Bhabha: A Man Of Fact, A Genius Of Nuclear Physics, And A Death Unresolved

Bhabha: A Man Of Fact, A Genius Of Nuclear Physics, And A Death Unresolved
"Father of the Indian nuclear programme” Dr Homi J Bhabha | Image sources: Google Arts & Culture/Amazon

“Scientist, engineer, master-builder and administrator, steeped in humanities, in art and music, Homi was a truly complete man.”

– JRD Tata

On January 24, 1966, India lost one of its most accomplished minds to tragedy, consequently also setting back the progress of the country by decades.

Dr Homi J Bhabha, one of India’s top scientists and a world-renowned nuclear physicist, drew his last breaths above the Alps, before the plane carrying him met an unfortunate fate.

However, the circumstances of his death have been questionable ever since.

Who Was Bhabha?

A mechanical engineer and theoretical physicist turned “Father of the Indian nuclear programme”, Dr Homi Jehangir Bhabha is responsible for leading India on the path of nuclear power development and energy security.

Bhabha left India to study mechanical engineering at Cambridge University, at the behest of his father, and uncle Sir Dorabji Tata. However, influenced by Nobel laureate physicist Paul Dirac, he gave up a ready career as a metallurgist at Tata Steel to pursue theoretical physics. While pursuing his doctorate, Bhabha was working at the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge, during which time Sir James Chadwick discovered the neutron, and Baron Patrick Blackett and Giuseppe Occhialini made the path-breaking demonstration of producing electron pairs and showers by gamma radiation, using cloud chambers. With nuclear physics on the rise, the field saw an explosive increase in scientific explorers, particularly those in opposition to theoretical physics that limited invention to proving natural phenomena via experiments.

Bhabha offered an explanation about absorption and electron shower production in cosmic rays, in his paper ‘The Absorption of Cosmic Radiation’, which earned him a doctorate in nuclear physics in 1933, and the Isaac Newton Studentship in 1934. He earned his doctorate in theoretical physics under Sir Ralph Fowler, and worked with Nobel laureate Neils Bohr, who developed the Bohr model of the atom. In 1935, Bhabha published the first calculation determining the cross-section of the electron-positron scattering, which later came to be known as the Bhabha scattering: e+e e+e. He co-authored the paper ‘The Passage of Fast Electrons and the Theory of Cosmic Showers’ with Walter Heitler in 1936, in which the duo explained how “primary cosmic rays from outer space interact with the upper atmosphere to produce particles observed at the ground level”, in line with the observations of Italian physicist Bruno Rossi, who played a pivotal role in the development of the Manhattan Project. Bhabha later stated that further in-depth observation of these particles would verify Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Bhabha returned to India for a vacation in 1939, but found himself stuck here as World War II broke out. Although he had already made his mark in the world scientific community, moving in the same circles as Frédéric Joliot-Curie and other atomic physicists, his journey in India was only beginning.

Nuclear Encouragement And Evolving Geopolitics

Bhabha accepted the position of a reader of physics at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, and headed the school’s Cosmic Ray Research Unit that worked on the theory of point particles movement. The institute was led by Nobel laureate Sir CV Raman at the time. During his time at the institute, in 1944, Bhabha started researching the development of nuclear weapons independently, simultaneously also working on convincing the Congress party, specifically Pt Jawaharlal Nehru, to give serious thought to starting his three-stage nuclear programme. With the US bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and being familiar with the political turmoil leading up to the partition, Bhabha was convinced that making India nuclear capable was the only way to protect it and its energy security.

In 1945, fully-funded by the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust under JRD Tata and supported by the Bombay Government, Bhabha founded the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in 5,800 sq ft of rented space in an existing building in Bombay. In his proposal to build a dedicated school for physics in India, Bhabha wrote:

“The subjects on which research and advanced teaching would be done would be theoretical physics, especially on fundamental problems and with special reference to cosmic rays and nuclear physics, and experimental research on cosmic rays. It is neither possible nor desirable to separate nuclear physics from cosmic rays since the two are closely connected theoretically.”

Following India’s independence from British Raj, the institute was moved to the Royal Yacht Club premises in 1948.

India’s independence in 1947, however, brought on more geopolitical dangers than just Pakistan. The Muslim League wasted no time in cozying up to the US, which was in the middle of the cold war started in March earlier that year. Pakistan was of strategic importance to the US due to its close proximity with the erstwhile Soviet Union, which allowed US-armed Afghan rebel fighters to infiltrate into the region, and also plant short-range missiles. Furthermore, in 1950, Pakistan became one of the first countries to recognise the People’s Republic of China. Recognising the dangers around the country, Bhabha realised that the atomic energy programme needed to be accelerated and could not be contained within the TIFR.

