Yellapragada SubbaRow – A Great Man of Science

Relentless in the pursuit of cures

North of Guntur in Andhra Pradesh where it's famed red-hot chilies grew, and South of Rajamundry where many a graceful courtesan of yore was trained is situated a sleepy little village, named Bhimavaram, the name literally meaning "the gift of Bhima". Bhima means giant, as you all know. Legends tell us that around 890–918 AD, a Chalukya king named Bhima built a Siva temple and laid the foundation to this town, which thence carried his name. Legends and lore have faded away, leaving just Bhima’s name behind. This was the village blessed by the birth, in 1895, of a little boy named Subbarao (fourth among seven siblings) to Jaganatham and Venkamma. This little boy, Yellapragada SubbaRow, would go on to become a giant, yet another Bhima, in his field of expertise.

To a certain extent, he was a confused man in his teens, wanting only to make a name for himself, then wanting to become an ascetic monk, which he forsook (his mother Venkamma refused permission) to thence follow a career in medicine. When he first ran away from home, aged 13, with his cousin to Varanasi, the boys had planned to sell bananas to pilgrims in order to make a living. They were caught and brought back, and schooling continued, but Subbarow made a few attempts to pass his matriculation. Nationalism was on the rise and for a while, that fervor took a hold of him, due to which his stentorian mother sent the boy off to Triplicane in Madras to continue his high school. Tragedy struck, as his father who had not thrived as a revenue officer, succumbed to beriberi. But the boy passed his exam on the third attempt. Though he drifted toward the Ramakrishna Mission for a while against his mother’s wishes, Subbarow passed his intermediate, with distinction in Maths. Eventually, he joined the MMC Madras Medical College, in 1915.

Somehow, in the middle of his medical studies, he got married to a very young child bride Sheshagiri, and obtained some financial support from his father-in-law, a prosperous agriculturist. It was a personal affliction and tragedy which led him into Ayurveda. Acute dysentery caused by tropical sprue laid waste two of his brothers and nearly took his life too, as allopathic medicines failed to help. Ayurvedic treatment cured him and got him interested in that line of medicine for a period, but as you guessed, he drifted on, still in search of his future. Apparently, due to his nationalistic fervor and wearing khadi clothes, Subbarow was failed his surgery exams by the British professor and thus obtained only an LMS certification, not an MBBS degree.

A chance meeting with an American doctor John Fox Kendricks, convinced him that his future lay in America, and Row applied to the Harvard Medical school of tropical medicine and got admission, but then found that finances were impossible to come by and a scholarship hard to get, especially so since his brother who could have helped with the necessary recommendation, to the philanthropist, Satyalinga Naicker’s charities had passed away after contracting sprue. With no other avenues open, he accepted the post of a lecturer in the Madras Ayurvedic college at a Rs 70/- monthly salary.  He kept at it, spending time on a pet project of codifying available knowledge on Ayurveda, into a tome.

His efforts to go to America continued and his application to Harvard again bore fruit, but the US university informed that research in Ayurveda was not something up their avenue. They also made it clear that a scholarship was not available. Somehow, with the help of his father-in-law and another friend, Row managed to scrape enough finances for the forthcoming voyage to Boston. One thing was clear though, the young wife Sheshagiri would remain in India while at the same time, the prospect of Row’s return to India seemed bleak (even though he promised to return in 3 years). Row was on his way, and the sailing on the P&O liner SS Kashgar to Boston via London, uneventful. Interestingly, he had prepared for the voyage and in order to combat seasickness, he practiced the motion on a swing for many days, near his home.

SubbaRow disembarked in Boston on 6th Oct 1923 and joined the course for tropical medicine with some financial support from Dr RP Strong, his mentor as well as an anonymous doctor. His certificate from Madras was not good enough to get him a job in any hospital, and the only job he could get was as a night porter at the Bringham hospital, washing urinals and bed pans every night, and living in the dark basement of a nearby building. Though Dr Strong tried hard to get him another job, he was unsuccessful, perhaps due to the young Indian’s color and lack of acceptable qualifications. All he could do was to give him flexibility for his classes in parasitology. That research led SubbRow to study in-depth E-Coli, Filariasis and Trypanosomiasis. By the end of the year, he heard glad tidings that a son was born to him in India. Eight months later, he obtained his diploma in tropical medicine.

