New Delhi: The massive floods in Uttarakhand have led to murmurs that the tragedy could possibly be linked to a nuclear device that was left behind during a joint IB (Intelligence Bureau) and CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) operation. The device was lost close to the Nanda Devi peak.
In episode 683 of ThePrint’s ‘Cut the Clutter’, Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta narrated a story from the messy world of spying, one which entails espionage during the Cold War.
Gupta explained that there are many theories about what happened in Uttarakhand, from it being considered a landslide to a glacier burst. Among many other theories, there are some murmurs that it could also have been caused by a nuclear monitoring device. This device was left at the foot of the Nanda Devi mountain range by Indian climbers working for the Intelligence Bureau in the mid 1960s.
In a recent TV interview, Captain M.S. Kohli, the Captain Commander of the mission, said he couldn’t rule this out as one of the theories. But, at the same time, he could not confirm what the equipment was and how much energy it contained.
Gupta clarified that if it was a plutonium device causing a release of energy, we would have seen a lot of great radioactivity. “There is no need to spread panic… I am sure people are checking there and keeping track — you cannot attribute it (the floods) to this device.” However, he said this brought up the opportunity to narrate interesting stories.
There was a search operation that was carried out in secret. On 15 April 1979, the late journalist Kuldeep Nayyar broke a story on the front page of The Indian Express. The story talked about a nuclear device that was left at Nanda Devi by joint Indian and American climbers. The device had been lost since then and that’s the reason the story broke.
Looking for this device in 1979 proved to be arduous. This device was at such an altitude that normal helicopters of the Indian Air Force were not capable of going up to those altitudes. So, these helicopters were modified.
Back in 1964, the Chinese tested their first nuclear weapon and India got worried because it was a next-door neighbour. “China and Pakistan were also becoming close friends and the Americans were very concerned about the Chinese nuclear programme. So, the idea was to plant this device at a place in the Himalayas, where it was high enough to pick up information signal radiation,” Gupta explained.
Captain Kohli revealed that the batteries of this device had radioactive material which would make it last 100 years. When the device was taken up by Indian climbers to Nanda Devi, they were stuck at the base camp as a blizzard struck. It was a very heavy blizzard so they had to come back and they said the device had to dismantled into pieces.
“They put this equipment under a shelter and thought that they would come back, thinking they knew where the base camp was,” Gupta recounted. In the next climbing season, they found that the equipment was not there. They presumed that it had been swept away by an avalanche.
“There is fear that maybe it’s sitting somewhere there — that one day, it will start leaking radiation and could pollute the entire Ganga system. That is an alarmist view,” Gupta said.
Each time something happens in those Himalayas, these theories come back that it’s the IB-CIA equipment that had gone ‘rogue’ but there is still no scientific evidence, warned Gupta.
The IB-CIA connect
This story surfaced because Americans had a habit of declassifying high security material in the course of time. Among those declassified documents were two references — one reference was to how America sought India’s help and former prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru agreed to set up a U-2 spy plane base in India to spy over China.
Years later in 1983, Gupta said, he was himself following up on this story when he met B.N. Malik who had been the Intelligence Bureau chief for 14 years and had worked under Nehru. Gupta asked Malik how closely did the IB under him work with the CIA.
“Malik said that America had proposed to Nehru and they had done this through Kenneth Galbraith, who was America’s Ambassador to India and he had Nehru’s ear,” Gupta said. America said they needed to know what was happening on the Chinese side but Nehru wasn’t sure if that was the right thing to do.
“Because suddenly for India to have joint intelligence operations with America, coming out of the peak of the Cold War… Nehru’s obsession with non-alignment, (made) this was tough,” Gupta said.
The Americans proposed that this nuclear powered device be created. It must be such that if you put it high enough in the Himalayas, you could look deep into the Chinese side.
Captain M.S. Kohli revealed that Americans had first suggested the device be planted at Kanchenjunga. But they were told that Kanchenjunga would be too high for the device to be carried to. Instead, a peak called Nanda Kot was suggested to them but the Americans weren’t willing to take that up because it was only 22,510 feet high. Kanchenjunga would have been 28,169 feet high. Then, Nanda Devi was suggested, which was at 25,643 feet.
In 2013, Gupta recalled, he wrote a piece for which he had interacted with Captain Kohli — he asked Kohli if a mistake had been made during the operation.
“He said, yes we made one mistake. We trusted the Americans and CIA, their knowledge and expertise too much, we should have relied more on our own knowledge and understanding.”