The Bombay Government allotted 1,200 acres of land for the establishment of the Atomic Energy Establishment, Trombay (AEET), which started functioning in 1954, and the Union of India government established the Department of Atomic Energy the same year. While advocating for peaceful use of nuclear energy, Bhabha represented India in International Atomic Energy Forums, and presided over the United Nations Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1955. However, this did not deter him from arming India’s defence systems with nuclear teeth. On August 4, 1956, the country’s first nuclear reactor – Apsara – went critical.

A Threatened CIA And The Conspiracy-clad Death

The US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was involved in covertly ascertaining India’s nuclear energy prowess, at least as early as 1958. A CIA report dated March 26, 1958, and approved for release in July 2004, details India’s real-time nuclear progress, educational development, political stance and estimated success. Noteworthy, it mentions that India refused Soviet financial aid and will continue to do so as long as necessary assistance is found from the Commonwealth. The US and Canada were also primary financiers and suppliers for the development of nuclear reactor CIRUS (the “Canada-India Reactor” with assistance from the US), which went critical in 1960.

In 1962, China prevailed over India after capturing all of its claimed territory in the western and eastern theatre, and then unilaterally declared a ceasefire. As Russia’s divide with China deepened, it attempted to support India with MiG fighter aircraft. With the Cuban Missile Crisis escalating simultaneously, the US and the UK withdrew aid from India, compelling it to find refuge in Soviet military aid. Even so, India remained non-aligned during the Cold War. In 1963, the neighbouring countries signed the Sino-Pakistan Agreement, resolving all their border disputes, with Pakistan recognising China’s sovereignty over northern Kashmir and Ladakh. In October 1964, the People’s Republic of China successfully conducted Project 596, its first nuclear weapons test.

On August 5, 1965, Pakistani infiltrators escalated the border skirmishes to a war, with the international community calling for a ceasefire, which was achieved on September 23. Following these events, in October, Bhabha declared on All India Radio that he could build a nuclear deterrent within 18 months if given the go-ahead by the Indian government, In a joint report by the CIA, the US Department of State, Defense, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), and the National Security Agency (NSA), date October 21, 1965, India’s nuclear weapons policy has been thoroughly estimated. The report, made public in 2001, following a request under the Freedom of Information Act, stated: “India probably has on hand enough plutonium for a nuclear device.” Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, a staunch Gandhian, did not approve of Bhabha’s methods, but intelligence suggested that he may be encouraged to consider his demands following repeated blows from Pakistan and China. The report said that India’s development of the nuclear programme could substantially depend on that of China. It added, “… The recent conflict with Pakistan, the suspension of US military aid to India and US failure to prevent Pakistan’s use of US weapons against India, are all cited as proof that India cannot depend upon outside powers for protection in the great variety of contingencies it will face.” It was believed that PM Shastri may be inclined to carry out underground weapons tests for “exploring peaceful purposes” without alarming the international community. “We believe that he does not now wish to start a program and that he is capable of making this decision stick for the time being. However, we do not believe that India will hold to this policy indefinitely,” concluded the report.

On January 11, 1966, PM Shastri died in Soviet Russia under mysterious circumstances, a day after signing the Tashkent Declaration to peacefully resolve the 1965 war with Pakistan’s General Muhammad Ayub Khan. Eleven days later, on January 23, Dr Homi Bhabha was presumed dead after Air India ‘Kanchenjunga’ flight 101 crashed over Mt Blanc, and no survivors were found. Reportedly, the altitude and bad weather hindered rescue operations and none of the bodies of the 117 passengers and crew on board were found. The incident was probed by French investigators as the debris was recovered on France’s side of the mountain. Since the black box of the plane was never found, the official version of the investigation rested solely upon the pilot’s last communication with Geneva Airport’s Air Traffic Control (ATC). The Boeing 707 airliner flew from Delhi to Beirut, and then took off again for Geneva, from where Bhabha was to go to Vienna for a meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Scientific Advisory Committee. The official narrative by French authorities is that there was miscommunication between the pilot and the ATC; the pilot supposedly took off from Beirut but did not realise that one of the radio VHF omnidirectional ranges was damaged until he was mid-air, and then contacted the ATC, who guided it further. Reportedly, the pilot thought that the plane was safely over the Mt Blanc summit, however, he was mistaken and the plane crashed. This version has been highly contested, especially with France blocking any outside investigation. The explanation was also questioned because the pilot had been recorded as saying that the plane was cruising at 19,000 ft, 3000 ft above Mt Blanc’s highest peaks, but then crashed two minutes later.