Some people even though eminently qualified in the fields of science tend to be superstitious and SubbaRow too was no different, he was sure his son would die in his infancy and kept writing home trying to get his family to come to terms with the impending doom. As he prophesied, the child died in 9 months of a streptococcal infection. What SubbaRow did was to send some instructions and a kit to the Kings institute in Guindy, so that they can use it for such a future case of infection, if anybody contracted it.  A few days later, he lost his night porter job, but received the scholarship from India which he had been waiting for, and joined up for Biochemistry at Harvard. This was good enough for his tuition, and around the same time, a benevolent American in New York arranged a $30 per month stipend for his subsistence.

His relationship with his supervisor was to turn his life around, the person being Dr Cyrus H Fiske. Folin the department head managed to get him instated as a regular graduate student, with a part-time job as a library assistant. As luck would have it, he obtained a scholarship while the MSN charities in India doubled his scholarship. With a little savings, he purchased a secondhand microscope, and his barebone living continued.

Life went on smoothly, SubbaRow made some friends, Finke being one of them. He became somewhat of an eccentric at college with a reputation of being adept at his work. His first original work was the submission of a paper with Fiske on the method of estimating phosphorus in the human body, something very important to diagnose many diseases. In 1925, the colorimetry procedure was successfully demonstrated, and the Fiske-Subba Row method became the standard, to this day! Their next brilliant success in 1927 came when researching insulin effects on blood sugar, and the presence of phosphorous compounds in muscles. Eventually they discovered phosphocreatine and detailed how this agent controlled muscular action. It was revolutionary, for just a few years ago another (incorrect) hypothesis had won the scientists Myerhoff and Hill, a Nobel prize. Two lobbies formed, one supporting the erstwhile prize winners and another for the Fiske Row discovery. In addition to that, the Eggleton couple published their discovery of a similar phosphorous compound just two months before Fiske and SubbaRow could do it. A period of intense rivalry and determination of the compound continued between these parties and it appears that the discovery of ATP was eventually credited to K Lohmann from Myerhoff’s lab (Those interested in the details may peruse - The Discovery of Adenosine Triphosphate and the Establishment of Its Structure: Koscak Maruyama).

SubbaRow (as he chose to spell his name) was by now getting noticed and becoming famous, fellowships followed, and his earnings increased. With the newfound confidence and a fatter purse in his pocket, SubbaRow plunged into the American way of life. But two things made him plan an exit from Harvard, one being covert racism and the other being a lack of proper remuneration. Even years after his brilliant discoveries, he, a PhD holder (obtained it in 1930) was at the bottom rung of the ladder, working as a teaching fellow, a position usually reserved for graduate students. Even Folin’s persistent attempts could not break the prejudice, for example, he, a colored man would not be allowed to teach female students, at that time!

At this juncture, Folin passed away and Fiske angled for a promotion to fill Folin’s post. To boost Fiske’s chances, it appears that SubbaRow wrote a letter to the dean stating that all credit for the previous inventions were fully Fiske’s and that he was just helping Fiske. It did not help Fiske and an outsider Dr Hastings was brought in, while Fiske was awarded full tenure and SubbaRow, left in the cold got nothing. His experiments with Nicotinic acid had not been going quite well, nor did his collaboration with other universities. His teaching stint with a small promotion did not work out, students complained they could not understand his accent. Harvard later tried to explain their shoddy treatment of the brilliant young man, stating that he was offered limited opportunities only because he had a time-bound visa at that juncture, and that this uncertainty prevented them from offering him a proper faculty position.

But there was a little consolation, for a lady had entered his life – Vilma Prochownick, from Germany, as a research assistant. He would tell her often of his racial inadequacy on the America of the 20’s, of his thoughts on returning to India, and of a planned future away from Harvard, hopefully with her. This was not to happen, as Vilma contracted TB and was sent off to a sanitorium for a while, where she decided that science was no more her passion, but that literature was. WWII had broken out, her parents in Germany could no longer support her and she was hellbent on working in a library, to be among books! The two of them finally parted ways. Meanwhile, Sheshagiri in India was waiting for her husband who had no plans to return. He would write to her and send her money, but all she wanted was him to come home. Th three years had by now extended to seventeen years.

