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The Franco-Indian Quest for an Independent Nuclear Policy, 1950‐1974

Jayita Sarkar is Albert Gallatin Fellow at Yale University’s Macmillan Center for International and Area Studies, and PhD candidate in the Department of International History at the Graduate Institute Geneva.
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  • October 10, 2012


    The aftermath of the Second World War revealed uncanny similarities between France and India, especially in the backdrop of the nuclear politics that began to characterize the Cold War. While the painful memories of Nazi occupation and activities of the collaborationist Vichy Regime plagued the French psyche, the memory of almost two centuries of British colonial exploitation formed an integral part of India’s post-independent self-perception. Science and technology played a significant role in their understanding of catching up with the “rest”, and therefore in the endeavours to rebuild themselves as modern states. Scientific and technological prowess would bring forth “national development” for a post-colony like India and restore la grandeur for a colonial power like France. The beginning of the Second World War with the discovery of nuclear fission in 1939 and the end of the War with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 ensured that the nuclear question remained paramount in international politics for decades to come. Mastery over nuclear technology, which represented the highest form of scientific expertise in the 20th century, thus embodied the urgent enterprise of restoring national pride and honour for both countries.

    India: The science-driven catching up of a post-colony

    For Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, “the scientific approach and temper” represented “the temper of a free man.”1 In his presidential address to the 34th session of the Indian Science Congress in 1947, Nehru declared that in India there is a growing realisation that the scientist and the politician should work together. He implored the scientists to strive for the benefit of the community instead of their individual quest for scientific truths.2 His prioritisation of atomic energy is best manifested in his speech titled The Necessity of Atomic Research in India delivered after laying the foundation-stone of the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) in New Delhi in January 1947, seven months prior to Independence. Here, he stated that “[A]tomic energy is going to play a vast and dominating part, I suppose, in the future shape of will make power mobile, and this mobility of power can make industry develop anywhere. We will not be tied up by the accidents of geography. Atomic energy will help cottage industry.”3 Thus dawned the vision of a nuclear science-driven national development and the significance of India’s nuclear programme became tied to the national development/national sovereignty narrative during the following six decades.

    France: The restoration of la grandeur

    Until the outbreak of the Second World War, research on artificial radioactivity conducted by Frédéric Joliot-Curie and his wife Irène Joliot-Curie kept France among countries where substantial progress was being made in nuclear research. Joliot closely followed Otto Han’s discovery of nuclear fission in 1939 and, in April 1940, he was able secure all the heavy water available in Norway (which was the world’s major source of heavy water at that time) just before the Nazi invasion of that country. While most of his peers including Bertrand Goldschmidt left France following the Nazi occupation, Joliot remained and continued his research in Paris throughout the Second World War. In 1945, the Commissariat de l’Energie Atomique (CEA) was created with Joliot as its first Haut-Commissaire.

    While at least five French scientists (Hans Halban, Lew Kowarski, Pierre Auger, Jules Guéron and Bertrand Goldschmidt) played a significant role in the development of the first nuclear weapons,4 France as a nation-state was deprived of participating in the Manhattan Project – which it perceived essentially as an Anglo-Saxon endeavour. Nuclear science and its mastery thus in many ways began to be perceived as an instrument to restore national pride and honour.5 It is important to note that France, like India later, began its atomic energy for explicitly stated peaceful purposes, notwithstanding the eventual “weapons turn” in the nuclear trajectories of both countries.

    Common opposition to US-led endeavours at nuclear non-proliferation

    When the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was opened for signature in 1968, neither France nor India signed it. India called the NPT a discriminatory instrument in favour of the “nuclear haves” since it attempted to prevent horizontal proliferation without constraining vertical proliferation by the five nuclear weapon states (NWS). Although under the NPT, France was recognised as a NWS, it chose to remain outside the Treaty until August 1992. It argued that the NPT, like the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963, was an arrangement instituted not for disarmament but to prevent the nuclear arming of the unarmed and therefore refused to sign either treaty. Unlike India, France did not participate in the negotiations leading to the NPT. Instead, it went on to develop the largest nuclear industry in the world, deriving 78 per cent of its electricity from nuclear sources and freely offering nuclear technology to countries that asked for it without conducting a “rogue state check” unlike the United States. This French nuclear realpolitik, which has been shared across its domestic political spectrum, is what Benoît Pelopidas calls the French “nuclear idiosyncrasy.”6

