Rocket Boys, Chithira Thirunal and Thorium politics

M G Radhakrishnan


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Jawaharlal Nehru, Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma, Homi Bhabha

Did Prime Minister Nehru and nuclear scientist Homi Bhabha threaten and blackmail Tiruvithamkoor’s last Maharajah Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma to get the precious thorium deposits contained on its coast sands? So suggests “Rocket Boys,” the web series streaming on SonyLIV made on the lives of Bhabha and space scientist Vikram Sarabhai. Aswathi Tirunal Gouri Lakshmi Bayi, author and niece of Varma, has announced legal action for portraying her late uncle in a bad light in the Rocket Boys, created by Nikkhil Advani.

The series shows a stormy meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office between Varma, Nehru, and Bhabha, then Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission. They are discussing Tiruvithamkoor’s highly strategic and the world’s best thorium-containing monazite deposits. In a preceding scene, Bhabha who nurses plan to make India’s atom bomb, tells Sarabhai that he wanted all of Tiruvithamkoor’s thorium reserves. Holding a hammer in hand and with a murderous glare, Bhabha says he would fix the “redundant Maharaja” for refusing to part with the sands. Subsequently, Nehru asks Varma to sell the sands for independent India’s development needs at government rates. But Varma haughtily refuses and claims that Tiruvithamkoor was an independent kingdom and had no obligation to obey Nehru’s government. A shocked Nehru leaves the meeting to let Bhabha take over. With a blackmailer’s sneer, Bhabha then informs Varma that the Indian government knew he was selling monazite six times the permitted quantity to European companies and pocketing the booty. When Varma still does not relent, Bhabha threatens to take over the entire reserves and kingdom. Gesturing a zero, Bhabha says the Maharaja would get the “Aryabhatta’s invention” in compensation.

Finally, Bhabha, like a Mafia don, warns a shaken Varma that many monarchs have been betrayed, poisoned or even had their heads cut! At this point, Nehru returns and charmingly offers Varma tea. The crestfallen Maharajah says he was satiated with the offers Bhabha has already made and leaves. Nehru and Bhabha exchange triumphant smiles.

How much is this narrative factual? The series’ disclaimer says that it is based on and inspired by the real-life events. Yet, it admits that creative liberty has been taken and necessary modifications made for effective narration. Certain characters and events are fictionalized. The creators indeed have the freedom to interpret the history and present a different version. But then, shouldn’t they have enough evidence to justify their new version? Especially when grave, new charges are made about real life characters. Otherwise, it would amount to distortion and defamation. And doing it to well-known and recent history is sheer cockiness despite the disclaimer that any diversion or error is unintentional.

‘Creative liberty’ appears to have been taken with some basic facts of history. There is no record of any meeting of the kind portrayed between Nehru, Bhabha and Varma having taken place. But, it could be forgiven in the name of fictionalization for the sake of dramatic effects, as said in the disclaimer.

But the next is unpardonable. The meeting between Nehru, Bhabha and Varma is shown as having occurred sometime after August 15, 1947. But, Tiruvithamkoor had acceded to India on July 30, 1947 with the royal family withdrawing resistance. Pressure from the Indian government and a massive popular agitation in Tiruvithamkoor had forced the royalty’s climb down. The final straw was the violent attempt on July 25, by a young revolutionary on the autocratic Dewan Sir CP Ramaswami Iyer, who narrowly escaped with injuries and returned to Madras for good. Five days later, Tiruvithamkoor signed the treaty of accession.

If Tiruvithamkoor was already part of India, how could its former Maharaja claim independence with no obligation to obey the Indian government or Bhabha threatening a takeover? Besides, those who knew about the famously mild-mannered Varma wouldn’t even imagine him entering a wordy duel with anyone, let alone Nehru. According to historian Malayinkeezhu Gopalakrishnan, there is no record of Varma traveling to Delhi before 1949.

But Tiruvithamkoor had entered into agreements with many global mineral companies and used thorium to bargain with European nations to get recognized as an independent kingdom. However, the mastermind behind this was not the Maharajah but his Dewan, Sir CP. According to him and many others, Tiruvithamkoor’s efforts to remain independent and policies on thorium deposits were for the political and economic benefits of its people.