Lederle - Pearl River
Racial prejudices were a continuous problem and in one instance, he was arrested and held overnight when a lady in the neighborhood got molested. Around this time, in 1940, Lederle with whom he had collaborated while working on precocious Anemia and liver extracts, offered him a regular position with earnings of $15,000 as against the measly $2,700 Harvard was paying him. Joining Lederle, his responsibilities took a new turn, synthesizing vitamins and negotiating patents, as well as managing around 300 scientists. As years passed by, he concentrated on folic acid (part of the vitamin-B complex), helped develop its derivatives, teropterin and aminopterin (now being used to fight cancer), directed research that produced the new broad-spectrum antibiotic, aureomycin (a cure for serious infections untouched by penicillin or streptomycin). He also laid the foundations for the isolation of vitamin B12.

One of his important discoveries was the cure for filariasis using two-ethyl compounds. I guess in many ways, he was the reason many hundreds in Kerala were cured of this terrible ailment, especially those residing near the canals and rivers and toiling in cottage coir industries.

His collaboration with Dr Sydney Faber in using teropetrin for chemotherapy against cancer are legendry and explained in detail in Siddhartha Mukherjee’s lovely book The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.  At Farber's request, SubbaRow's team developed a series of antifolates (folic acid antagonists), including aminopterin, and found that these disturbed the metabolism of leukemic cells in chickens and mice, an effect that could then be reversed by administering folic acid. It was rumored that SubbaRow’s next project would be to find a cure for cancer and his associates were sure he would succeed.

Sadly, it was not to be, YSR, Sub or SubbaRow as people addressed him, aged just 52, passed away in his sleep, due to natural causes on Aug 9th, 1948. An autopsy pointed to a heart attack. Poignantly, his mother Venkamma outlived him for 41 years, to a ripe old age of 94. After SubbaRow’s death, his pastor Merton Lockhart, held onto his ashes, with no plans to send it to India for a Hindu disposal, believing them to be inconsistent with Baptist beliefs and the confidence that SubbaRow had accepted Christian beliefs.

Along the way he posed like most Americanized Indians but he was still not a naturalized citizen. Until 1946, America did not permit people of Indian origin to apply for American citizenship even though Caucasians and Chinese could! In 1946, PL 483 passed by President Truman allowed Indians to apply for American citizenship. SubbaRow processed his papers and obtained the necessary clearance, but failed to go through the next step, of submitting a declaration of intent.

SubbaRow had varied tastes, he learned how to swim, ride horses, shoot arrows and fly planes. He developed an interest in orchids and was trying to figure out how he could get them to grow faster. He learned to fly on an Aeronca biplane, mostly to relieve work tensions, and flew a long distance just three days before his death.

A few years after Subba Row’s death in 1948, Lederle laboratories opened a plant in India at Bulsar near Bombay. A plaque was unveiled, stating: “Science simply prolongs life—Religion deepens it.” The Lederle plant in Bulsar symbolized Dr. Subba Row’s scientific contributions made to the United States and India. As was stated, many of the pharmaceuticals produced under his direction have improved the quality of life for people in both countries and for millions of others around the world.

While SubbaRow was indeed a meticulous scientist and researcher, his personal side is not very well known to the public, so I thought I’d spend few paragraphs on SubbaRow, the person. The eulogies and the two or three biographies are flattering and present SubbaRow in a single dimension, a man fighting a racist organization, struggling to make ends meet and always a humble introvert. But in reality, he was a little more to the center, and quite an ordinary person, with a lot many virtues and a few faults or deficiencies. These become quite clear in the many interviews conducted by his first biographer Gupta, and thankfully uploaded in the Subbarow website, for others to peruse. These kinds of work pressures exist to this day on and some amount of discrimination is still evident but mostly as an undercurrent.

My interest in delving deeper started with this aspect - SubbaRow had informed Seshagiri that he had annulled their marriage and remarried in 1941, now what and who could that be? The interviews I perused are the ones Gupta had with YSR’s American colleagues, assistants, and supervisors.

Almost everyone highlights his astounding photographic memory, dominating personality, his punishing work ethic, his demands for total loyalty from his subordinates, and his boundless enthusiasm when he identified a cause to go after. Almost everyone noticed that he was very often in the American Cyanamides – Lederle lab premises at Pearl river at 6 o’clock in the morning and up until 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning. While he did ask often about the wellbeing of his assistants, he allowed just a handful to get close to him, and only one or two into his two-bedroomed apartment, lined with many books and spartan otherwise.