    The Franco-Indian defiance of the nuclear non-proliferation regime is interesting because since neither was a pariah state in the international system, their opposition to the US-led nuclear order could not be disregarded as aberrations. Their nuclear policies were instrumental in carving for them the space for exercising their foreign policy independence during the Cold War – an era otherwise characterised by the strategic dyad and superpower alliances. Charles de Gaulle’s decision in 1966 to bring France out of the integrated military command of NATO is a classic example of this French foreign policy practice. Nehru’s policy of non-alignment and India’s relentless refusal to explicitly enter into an alliance with either superpower demonstrated the wariness of a formerly colonised country and its endeavours to establish its foreign policy agency. While the anti-colonial argument resonated clearly in India’s opposition to the nuclear non-proliferation regime, France unambiguously emphasized upon the incompatibility between its national interests and the demands of the regime. It is to be noted that not only did France emerge on the post-World War II scene with a hurt national pride, but it also found its power threatened in its colonies as nationalist opposition increased in Vietnam and Algeria.

    India-France Nuclear Cooperation

    Apart from 1983 when the French replaced the Americans as the fuel supplier for Tarapur, there are at least two important milestones in Franco-Indian nuclear co-operation, which began rather early.

    I. Joliot-Curies’ visit to India, January 1950

    Frédéric Joliot-Curie visited India in January 1950 along with his wife Irène and made offers for technical co-operation that were not just extraordinary but also unprecedented, at least for India. At a “special meeting” of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) held in New Delhi on January 17, 1950, Joliot offered to share technical information on the purification of uranium, graphite reprocessing and designs of a low power reactor in exchange for India’s export to France of thorium, beryllium, mineral oil for the manufacture of graphite and uranium (should it be discovered in ample quantities at a later date). This meeting was held in the presence of three members of the Indian AEC, namely, Homi J. Bhabha, K.S. Krishnan and S.S. Bhatnagar, and was held in the house of Bhatnagar. Not surprisingly, Bhabha, then chairman of the AEC, showed a very keen interest in the proposal.

    Such an offer was unthinkable at a time when the United States was keen on maintaining high censorship and control on nuclear technology and information while the United Kingdom and Canada adhered to a similar approach themselves.7 Since the late 1940s, the United States wanted, among other things, to control the use of Indian monazite (a source of radioactive thorium) but met with stiff resistance. India was quick to identify the potential of its strategic minerals and acted by imposing an embargo on their export. In 1951, an American loan of wheat to India, made in the hope of inducing a change in Indian policy8 with regard to strategic minerals, bore little fruit.

    The French offer to India did not however materialize immediately owing to Joliot’s removal from his position in the French CEA in April 1950. The two countries subsequently signed an agreement in 1951 for the study of beryllium. An important sidelight of Franco-Indian camaraderie in the 1950s was British nervousness about losing leverage over India.9

    II. Smiling Buddha, May 1974

    The Indian underground nuclear explosion codenamed the “Smiling Buddha”, which allegedly used plutonium from the Canadian-supplied CIRUS10 reactor in Trombay, led to technological sanctions on India. Several rounds of talks followed with Canada eventually terminating its technological collaboration with India. A non-signatory to the NPT using plutonium from an unsafeguarded nuclear reactor for an underground nuclear explosion was an affront hitherto unimaginable to the US-led nuclear non-proliferation regime.

    Amidst hostile reactions from the international community, notably from the United States, Canada, Australia, and Japan among others, India was much relieved by the French response. France was the only Western country that congratulated India on the test. At a time when India was being reduced to a nuclear pariah, the lack of criticism from an important technological partner was a significant boost of morale for New Delhi.

    In his telegram on May 23, 1974 summarising the Indian response to international reactions to its PNE, Jurgensen, the French Ambassador to India, wrote: “The Indians are particularly pleased because France has abstained from all unfriendly judgments and they believe that France is herself well-placed to understand the Indian position in this domain.” And he added: “It is obvious that India has demonstrated at the same time interesting technical capacities as well as great statecraft by conducting her first explosion underground, thus making her undoubtedly the only nuclear power that has never tested in the atmosphere. The great powers who are criticizing the increase of “pollution” in the world, thus cannot mobilize against Delhi on this ground.”11

    The PNE of 1974 therefore not only established Paris as a reliable nuclear partner in the eyes of New Delhi, but also (re)established the latter’s technological prowess in the eyes of the former. India could rest confident therefore that the NPT would not be an impediment in its technological collaboration with France in the years to come.


