policy. This test was Pokhran-2 when India conducted 5 nuclear tests for advanced weapon designs. Recently, there have been many discussions about India’s complex nuclear policy. India’s formal policy is a no-first-use policy. The nuclear policy may seem simple to us, but there are as many calculations behind it as you’d need to make a nuclear bomb. The story of India’s nuclear program is a testament to the dedication of scientists like Homi Bhabha, who, driven by their love for science and country, shaped India’s scientific destiny and played a pivotal role in establishing the nation as a nuclear power.

Featured Image Courtesy – Hindustan Times


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