His eating habits were noticed by some of his colleagues, that he was an unhealthy eater, prone to putting on much weight. His longtime associate - Anne Irene Schivek Mowat, mentions - I believe it was Sparr’s Drug Store and he ate most of his meals there - his eating habits were very bad - his table manners were all right but he just didn't eat the proper food and he didn't eat enough or at regular hours.

Another important aspect we can note is that in the beginning, he got his way in his new lab, budgets and funds were approved, personnel hires were quickly approved, but as the company got bigger, issues cropped up and so also the many frustrations and the demand for all the administrative work. His spare time was spent in trivial pursuits - Mowat believed that he took up flying and bowling out of sheer boredom - not because he was sociable - his social life was of his own choosing. She continues - He was lonely, but I think this was the structure of the man, I think he was so wrapped up in his work he wanted his time for himself to spend the way he wanted.

There is one intriguing aspect in his life, especially the background SubbRow presented to some of his friends as well as the Baptist church he was associated with. Almost all accounts establish that SubbaRow sailed from Bombay to Boston, via London. Mrs Mowat, Torgersen and some others were led to believe by YSR that he spent a year in London and acquired an MD in tropical sciences there. In fact, he also went on to tell them about his difficult existence in London, having had to eat meat and so on. Was he trying to garner sympathy? Perhaps! In reality, he embarked from Bombay in Sept 1923 and arrived Boston In Oct 1923. After completing tropical medicine at Boston, he started his PhD efforts in 1924, but completed it only in 1930.

Interesting tidbits abound, that he was a bad driver, scaring his passengers, sitting back, looking through the steering wheel and racing away in his car. He often met with the famous Coomaraswamy in New York. We can also note that at times, he was opinionated, short-tempered and sometimes quite vindictive. He never drank, but used to smoke often and then stopped it entirely. He did like praise and did want honors. All in all, what we should learn from the above, is that SubbaRow was a simple human being, not always a paragon of virtues, but a great human being, nevertheless.

Most of his colleagues called him Sub and noticed how his voice went up in pitch as he got excited and his diction somewhat difficult to figure out, at that instant. The Mowat’s state that SubbaRow expected his team to be totally focused on work and did not really appreciate social commitments such as marriage, children, and the such. But as his prosperity increased, he treated himself to a new car, and involvement in many activities such as riding, bowling, flying, archery and so on

The most important chapter in his short life was very personal and involved a congenial, personable, and sociable lady named Doris McKenzie hailing from Florida, who arrived at Lederle in 1943, as Dr Hill’s research associate and later became a chemist under SubbaRow. While SubbaRow hardly talked about the relationship, his colleagues noticed and provided some pointers after his death. We can conclude from the discussions Gupta had with YSR’s colleagues that YSR was certainly enamored by Doris Mckenzie, socialized with her often (and getting closely associated with her Baptist church) and as one colleague mentioned - I think he loved her very deeply and he was frustrated. I don't think she could take him as her husband. Well, she couldn't anyway unless he got a divorce. Toward the end, he was trying to get his marriage annulled.

After his death, Doris was eased out of Lederle and she was quite miffed about it. A colleague added - At the time he died she was very much left out - I understand that she probably was the top paid person that he had - paid more than anyone else under him. She was really turning out results - after he died, she became discouraged and left. In fact, Doris (and a colleague) got to the apartment and opened the door to see him dead. Perhaps he died heartbroken, perhaps it was the telling pressure at work. Doris McKenzie continued her research with TB, cancer and chemotherapy, writing many papers as late as 1967 and working at the Departments of Medicine, Veterans Administration Hospital and the University of Miami School of Medicine, Florida.

Sheshagiri, his wife, said to Gupta later – “It is my misfortune that he did not come back. But our marriage served him to get the mission of his life fulfilled because it gave him the opportunity to get his medical degree and to go to USA for research."

