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Once upon a spooky time, when Indian and CIA spies were partners in spying

On this date, 40 years ago, India & US revealed that a nuclear device to track Chinese nuke tests was missing. Gives me opportunity to recount this ‘First Person/Second Draft’ story.

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On the front page of The Indian Express on 17 August 2013, our stellar defence correspondent Manu Pubby broke a story on the joint India-US U-2 spy plane missions over Tibet in the early 1960s. This was based on some CIA documents declassified just then. My first reaction was the usual competitive angst: This isn’t really a new story. A close look, and I had to acknowledge yes, of course, it is a new revelation. And then I suffixed it with an OOPS!!! In all capitals, and many signs of exclamation.

The funny — and fascinating — thing with spy stories is that just when you think you’ve cracked one, another one emerges from behind it, and makes you look silly. I would have thought I, as a reporter then with India Today magazine, had cracked in the winter of 1983, the joint Indian intelligence (then only Intelligence Bureau, or IB, since RAW wasn’t yet formed) and CIA story on the U-2 operations.

Now, three decades later, I had to acknowledge that I had got only a part of it, and that somebody far cleverer had sold me a dummy, though with good intentions.

The story first broke out of Washington in the winter of 1983 when I was following up the infamous Larkins Brothers spy case in New Delhi for an India Today cover story along with my friend and colleague Dilip Bobb. Major General Frank and Air Vice-Marshal Kenneth Larkins, or Larkins Brothers, had been arrested in India’s most significant spy bust for stealing and selling away secret manuals of MiGs, apparently to the US. Subsequently, both were convicted. These remain the most senior Indian defence officers ever convicted for spying. But it was in the course of pursuing that scandal, and investigating the widening arms bazaar-defence services-espionage network that the story about joint IB-CIA operations in the 1960s broke, reported for India Today by its Washington columnist Inderjit Badhwar. Of course, there were immediate official denials.

If I was to get some real insight, I thought, why not try and get it from the horse’s mouth. So I called B.N. Mullick, our most powerful, and long-lasting spy czar ever. He led the IB for 14 years and was Nehru’s right hand. Now living in retirement in Vasant Vihar, he readily granted me an audience.

Meeting spymaster Mullick

Still new to the geography of Vasant Vihar, I found his home with some difficulty on a sunny winter afternoon and thought, just for a moment, that I had come to the wrong place. As the name plate mentioned H.A. Barari, “foster son-in-law”, then number two in IB and subsequently director. But then a thin old man in a golf cap, sunning himself in a lounge chair, called out to me. “Park your motorcycle outside and come in, you are at the right place,” said Mullick, the legend.

He was much more than a spymaster. He was also a wonderful story-teller and chronicler of history. His trilogy (My years with Nehru, 1948-1964, My years with Nehru: The Chinese betrayal, My years with Nehru: Kashmir) remains one of the finest accounts of those perilous decades.

He told me the U-2 story, of how Nehru had reluctantly agreed to allow US spy plane operations, but had baulked when the CIA wanted to set up a base for them in Charbatia, in Orissa. He told me the story in detail and it was published in the 31 December 1983 issue of the magazine, as a part of the Larkins cover story.

Essentially, Mullick’s story was that Ambassador John Kenneth Galbraith, who had Nehru’s ear, was able to persuade him to set up a joint base in Charbatia, partly because India had no way of monitoring Chinese military movements along the border, and partly because both the US and India were worried about China’s fast developing nuclear weapons programme. The base was to be a joint IB-CIA operation.

But, Mullick said he went protesting to Nehru and insisted that at least the pictures brought back by the U-2s must be processed within Charbatia and shared with India before being taken to Langley. The CIA said each plane brought back miles of film and it won’t be possible until an entire lab was set up in Charbatia. Malik “persuaded” Nehru to insist on the lab being set up first.

He said Galbraith made one desperate last call on Nehru who, in turn, bounced him back to him. Later in 1963, when T.T. Krishnamachari, minister for economic and defence coordination, and one of the few pro-Western members in the Nehru cabinet, visited Washington, Mullick said he too was persuaded to send a long cable to Nehru to relent on Charbatia. But Nehru, he said, “ticked him off and told him not to meddle in this”.

This is the story I went with, under my byline, and Mullick called to thank me for being such an “accurate reporter at a very young age”. He gave me a few more audiences after that, recounting more spy stories. But now I know he must have been secretly laughing at me. Because, as Manu’s story based on the declassified documents told us, the base at Charbatia was indeed set up, and at least one U-2 flight was launched from there. Sadly, and ironically, on 23 May 1964. Four days later Nehru died, and the Charbatia initiative lost its way too. It remains even now an aerial spy base of sorts, serving the Aviation Research Centre (ARC), a part of RAW. So, even a decade and a half after his retirement, the spymaster had sold me a dummy, convincing me Charbatia never happened when it actually did. Maybe he did it to protect the image of Nehru, whom he so loved. Or maybe the old man did it just for a little laugh — at my expense of course. That’s why that OOPS!!!