    Although France signed the NPT in August 1992, the warmth in its relationship with India did not abate. In January 1998, French President Jacques Chirac visited India with a high-level delegation that included the CEO of Framatome (now Areva NP). In 2006, France signed an agreement expressing its desire for civil nuclear cooperation with India, while talks were going on for a similar agreement between India and the United States. Finally, in September 2008, soon after the waiver provided by the Nuclear Suppliers Group for India to engage in civil nuclear trade, France was the first country to sign a civil nuclear agreement with India (thereby finalising the agreement that began in 2006), even before the US Senate had approved the US-India civil nuclear agreement. More recently, in June 2011, when the NSG declared that it would not supply ENR (enrichment and reprocessing) technology to countries that are non-signatories to the NPT, France declared that that would not affect its bilateral nuclear cooperation with India.12

    India is far from signing the NPT anytime in the near future. France, despite signing the NPT, continues to make exceptions as it sees fit. The Franco-Indian opposition to the regime has thus outlived the Cold War, even though it has also become more nuanced with time. As two middle-level powers and recognised democracies, their opposition to the non-proliferation regime cannot be reduced to challenges emanating from pariah states such as Iran or North Korea. It is this normative credibility that bestows on their quest for foreign policy independence the uniqueness not granted to any other bilateral nuclear relationship operating in opposition to the non-proliferation regime.

    Jayita Sarkar is a PhD candidate and teaching assistant at the Department of International History of the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva. Email:
    • 1. Jawaharlal Nehru. The Discovery of India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1946).
    • 2. Itty Abraham, The Making of the Indian Atomic Bomb: Science, Secrecy and the Postcolonial State (London and New York: Zed Books, 1998) p. 46.
    • 3. Extracts from Jawaharlal Nehru's speech after laying the foundation-stone of the National Physical Laboratory in New Delhi, The Necessity of Atomic Research in India, January 4, 1947, NMML Archives, New Delhi.
    • 4. Mycle Schneider. Nuclear France Abroad: History, Status and Prospects of French Nuclear Activities in Foreign Countries (Waterloo, Ontario: CIGI, May 2009).
    • 5. For more on this, see Gabrielle Hecht, The Radiance of France (Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press, 1998).
    • 6. Benoît Pelopidas. “French nuclear idiosyncrasy: how it affects French nuclear policies towards the UAE and Iran,” Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 25, 1 (March 2012): 143-169.
    • 7. Report prepared by Sir John D. Cockcroft on the French atomic energy project, July 1951, File AB 16/565, Technical co-operation with India, 1947-54, National Archives, Kew. In the report, Cockcroft complains how the American policy of classification “has left the field largely to the French.”
    • 8. Report by F.W. Marten in Washington D.C. to W. Harpham at the Foreign Office in London, on debates at the US Senate and at the House of Representatives on loaning wheat to India, File AB 16/565, Technical cooperation with India 1947-54, National Archives, Kew.
    • 9. Letter from Roger Matkins at the Foreign Office, London to F.C. How at the Ministry of Supply dated August 1951, File AB 16/565, Technical co-operation with India, 1947-54.
    • 10. It is alternatively called the CIR or the Canadian Indian Reactor. The acronym “US” stands for the American-supplied heavy water used to operate it.
    • 11. “On se réjouit particulièrement que la France se soit abstenue de tout jugement inamical et l’on se souvient qu’elle est elle-même bien placée de comprendre la position de l’Inde, dans ce domaine…Il est évident que l’Inde a montré à la fois d’intéressantes capacités techniques est une grande habileté politique en faisant sous terre sa première explosion, ce qui laisse prévoir qu’elle sera sans doute la seule puissance atomique n’avoir jamais fait d’expérience dans l’atmosphère. Les forces puissantes qui dans le monde critiquent tout accroissement de ‘pollution’ ne se sont donc pas mobilisées contre Delhi.” Telegram from Jurgensen in New Delhi to the Ministère des Affaires Etrangères in Paris dated May 23, 1974, Carton 2252, Questions atomiques: explosion indienne (1973- June 1980), Archives des Affaires Etrangères, La Courneuve.
    • 12. Sandeep Dikshit. “In post-NSG statement, France ducks ENR ban on India,” The Hindu, July 2, 2011.