Today, dermatologists treating psoriasis, oncologists working with cancer, physicians prescribing broad spectrum antibiotics, filaria patients and pregnant mothers, can all thank SubbRow for his untiring efforts to get them effective treatment, and sometimes, even a cure. Many of his contemporaries and subordinates earned their laurels from his support and hard work, but SubbaRow never demurred, receiving neither awards nor titles in that monochromatic period.

As Doron K. Antrim observed, "You've probably never heard of Dr. Yellapragada Subbarao. Yet because he lived, you may be alive and are well today. Because he lived, you may live longer.


In Quest of Panacea: Successes and Failures of Yellapragada SubbaRow - Sikharam Prasanna Kumara Gupta, ‎Edgar L. Milford

Yellapragada SubbaRow, a Life in Quest of Panacea– Raji  Narasimhan

Yellapragada SubbaRao Archives OnLine

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer - Mukherjee, Siddhartha (2010).

With many thanks and due acknowledgment to SPK Gupta whose sources and interviews have been referred to, while preparing this article.


The VOA fiasco – New Delhi 1963

The gloom which had set in after the Indo China conflict of 1962 was slowly abating, but the mood in the country and especially the capital at New Delhi, was still downbeat. Nehru had been discussing additional support from America with the energetic Ambassador Galbraith who was the interlocuter between the US President Kennedy and the Indian Prime Minister. Small military aid, albeit temporary, was starting to flow in while at the same time, India had completed negotiations of the MIG 21 deal with Russia. Hoping to maximize the thaw in the hitherto cold relations between US and India, even though the US were miffed with the MIG 21 deal, and with Defense Minister VK Krishna Menon sidelined, Galbraith pushed for stronger ties between the two countries. In fact, the US saw an opportunity to woo India away from Nehru’s policy of non-alignment and towards the concept of a collective defense of the sub-continent, using a defense umbrella concept sponsored by America.

Today you can see news channels from anywhere in the world on your TV set in India and there is hardly any restriction and censorship, but there was a time when the only mass media tool was the radio and the airwaves were uncrowded. The technology was guarded and the limited time and bandwidth available, was carefully used to deliver calibrated messages. We now go to a time when there were just 400,000 or so radios among the Indian population and just one AIR service delivering news. The MW and SW sets also picked up transmissions from Europe, but of course English transmissions from the BBC were the mainstay.

The other news channel was a collection of newspapers and by 1962 there were dozens of papers and a large circulation. What the editor decided was what the reader saw, and they wielded some control on the politicians, this being the only checks and balance. English newspapers were popular mainly in Metropolises.  The cold war effect was also paramount, so which side a country, or its press supported was important and allies viewed transgressions seriously.

The US were embroiled in the Cuban missile crisis around the same time and it took a while for the USA to lend serious focus to the Sino India conflict and its aftermath. Nevertheless, there had been a lot of clandestine activity underway and we talked about it in some articles previously, concerning the US surveillance over China, the U2 missions and the establishment of the Charbatia base etc. We also glossed over the involvement of airman Biju Patnaik, his relationship with the CIA and the US administration, and of his being the go between for some of the direct discussions. Another high-level contact the US had in the Indian parliament, though not overly public, was Morarji Desai.

As David Devereux explains in his paper on Anglo American relations with India in connection with the Sino Indian conflict - The brief war was costly to both sides; China secured its frontier on its own terms, but lost a major potential ally in India, and the war also further fractured its already tense relations with the Soviet Union. India lost its credibility as leader of the non-aligned movement. The reasoning for the Chinese focus on the strategic Aksai Chin region in the west became apparent when China’s secret efforts at developing atomic weapons in distant Sinkiang province were exposed after a successful test there in 1964. The US continued to believe that Indian defenses needed to be strengthened, and was convinced that delicate wooing could persuade India to abandon nonalignment.

It was with this backdrop that a number of other schemes were hatched by Galbraith and others in the think tank, aided by inputs passed through Biju Patnaik and Morarji. November 1962 was a month of turmoil in New Delhi, the Chinese incursions were preying on the psyche of Prime Minister Nehru as well as his team and we see the following note of a radio station, in the Ambassadors journal dated Nov 13th. The Indians are asking us for help on presenting their side of the dispute to the world. The New China News Agency is getting an enormous amount of stuff out through Hong Kong; the Indians feel their side of the story is not being told. Perhaps we can give them some help in monitoring the Chinese propaganda and they could then send someone to Hong Kong to get out an answer. And we can get more of their position on Voice of America. Maybe we should lease them some time on V.O.A. I am not greatly impressed with the importance of this sort of thing, but everyone else is.

