Remembering Dhirendra Sharma, the quintessential dissident and academic-activist

Remembering Dhirendra Sharma, the quintessential dissident and academic-activist

Photo of Dhirendra Sharma (right) holding the hand of APJ Abdul Kalam.

A photo of Dheerendra Sharma (right) holding the hand of APJ Abdul Kalam. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

With the passing of Professor Dhirendra Sharma (1932-2024) in Dehradun this week, a highly controversial and sensational chapter in the history of nuclear technology development in India has come to an end. Professor Sharma was the first intellectual to publicly criticise the nuclear programme in India and campaign against nuclear energy. Although the government did not withdraw its nuclear energy development efforts, Professor Sharma's relentless campaign on safety and techno-economic issues forced long-term systemic changes in the sector. He did all this as a public policy expert working at a public university – Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi – and paid the price for raising uncomfortable questions.

With a doctorate in philosophy from University College London and a decade-long teaching experience in US universities, Prof. Sharma was appointed Associate Professor at the newly established JNU in 1974. He was a founding faculty member of the Centre for Science Policy Studies in the School of Social Sciences. The centre was headed by pharmaceutical industry expert BV Rangarao and Prof. Sharma replaced him.

Inside view of a nuclear facility

This period saw many political and technological changes in India and around the world: the oil shock, the 'peaceful nuclear explosion' (PNE) at Pokhran, the Emergency and the rise of the Janata Party regime. By this time the nuclear power programme was over two decades old and the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) was making ambitious plans for commercial nuclear power generation. Against this backdrop, Prof. Sharma decided to focus on the study of nuclear and energy policies in India, but within the purview of the academy. He began by studying the sociology of science and conducted lectures on energy policy and wrote research papers and monographs on energy policies, focusing on nuclear energy.

In one such paper, Prof. Sharma warned that “there is a grave danger of our energy policy falling into the hands of the nuclear technology elite”. He argued: “Our national energy plan and our military and defence interests can be better served by developing solar technology” rather than nuclear power and bombs. To achieve the target of 10,000 MW nuclear power generation by 1990, he estimated that India would need 2,000 tons of heavy water every year to run 44 reactors of 230 MW capacity each, an army of trained personnel and massive investments. This was the first critical assessment of nuclear power in India.

Drawing on his experience of participating in anti-war, anti-nuclear and civil rights movements in the UK and the US while in academia, Prof. Sharma took the next step: he formed the Committee for a Sensible Nuclear Policy (COSNUP) in June 1981, the first such civil society body in India. The committee issued a statement signed by eminent citizens, including former diplomat and Mr. Nehru’s sister Vijayalakshmi Pandit, expressing concern at the emergence of a nuclear bomb lobby in India and calling for a rethink.

All this did not go down well with the establishment. JNU set up a nine-member panel to review the functioning of the Science Policy Centre headed by Prof. Sharma, headed by none other than Raja Ramanna, the 'father' of PNE and soon to be the head of DAE. As expected, the panel recommended the closure of the centre, saying science policy research should focus on topics like law of the sea, science education, etc. and did not require a dedicated centre. The centre did not close, but Prof. Sharma remained a target of the university establishment.

In a landmark book, 'India's Nuclear Estate', published in May 1983, Prof. Sharma presented an inside view of the nuclear establishment and pointed out several shortcomings, such as the lack of an independent regulatory authority and no plan for safe disposal of nuclear waste. The book was based on information he collected during the Janata Party rule (1977-1979), when he was allowed to visit nuclear installations, meet scientists and access internal records.

Access was facilitated by Atma Ram, former director general of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research and scientific adviser to Prime Minister Morarji Desai. When the book was published, some wanted Prof. Sharma arrested for violating the secrecy clauses of the DAE Act. He was not arrested but transferred to the School of Languages ​​in December 1983 and the Science Policy Centre became defunct. His transfer became international news when Noam Chomsky and British Labour politician Tony Benn wrote to Indira Gandhi about Prof. Sharma's harassment.

Friendship with Abdul Kalam

Prof. Sharma's interest in science communication arose when he realised the difficulty in explaining scientific terms such as radiation and nuclear safety to villagers in local dialects during his expedition. He joined the Indian Science Writers' Association (ISWA) and was elected its President in 1988 and again in 1992 and 1993. After a few years of his retirement, he settled in Dehradun and remained an active member of the social and scientific community there.

He was a great proponent of South Asian solidarity and wrote extensively about the need to develop the 'third pole' – the Himalayas – as a zone of peace and scientific research. Throughout his life, Prof. Sharma stood for the core values ​​of peace, harmony, democracy, transparency, academic freedom and openness in public life. He once wrote: “If I had my time again, I would face the challenges with even greater vigour.”

His friendship with APJ Abdul Kalam dated back to the 1980s, continuing despite their differences over nuclear and missile development. Prof. Sharma used to describe Dr. Kalam as a “scientist-rishi” and encouraged him to promote the benefits associated with missile development for social good. Prof. Sharma was an avid adventurer and regularly went hiking in the Himalayas and the Alps until his early 80s. He was part of the team that visited Kailash Mansarovar in 2005 and swam in the cold waters of the lake.

Prof. Sharma's body was donated to the Himalayan Institute of Medical Sciences (popularly known as Jolly Grant Hospital) as per his wish. His wife Nirmala passed away two months ago and her body was also donated to the same teaching hospital.

Dinesh C. Sharma is a columnist and author based in New Delhi. He was associated with Vigyan Prasar as the founding managing editor of India Science Wire (ISW) from 2017 to 2019.

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