A team of France’s public broadcaster ORTF investigated the site from the Italian side but was shut down almost immediately, although not before making its theory public that the plane had collided with another aircraft. Although French authorities confiscated the wreckage brought down by the journalists, French businessman and “aviation disaster enthusiast” Jean-Daniel Roche made it his life’s mission to uncover the truth. After briefly entertaining the theory that the plane was downed by a missile, Roche said that it may have collided with “an American-built F-104G Starfighter”. Reportedly, in the 1960s, the fighter-jets were used by Italy to spy on France. Roche was quoted as saying, “It would cut its transponder to avoid detection — but this meant that it would have been invisible to the aircraft with which it collided. The case was covered up… because in France, we do that with anything disturbing.” The melting of the Bossons glacier has revealed further evidence, including some diplomatic cables carried by Bhabha, comprising “​​New Delhi’s assessments of Chinese defence and nuclear capabilities in early 1966” and other confidential government documents, discovered in 2012. “Some are Indian analyses of Chinese foreign policy, particularly Beijing’s relationship with the West and the Sino-Soviet split,” wrote Jayita Sarkar of Boston University, who reviewed these documents with the Wilson Center. In 2018, Roche found a jet engine belonging to the ‘Kanchenjunga’. Rest of the parts are said to have flowed into the sea with the continuously melting glaciers. 

Overshadowing all of this evidence, however, is one theory that has stuck out. In 2008, American journalist Gregory Douglas published a book ‘Conversations with the Crow’, allegedly chronicling his telephonic conversations with Robert Trumbull Crowley, former head of the CIA’s Clandestine Operations Division. He enjoyed a close friendship with Gestapo chief Heinrich Müller, who was turned by the CIA after the war. Douglas was, supposedly, acquainted with several US intelligence operatives, including Marine Corps Colonel William Corson, US President Jimmy Carter’s representative to the CIA, and rather infamously so with some like FBI official Thomas Kimmel Jr as he tried to discourage Crowley from talking to Douglas. Among other things such as the CIA orchestrating President JFK’s assassination and being involved in promoting the drug racket across Afghanistan, Colombia, Mexico, and the US, Crowley also made revelations about US intelligence operatives’ involvement in Asia, particularly to keep the countries in check.

Page 65 of the book contains the transcript of conversation number 22, recorded by Douglas on July 5, 1996, commencing at 1:45 pm CST. After initial pleasantries, the transcript reads:

GD (Douglas): I am a man of sorrows and acquainted with rage, Robert. How about the Company setting off a small A-bomb in some hitherto harmless country and blaming it on mice? 

RTC (Crowley): Now that’s something we never did. In fact, we prevented at least one nuclear disaster.

GD: What? A humanitarian act? Why, I am astounded, Robert. Do tell me about this.

RTC: Now, now, Gregory, sometimes we can discuss serious business. There were times when we prevented terrible catastrophes and tried to secure more peace. We had trouble, you know, with India back in the 60s when they got uppity and started work on an atomic bomb. Loud mouthed cow-lovers bragging about how clever they were and how they, too, were going to be a great power in the world. The thing is, they were getting into bed with the Russians. Of course, Pakistan was in bed with the chinks, so India had to find another bed partner. And we did not want them to have any kind of nuclear weaponry because God knows what they would have done with it. Probably strut their stuff like a Washington nigger with a brass watch. Probably nuke the Pakis. They’re all a bunch of neo-coons anyway. Oh, yes, and their head expert was fully capable of building a bomb and we knew just what he was up to. He was warned several times but what an arrogant prick that one was. Told our people to fuck off and then made it clear that no one would stop him and India from getting nuclear parity with the big boys. Loudmouths bring it all down on themselves. Do you know about any of this?

GD: Not my area of interest or expertise. Who is this joker, anyway?

RTC: Was, Gregory, let’s use the past tense, if you please. Name was Homi Bhabha. That one was dangerous, believe me. He had an unfortunate accident. He was flying to Vienna to stir up more trouble, when his 707 had a bomb go off in the cargo hold and they all came down on a high mountain way up in the Alps. No real evidence and the world was much safer.

GD: Was Ali Baba alone on the plane?

RTC: No, it was a commercial Air India flight.

GD: How many people went down with him?

Page 66:

RTC: Ah, who knows and frankly, who cares?

GD: I suppose if I had a relative on the flight I would care.

RTC: Did you?

GD: No.

RTC: Then don’t worry about it. We could have blown it up over Vienna but we decided the high mountains were much better for the bits and pieces to come down on. I think a possible death or two among mountain goats is much preferable than bringing down a huge plane right over a big city.

GD: I think that there were more than goats, Robert.

RTC: Well, aren’t we being a bleeding-heart today?

GD: Now, now, it’s not an observation that is unexpected. Why not send him a box of poisoned candy? Shoot him in the street? Blow up his car? I mean, why ace a whole plane full of people?