American interests are better explained in an old congressional hearing dating to Aug 1950 where the topic was ‘the Soviets have India’s ear” and in a discussion about VOA, Robert Turnbull’s report got tabled. Turnbull stated - Very few of India's 400,000 radio sets, one for every 8 persons—are ever tuned in on the Voice of America. It is not because listeners don't want to hear the American broadcasts. The fact is quite to the contrary. Indians are anxious to hear both sides, but so far as radio propaganda is concerned, the Soviet Union and its satellites have a virtual monopoly on the Indian air waves. This situation exists simply because the Voice of America has no transmitter near enough or with a sufficiently powerful beam to be heard at favorable hours, whereas the powerful Russian stations can be received with moderately priced sets virtually around the clock. The Voice of America is heard best in India late at night when few persons are listening in this early-rising country.

Also, the Voice of America's wavelength is so close to that of All-India Radio, the Soviet stations and the big transmitter in Ceylon, that it suffers constant interference aside from Soviet jamming. So, we are letting the radio war go by default. If it is not possible to build a transmitter sufficiently close, or to penetrate the wall of interference, the next best proposition is to purchase time on Radio Ceylon, which is heard clearly in this whole area. This is under consideration.

Robert Turnbull added - We suffer another disability in this propaganda war that the Russians do not. Indians do not like to feel that they are being propagandized. Therefore, American operations in this field are suspect and sometimes have an effect opposite to the one intended. But somehow the Russians get away with it. Probably that is due partly to innate leftist tendencies in the Asians. Closely related to this is an underprivileged people's resentment of American prosperity. Our demonstration of the benefits of free enterprise must be handled with extreme tact.

No records exist of the discussions prior to the signing of an agreement between the US and India, notably between the AIR and the VOA on the 9th of July 1963, but I understood that it was VOA director Edward Murrow’s plan, in order to replace the ageing transmitter located at Ceylon.  Anyway, Galbraith pushed home his idea and Nehru accepted it in the heat of the moment, after all, Galbraith and America had helped him out of the Sino India situation and Nehru owed him one. So we can conclude that the agreement was mooted with Galbraith’s gentle prodding is clear, and it was signed on the eve of Galibraith’s return to the US after his Ambassadorial tenure (He returned to take up his position at Harvard in July 1963).

But once it was done and the news got out, the uproar in the news media as well as in political circles and the parliament was not only acerbic, but persistent and vocal. There were some supporters, but much more against and critical about the entire affair as well as the secretive decision process. Interestingly, even Krishna Menon who had until his ouster been Nehru’s biggest supporter and friend turned publicly against him over the agreement, calling it ‘a piece of national humiliation’! Why so? Let’s try and find out by looking at the so-called VOA deal (copies of the deal are still not available and only extracts available in Brecher’s paper).

The timeline and rationale are explained by Nehru in his August 13th reply to the parliament (fifth session – vol XIX). He tells us - The need to strengthen All India Radio's external broadcasts' had been repeatedly brought to Government's notice and this need became more urgent after the Chinese aggression towards the end of 1962, more particularly in the context of the vicious and venomous propaganda against the Government of India by Chinese broadcasting services directed in various languages to bordering areas of India and to various Indian regions, as well as the countries in South East Asia and Africa. A decision was taken in November 1962 to explore the possibility of obtaining high powered transmitters on reasonable terms from countries where such transmitters were available.

The preliminary enquiries made in pursuance of the decision to explore the possibility of acquiring a high-powered transmitter showed that the only transmitter of this kind readily available was with the Voice of America, who mentioned in March, 1963 the possibility of their offering the transmitter on certain terms to the Ministry of information and Broadcasting. As we felt strongly the need for a high-powered transmitter to counteract the Chinese propaganda, the Government of India decided to ascertain the terms and conditions on which such a transmitter could be acquired from the Voice of America.

We note from Brecher’s study that the people involved were: Secretary of India's Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (I & B), Nawab Singh; his minister, G. Gopala Reddy; the Foreign Secretary, M.J. Desai; Prime Minister Nehru; and some technical specialists, notably, the Chief Engineer of All-India Radio. The chief U.S. negotiator on the VOA Agreement was William H. Weatherbee (Counsellor for public affairs - US Embassy) while Loomis represented the VOA.

