Realpolitik over nuclear fuel, sixty years ago

The story of Travancore’s thorium

The overwhelming success of Sardar Patel & V P Menon in integrating the 500-odd princely state into the Indian Union in a few short years after independence masks rearguard attempts by the departing British to create small client states in the Indian subcontinent to serve their geopolitical interests. Here’s an example:

Flag of Travancore - Source: WikipediaOn 21 July 1947 (Sir C P Ramaswamy Aiyar), the dewan of Travancore had an appointment to meet the viceroy in Delhi. The previous evening he met a senior British diplomat and told him that he hoped to get recognition from his government. If India refused to supply Travancore with textiles, he asked, would the United Kingdom step in? Sir C P had, it seems, been encouraged in his ambitions (to secure independence for the princely state of Travancore) by politicians in London, who saw an independent Travancore as a source of a material crucial to the coming Cold War. In fact, the Travancore government had already signed an agreement with the UK government for the supply of monazite (an ore of Thorium). In London the minister of supply advised his government to avoid making any statement that ‘would give the Indian Dominions leverage in combating Travancore’s claim for independence’. Since the state had the ‘richest known deposit of monazite sand’, said the minister, from the British point of view ‘it would be an advantage if Travancore retained political and economic independence, at least for the time being’. [Ramachandra Guha, India After Gandhi, pp45-46]

Sir C P changed his mind after being stabbed by a member of the Kerala Socialist Party the next week, Travancore & Cochin went on to form the state of Kerala. The story of the integration of Indian princely states is a fascinating one. V P Menon—who deserves the Bharat Ratna—has written a fantastic account of the episode and his almost out of print book is a must read.

Aside: Guha mentions that the Travancore navy sank the Dutch fleet in 1741, and this was the only naval defeat inflicted by an Asian state on a European power. Don’t mess with the Malayalee!

5 thoughts on “Realpolitik over nuclear fuel, sixty years ago”

  1. The Dutch fleet was sunk during the Battle of Kolachel which the Travancore Army won. The Dutch commander, following the defeat served under the Maharajah of Travancore as his chief.

  2. Nitin, I just got Guha’s book. Hopefully I can read it soon.

    JK, it’s funny the defeated commander becomes the chief of victor’s navy. I take it Travancore never won a naval battle again…:)

  3. Nitin,

    I was a little annoyed with myself after reading your excerpt – because for a while I drew a complete blank about the Travancore discussion, though I’d just finished reading Guha’s book a couple of weeks ago. But then that’s bound to happen, I guess, with a book is large as Guha’s, and filled too with hundreds (maybe thousands) of such invaluable nuggets.

    Here’s my review of the book

  4. JK,
    Why am I not surprised that you should know this? 🙂

    Chandra–me too; the good news is that it’s readable, and it’s not necessary (?) to read the chapters/sections in sequence.

    Hari,
    Thanks the link. Reading it is probably like painting a big ship. By the time you are done, you’ve got to start again.

  5. Guha, by the way, is not the first historian in his family.

    His grand uncle Swaminathan, was the chief editor of the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi.

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