In May 1947, two of India’s greatest scientists - Dr Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar and Dr Homi Bhabha - boarded an Air India flight at the Juhu Aerodrome in Mumbai and headed out on a critical mission to negotiate with a power that controlled the world’s largest and richest deposits of thorium, an important component for making nuclear weapons.
A year and a half after twin atomic bombs were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the spectre of a global nuclear war loomed, and the world’s great powers were vying for control of these ‘rare earth’ deposits.
While the ‘titular owner’ of these deposits lay in his ‘infinite cosmic sleep’ in a temple along India’s West coast, the ‘custodians’ who ruled on his behalf were carrying out clandestine negotiations for the enrichment of thorium and uranium.
Incredibly, Lord Vishnu as Sri Ananta Padmanabhaswamy was not just the master of the innumerable treasures that lay hidden under the temple in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, but as the ‘ruler of Travancore’, he was also the lord of the vast sandy beaches between Kollam and Nagercoil, which contained monazite from which thorium was extracted and processed to make uranium.
The most comprehensive work on this fascinating but forgotten saga of Indian history has been done by Prof Itty Abraham from the National University of Singapore (NUS), in his paper titled Rare Earths: Travancore in the Annals of the Cold War.
Accessing documents, newspaper clipping and personal archives, Prof Itty Abraham pieces together the thrilling sequence of events in which national and international geopolitics became enmeshed, leading to Travancore’s eventual accession to India.
By 1946, the Americans and the British were negotiating with the Travancore state to gain complete access to the Thorium deposits. Indian Prime Minister (interim) Jawaharlal Nehru had been so alarmed by this that in April 1947, he had even proposed the aerial bombing of Travancore to his Cabinet “to bring them to their heels”. Thankfully, Dr Bhatnagar and Dr Bhabha managed to negotiate a settlement and the ‘Travancore-India Joint Committee on Atomic Energy’ was formed in early June 1947, to look into the issues regarding the control of thorium.
But peace was short-lived, for just a few days later, on 11th June 1947, Sir C P Ramaswamy Aiyer, the Dewan of Travancore, declared that the Kingdom would join neither India nor Pakistan. He also dissolved the Sri Moolam Assembly and banned the Travancore State Congress.
Travancore also appointed Khan Bahadur Abdul Karim as its ‘representative’ in Pakistan and there was talk of similar such appointments in the UK and the US. Surprisingly, the American diplomats knew as early as 1944, that Travancore would try to declare its independence in the event of the British leaving India. The US State Department instructed the American Consulate in Madras (Chennai) to adopt a ‘wait and watch policy’.
New Delhi was furious.
– Travancore was warned that it would be “starved out” and that there would be economic reprisals.
Undaunted, Sir C P Ramaswamy Aiyer began negotiating with Pakistan, Thailand and Burma for the supply of food grains to overcome the Indian embargo. Similarly, arrangements were made with the British and the Australians for the sale of copra and coconut oil products.
While many in India were furious with Sir CP, he found a valuable supporter in Hindu Mahasabha leader Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, who was delighted at the establishment of a ‘Hindu Rashtra’. Prof Itty Abraham in his paper quotes how on 19th June 1947, Savarkar sent a telegram to Sir CP (quoted in the Hindu newspaper), in which he supported “the Maharaja and the far-sighted and courageous decision to declare the independence of the Hindu state of Travancore”. He added that “The Nizam had declared his independence and other Muslim states are likely to do so. Hindu states bold enough to assert it have the same rights’ (Folder 63, roll 1405, C P Ramaswamy papers, National Archives of India).
But while Travancore had all the infrastructure it needed to be independent, its problems were the same as in other states that had tried and failed – the support of the people. Most of Travancore’s population was in favour of joining India. The Travancore State Congress launched a massive agitation to put pressure on the Maharaja. Even the staunchly pro-Palace Nair Service Society (NSS) joined the agitation.
On 25th July 1947, an assassination attempt was made on Sir CP Ramaswamy Aiyer at the Music Academy (today’s Sri Swathi Thirunal College of Music) in Trivandrum, as he was boarding his car after a music concert. He was attacked with a butcher’s knife, which slashed his cheek and pierced his skull. Thankfully, Sir CP survived, but the very next day, a visibly shaken Maharaja informed the Indian government that Travancore would join India. A formal declaration was made on 30th July 1947.
After India’s independence, Travancore was merged with Cochin to become part of the Travancore-Cochin union and later the state of Kerala. Ironically, through the 1950s, the Indian government, which had been vehemently talking about ‘state ownership’ of thorium, was happily exporting it in vast quantities to the United States. But the discovery of vast deposits in Brazil and South Africa diminished the importance of those in Travancore.
The saga of Lord Padmanabha’s control over the world's thorium, and how it propelled Travancore to contemplate independence remains a little-known chapter in the story of India’s independence.