Nehru & Galbraith
Nehru continues - Discussions between the officials of the Government of India and the U.S. officials concerned continued, with some intervals, from March to June, 1. While it was known that the possibility of Voice of America broadcasts being made through the transmitter under Indian control presented a difficulty, it was agreed to go ahead with the discussions and see what the terms and conditions relating to the offer were. I was consulted on two or three occasions but did not go into the whole matter at any particular stage. The matter was, however, briefly mentioned to me before the agreement was signed and, in that context, I must assume responsibility.

So, we see that the officials discussed and signed an agreement on July 9th. What exactly did it entail and why would it snowball into a controversy? Why was Nehru suddenly defensive and expressing that ‘he was responsible’? Did he not involve the rest of the 20 persons in the think tank? If so, why?

As it transpired, the Weatherbee-Loomis response was that the US could help only through an agreement involving shared time and the joint operation of technical facilities. About a dozen sessions took place in June, by the two teams of civil servants and technicians: on the U.S. side, Weatherbee, a government lawyer, a VOA executive, and an engineer; on the Indian side, Nawab Singh, the Secretary of the I & B Ministry, the Chief Engineer of All-India Radio, and two other experts. The discussions were quite interesting. The U.S. offered to build the transmitter, pay much of the cost, and share its operation. India insisted that the U.S. sell it the transmitter for one rupee, in return for which VOA would receive three hours of prime radio time daily to relay its programs to Southeast Asia, but only in languages of that region. It appears that the US agreed to most of the Indian terms and the final draft was notated ‘I agree’ by Nehru.

The agreement can be summarized thus – The US would sell a 1000KW medium Wave transmitter and related equipment for Rs 1/- in exchange for 3 hours of radio time, to relay Voice of America programs to Southeast Asia in Southeast Asian languages only, for which the US will pay India Rs 1/- per annum, for five years, the duration of the agreement. The station was to be built near Calcutta, and mentioning further that the contents of VOA programs "will take into account the friendly relations which exist between the Government of India and other countries and that a schedule of programs and texts would be provided to Indian officials for any review”.

A week after the signing of the agreement, Nehru spun around in a volte face when he stated in parliament, on July 13th that ‘it would be a mistake to go ahead with the agreement’. The cabinet also agreed that the agreement could be implemented only if the US gave up its shared time!

The new US ambassador Chester Bowles arrived after Galbraith’s departure and tried to get the ball rolling again, in a meeting with Morarji Desai, but realized that it was sinking, noting thus later in his memoirs (Promises to Keep) - An indication of this paradoxical new relationship was Nehru's agreement that the United States be permitted to set up a Voice or America radio station on Indian soil which would carry both Indian and American broadcasts to Southeast Asia. At the breakfast table on our first day in New Delhi, I read in the newspaper that India had withdrawn from this agreement. Although some pressure had been brought to bear by the Communists, the most effective opposition came from individuals and newspaper editors who were normally friendly to America, but who questioned the wisdom of such a close tie to the United States. Perhaps the average nonaligned Indian’s mind was on a little overdrive, I guess, in those days.

It quickly became clear that the changed situation was due to the opposition parties, such as the left leaners and added pressure from Moscow. Continuing with Nehru’s statement to the parliament on August 13th, we see - Immediately thereafter, it became clear that this arrangement was not in consonance with our general policy and will, if further pursued, not only make Indo-U.S. relations a subject of controversy inside India but will prejudice our main objective of counteracting anti-Indian propaganda broadcast from Chinese radio. We have taken up these matters with the U.S. authorities and are discussing with them how the difficulties mentioned above can be met. These discussions are going on. Any decision will have to be in consonance with our basic policies. 

To get to the involvement of Moscow in these deliberations, we have to look at the parliamentary papers once again. On Nov 13th Nehru, quizzed again on the agreement, replied that talks were still underway about modifying the agreement. At this juncture, Nath Pai asked - May I know whether any protests were received from any countries after the announcement of this agreement with the U.S.A., and if so, the names of those countries, and whether in reply to the protests from the Soviet Union, the Indian Ambassador in Moscow offered by way of mollifying Soviet objections. that the Soviet Union, in order to maintain quid pro quo could set up a transmitting station in Bombay?