In 1946, Tiruvithamkoor concluded secret negotiations with monazite-extracting companies and re-established the state’s ownership of the mineral sands

But there are staunch critics too of Tiruvithaamkoor’s secret monazite wars. The first significant salvo came during 1946-47. In a series of articles in the Bombay-based Leftwing weekly Blitz, journalist K.N.Bamzai exposed Tiruvithamkoor’s “secret deals” to export monazite sands to the UK. The series was quoted recently by Bamzai’s grandson and journalist Sandeep Bamzai (he and his sister Kaveree Bamzai were this writer’s colleagues at India Today) in his 2020 book, “PRINCESTAN: How Nehru, Patel, and Mountbatten Made India.” Nehru used Bamzai’s reports on the collusion between Dewan Sir CP and the Viceroy Lord Wavell to scupper the deal.

Sandeep Bamzai quotes an essay by Itty Abraham, a Professor of Malayali origin working at the National University of Singapore and the author of “The Making of the Indian Atomic Bomb” (1999) on Tiruvithamkoor’s “thorium techno-politics”. The 2013 essay, ‘Rare Earths: The Cold War in the Annals of Travancore’ said that the first demand for Tiruvithamkoor’s monazite was made in April 1946. The board for Atomic Energy Research of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) announced intensive surveys of Travancore’s thorium deposits. Immediately, Sir CP stated Tiruvithamkoor was the sole owner of the mineral sands and wasn’t willing to surrender control to any outside agency including the British government.

In September 1946, Tiruvithamkoor concluded secret negotiations with monazite-extracting companies and re-established the state’s ownership of the mineral sands, says Abraham. In return for 9,000 tons over three years was to be sent to Britain, the British government promised to get its Thorium Ltd to construct a processing plant in Travancore. The Second World War made the demand for thorium rise.

But once Blitz made the expose, Nehru went livid against Tiruvithamkoor. “In January 1947, there was consternation at the Indian Science Congress after Pandit Nehru, armed with the Bamzai-Blitz exposé, got a resolution passed that the state should own and control all these minerals—especially minerals required for the production of atomic energy, pointing to the nefarious goings-on in Travancore. At a cabinet meeting in April 1947, Nehru spoke of using air power against Travancore if necessary to bring them to heel.”.

(Abraham revealed a less known fact that the Hindutva icon VD Savarkar, had backed independent Tiruvithamkoor. Savarkar sent his support through a telegram to CP on 17 June 1947; “ ‘The Nizam, Muslim Ruler of Hyderabad, has already proclaimed his independence and other Muslim states are likely to do so. Hindu states are bold enough to assert they have the same rights…I am supporting the maharaja and the far-sighted and courageous determination to declare the independence of our Hindu state of Travancore.”).

Abraham says CP’s opposition dispelled after the Blitz expose and Nehru hardened his stand. “Furious with Travancore and Sir C.P.’s shenanigans, he (Nehru) sent CSIR head Sir Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar to Travancore to obtain first-hand information about the nature of the state’s arrangements with Britain. Angry that he had been blindsided despite the Blitz exposé, Bhatnagar went there accompanied by top physicist Homi Bhabha in early June 1947. Surprisingly, Travancore and Sir C.P. capitulated without a fight, and the setting up of the Travancore-India Joint Commission on Atomic Energy was approved.”

However, those who support CP have a different version of the thorium story. Prominent historian, the late Prof. A Sreedhara Menon, was one among them. In his book, “Sir CP in Travancore History”, Menon says that monazite was exported from Tiruvithamkoor from the early 20th century as the kingdom had the largest reserves after Brazil and with better quality. A German company started mining operations in 1911, which was later taken over by a Polish firm. Then came an American-Brazilian company that smuggled away large quantities without paying the government. With demand for thorium rising with wartime, CP reformulated a new policy limiting mining licenses to only Tiruvithamkoor-based companies.

In 1937, famed Nobel-winning English chemist Frederick Soddy, an authority on radioactivity, visited Tiruvithamkoor to study its natural mineral reserves. Soddy conveyed to CP that monazite’s scientific extraction would bring in Rs 2-3 crores annually to the state. This made CP order the first survey of Tiruvithamkoor’s mineral reserves and a new policy in 1946 limiting proprietorship to the government and issuing licenses to companies only as its revenue-sharing agents. This also led to the setting up of Asia’s first titanium dioxide factory in Thiruvananthapuram in October 1951.

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