RTC: Well, I call it as I see it. At the time, it was our best shot. And we nailed Shastri as well. Another cow-loving raghead. Gregory, you say you don’t know about these people. Believe me, they were close to getting a bomb and so what if they nuked their deadly Paki enemies? So what? Too many people in both countries. Breed like rabbits and full of snake-worshipping twits. I don’t for the life of me see what the Brits wanted in India. And then threaten us? They were in the sack with the Russians, I told you. Maybe they could nuke the Panama Canal or Los Angeles. We don’t know that for sure, but it is not impossible.

GD: Who was Shastri?

RTC: A political type who started the program in the first place. Bhabha was a genius and he could get things done, so we aced both of them. And we let certain people there know that there was more where that came from. We should have hit the chinks, too, while we were at it, but they were a tougher target.

When asked if all passengers on the plane were Indian atomic scientists, Crowley said that they “got the main man and that was all that mattered”. Crowley’s admissions can be taken as the ramblings of a dying man, or the confessions of a man on his death-bed. Reportedly, Douglas inherited two foot-lockers full of confidential documents after Crowley’s death in October 2000, much to the dismay of the CIA.

While Bhabha’s death has been less-discussed, supposed evidence regarding Shastri’s death in Tashkent remains strictly classified, allegedly for fear of ruining diplomatic relations. Although keeping recent geopolitical and global economic developments in mind, the countries in question possibly need India more.

Nuclear India After Bhabha

Bhabha’s death came as a shock to the Indian scientific community, but the processes set in motion by him absorbed most of it, along with personalities championed by him – Dr Vikram Sarabhai, Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, Dr Raja Ramanna, and PK Iyengar, among others.

The AEET, renamed the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) in 1967, along with the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), successfully conducted Operation Smiling Buddha, India’s first nuclear test, in 1974, at Pokhran Test Range, under the PM-ship of Indira Gandhi. While ‘no first use’ was an understood policy for every government made in India since before succeeding PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee voiced it, having the deterrent had become imperative.

Smiling Buddha was followed by the 1998 Pokhran-II tests under Vajpayee, where a series of five nuclear tests were conducted, achieving their objective of giving India the capability to build fission and the hydrogen bomb, with yields of up to 200 Kilotons. Indian scientists could now develop nuclear fuel for future reactors to use for power generation and research, and also the know-how to refine nuclear fuel into weapons-grade fuel for development of nuclear weapons, and India was no longer mistaken as a “soft state”.

Today, nuclear power is the fourth-largest source of electricity in India, after thermal, hydro-electric, and renewable sources of energy. “Nuclear power is one of the better solutions for meeting rising electricity demand due to emerging e-mobility. Given lower renewable capacity utilisation, rising fossil fuel prices, and ever-increasing pollution issues, nuclear power’s potential must be fully realised,” says Jyoti Mishra, a BARC-associated scientist. Expanding further, she states:

“India has limited fossil fuel resources, and with a large and growing energy demand, all energy sources are used to their full potential. Nuclear power is a clean and environmentally friendly base load source of electricity generation that is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It also has enormous potential and has the potential to provide the country with long-term energy security in a sustainable manner. Expansion of nuclear power capacity will aid the country’s energy transition toward a net zero economy.”

As per data updated in 2020, India has 22 nuclear reactors operating across seven functional nuclear power plants. The country has four nuclear power plants under construction, and 11 nuclear power plants in the planning stage. It continues to import Uranium from Russia.

Bhabha’s Achievements

1934: Three-year Isaac Newton Studentship

1935: Performed the first calculation to determine the cross-section of electron-positron scattering (Bhabha scattering)

1936: Major breakthrough in the understanding of cosmic radiation through cascade theory of electron showers

1939: Established the Cosmic Ray Research unit at the Indian Institute of Science

1941: Elected as Fellow of the Royal Society

1942: Awarded the Adams Prize by the University of Cambridge

1945: Established the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research

1948: Became the first chairperson of India’s Atomic Energy Commission, appointed as Director of India’s nuclear programme

1951: Nominated for the Nobel Prize for Physics

1953: Nominated for the Nobel Prize for Physics

1954: Started the Atomic Energy Establishment, Trombay (now, BARC) as founding director; awarded the Padma Bhushan; nominated for the Nobel Prize for Physics

1955: Led the first UN Conference held for the purpose of Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy in Geneva; nominated for the Nobel Prize for Physics

1956: First atomic reactor ‘Apsara’ activated under his direction; nominated for the Nobel Prize for Physics

1958: Elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences

1962: Created the Indian National Committee for Space Research with Dr Vikram Sarabhai

His work in the advancement of nuclear physics, and contribution to the Compton scattering and R-process have been incomparable. 

Having served as Scientific Advisor to Prime Ministers Nehru and Shastri, Dr Homi Bhabha is forever commemorated as the “Father of the Indian nuclear programme”.


The Horus Eye is a weekly column written by Divya Bhan analysing current affairs and policies. This column does not intend or aim to promote any ideology and does not reflect the official position of The Sparrow.


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