Nehru replied - I do not think that any formal protests were received from any country. It may be that in the course of informal conversations, something might have been said. I do not quite recollect what the Indian Ambassador in Moscow said in reply, but possibly he did say that it was open to any country to , enter into the same type of agreement with us. A news release later reported that Ambassador Kaul had informed Moscow that the Soviets could supply a transmitter as well, if they questioned the political propriety of the Indian deal with the US.

In September, Krushchev’s letters to Nehru were published – The release added "India's professed policy of nonalignment, although tenaciously defended by Nehru before Parliament, no longer seemed to have any meaning, as India sought and received Western arms aid, scheduled joint air exercises with the United States and Britain for November, and almost agreed to set up a Voice of America transmitter near Calcutta."

The news was by then all over the press. As expected, some were supportive, but the left leaners like the FPJ and a few others were critical and seemed aghast at the deal made ‘with the devil’. As Nehru vacillated, Menon sulked, the opposition made merry on the situation (Interestingly, Menon would harp on this, years later as an example of mismanagement). Nehru decided to disassociate himself from the case entirely, stating ‘The matter was not processed in the normal way, and the Agreement was signed without the Cabinet having considered it.... The Agreement should be revised radically’, he declared. "If that cannot be done, we should do without it! In his support, news reports also stated - "At the crucial decision-making stage the main actors in the drama were a handful of top civil servants."

Gopala Reddy, the administrator and a Shantiniketan product as some observed, and an ineffective minister as some others noted, was the obvious scapegoat for Nehru’s error in the Voice of America fiasco earlier that summer as Brecher noted in his book - Succession in India. But to be fair, Nehru did not throw Reddy to the dogs." He rejected 'the demand that the officials be punished, reiterating: “It is as 'much my fault as theirs”. But in the end, the deal was scuttled, and the US also dropped the discussion. But the VOA deal resulted in Nehru getting further weakened politically, and Washington, red faced. Eventually, arrangements were made with BBC’s Singapore station to relay AIR programs to SE Asia.

Nevertheless, the Kamaraj’d Reddy did resign and after the passing of Nehru in May 64, the new I&B minister was none other than Indira Gandhi. She announced on Sept 14th that, according to the technical experts, a 1000 KW medium wave transmitter would not be of much use in combatting Chinese propaganda in Southeast Asia; further, that an easily-obtainable 250 KW short- wave transmitter was more suitable, because of its wider range and because it could be used day and night.

MO Mathai, Nehru's one time private secretary would acidy remark later, in his memoirs - I have never suffered from over-humility; and I am vain enough to assert that if I were with Nehru officially, the deal with the United States about the installation and partial use of a high-power radio transmitter in eastern India by the Voice of America, would have been nipped in the bud at the initial proposal stage. It was a bewildered man, ill-advised by incompetent and unimaginative officials, who allowed this deal, which would have compromised our sovereignty, to be entertained and almost finalized. I guess we know by now, how Mathai had this tendency of attaching all importance to himself, so we can discount some of  the matter. Interestingly Mathai himself was accused of being an American mole, at that time.

But this was not the end of US-India cooperation and later projects were handled differently, such as the ISRO, TERLS, the satellite and space program as well as the efforts of Vikram Sarabhai (see an earlier article). The Charbatia project and a few others were put into place, but the Bokaro steel plant aid request would not pass the US Congress and eventually the Soviets took over the financing for the plant.

In the end, it amounted to a fleeting shift from non-alignment towards closer ties with the West, this resulting in a blip on the Indo-Soviet friendship. It was quickly corrected, and the ship quickly righted to an even keel, but still facing stormy waters. Decision making in the parliament after this event carefully considered press reactions, the public and the opposition, to a certain extent.


Ambassadors Journal – John Kenneth Galbraith

The Sino-Indian War of 1962 in Anglo-American Relations - David R. Devereux

India's Decisions on the Voice of America: A Study in Irresolution - Michael Brecher

US Congressional records Vol 96, Part 10

Promises to Keep – Chester Bowles

Daily Report, Foreign Radio Broadcasts, Issues 141-142, 187-188

Charbatia and the CIA

Terls Thumba