FOR Professor Zuberi, the rendering of the verse of the Srimad Bhagwat Gita was basically a discovery of India by Oppenheimer. Some studied the Indian knowledge tradition but very few of them saw its relevance.
For him, the idea of India or the knowledge tradition of India was rarely discovered and appreciated by Americans. In fact, Oppenheimer was not alone in acknowledging the relevance of the Gita. Some of the poets he venerated such as WB Yeats and TS Eliot, apparently, were aficionados of the Gita. Jeffery Paine, in his book the Father India, has chronicled several leading figures who were influenced by the Indian knowledge tradition.
For Prof Zuberi, the quoting of the Gita by Oppenheimer was an acknowledgment of the Indian knowledge tradition in capturing the essence of nuclear weapon, its potency and impact. Professor Zuberi was an admirer of Jawaharlal Nehru. He held the viewpoint on the basis of a confidential note that he had seen that Nehru had instructed Bhabha to keep the weapon option open in the India nuclear weapons programme, though Professor Zuberi started articulating it in the mid-1990s, not in the classroom of late 1980s and early 1990s.
Positive image in India
Why was Oppenheimer admired so much among a section of intelligentsia in India? Although it has been denied that the Government of India led by Prime Minister Nehru offered him the citizenship, yet the documentary evidences indicate his proximity to the atomic establishment of India, especially Homi Jahangir Bhabha. Even in the non-scientific community, he has a very positive image despite being the father of the American nuclear bomb. Like my professor, the Indian academic and policy communities, in general, had great admiration for Oppenheimer. A combination of factors contributed to Oppenheimer’s positive image in India. Of course, his knowledge of the Indian tradition added to the flavour.
First, Oppenheimer’s persona matched the dominant Indian ideology during the Cold War. In the Indian imagination, he was a progressive free thinker. He was considered a supporter of the communist ideology, but he was thrown out of the party because of his reading of Sigmund Freud. He had a left tilt but was not a pure communist who has ‘a rigid mental world tightly sealed from outside influences’ as described by two American communist historians, John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr.
Unique blend of ideology
Oppenheimer’s ideology combined the ancient tradition somewhat similar to the vision of Nehruvian worldview as reflected in the Discovery of India. In India, there were persons like Swami Sahajanand Saraswati and Rahul Sanskrityayan who too represented the unique blend of the left ideology and the Indian knowledge tradition.
In 1942, Swami Sahajanand Saraswati broke away from the Communist Party of India and as a President of the Kisan Sabha participated in the Quit India Movement. Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose had declared April 28 the day of his arrest by the Britishers as the Swami Sahajanand Saraswati Day. Oppenheimer had been influenced by even writers like Ernest Hemingway. And, of course, Oppenheimer matched the broad thinking of Professor Zuberi.
Second, India, a democracy, has a strange engagement and relationship with the United States, another democracy. The country’s intelligentsia likes American democracy, but has been sceptical of its capitalist model of economy and cautious of its foreign policy. During the Cold War, generally, the atmosphere was critical of the American establishment.
Oppenheimer was a symbol of anti-establishment inside the US. Possibly, this was one of the reasons for his respect among the intelligentsia. The admiration seems to have basically flown in from the sympathy he had evoked for the withdrawal of his security clearance in 1954