‘Ask your managing editor’

One of the perennial stories of the spooky 1960s that I stalked Mullick for was the joint operation CIA and IB ran to plant a sensing device on Nanda Devi to monitor the Chinese nuclear programme. It was known, since 15 April 1979, that the device, which contained nuclear-fuelled batteries, had disappeared in an avalanche and that several expeditions had been launched to look for it as there were concerns of radiation leaks. For journalistic history nerds, that story had been broken in 1979 by Kuldip Nayar in The Indian Express. He had got sniff of an IAF helicopter mission to look for it. Of course, given the altitude, the helicopter had to be especially modified.

To return to Mullick. He was always cagey until, one day, in some exasperation, but also with mischief in his eye, he told me: “Why do you keep bothering me with this? Ask your managing editor, he knows all about it, even more than me.” I came back to office, protesting to Suman Dubey how come he had never told me a thing while he knew I had been making these visits to Mullick. Suman, of course, pleaded total ignorance. The story, after all, had still not opened out. And he, a redoubtable mountaineer, had not been on any of the expeditions either to plant the device or to search for it. But everybody who did was a climbing buddy of his.

This is a very well documented story by now and by far the best account is in Spies in the Himalayas: Secret Missions and Perilous Climbs (University Press of Kansas, 2003) written by Captain M.S. Kohli (he led, among countless others, the first successful Indian conquest of the Everest in 1965). As the story resurfaced in our lives that October 2013 evening, I called Kohli.

He talked about how the operation was planned, how Indian climbers — all intelligence people, as no civilians were to be involved — went to Alaska to train with the CIA’s climbers and experts, how the CIA first wanted to plant the device on Kanchenjunga and what it took him to persuade them that it would be impossible to reach that summit with so much load and to then be able to have the time and energy to fabricate the device from its components.

“I told them I had attempted that summit and there was in any case only a one in four chance that you would succeed,” he says. The device, he says, had seven plutonium batteries, packing about half of the fissile material in the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. He suggested Nanda Kot instead. The CIA said it won’t be high enough and insisted on Nanda Devi.

The climb began towards the tail-end of the climbing season in 1965, and was hit by a blizzard just around the base camp. The team left the packages containing the pieces of the device there. And when they returned the next year, the devices had disappeared, maybe swept by an avalanche, never to be found again.

Kohli, a former captain from the Navy, was then with ITBP. The three other Indian climbers with him on this mission, Sonam Gyatso, Harish Rawat and Sonam Wangyal, were all from the IB, and successful Everest summiteers. Their communications officer was G.S. Bhangu, then seconded to IB.

Why did the operation go wrong? Did you make any mistakes? “Yes, we did,” said Kohli, “we trusted the CIA too much on their knowledge and expertise”. And of course, he says, Suman Dubey was right in not telling you anything because he wasn’t on any of these missions. He remembers Suman as the baby of his 1962 Everest mission, where he celebrated his 19th birthday on South Col, the youngest person then to do so.

I ask him his favourite stories of those days and he talks with such awe and affection about Sonam Gyatso, “the greatest Indian climber ever”. Of course, his story also involved Sonam and alcohol. Among the supplies air dropped for the IB-CIA expedition were crates of American beer cans. Some hit a rock and broke. Because it was impossible to collect and bring back those cans, and they were too precious to waste, Sonam decided to drink them instead, stopped only at number nine or ten. Kohli noted sombrely that Sonam died in 1983 of cirrhosis of the liver.

Postscript: Since we started this in 1983, let’s go back to the Larkins case. To trap the Larkins brothers, counter-intelligence officers chose a bright, mid-career MiG pilot, a Group Captain, who had won a Vir Chakra flying interdiction missions in a Dassault Mystere in the 1971 war as part of the IAF’s 3 Squadron. He was planted in the office of assistant chief of air staff (operations), Air Vice Marshal S. Raghavendran. He had served under Air Vice Marshal Larkins in the past. He “let it be known generally” that he was frustrated with his desk job and generally disgruntled with the air force.

Soon enough, the brothers took the bait and approached him, asking for classified MiG manuals in return for Rs 30,000. The prime minister (Indira Gandhi) was informed for authorising the trap. Then the Group Captain was asked to pass on a “sensitive” electronic manual for MiG-23s. This, he did at air headquarters on 2 April 1983. Two days later, Larkins returned the manual, along with an advance of Rs 10,000, which was gleefully “accepted”. This was followed by more traps, surveillance, and finally the arrests and eventual convictions.

The Group Captain, who so bravely offered himself as the counter-intelligence decoy was called Jasjit Singh. Rings a bell? Yes, the legendary strategic affairs expert, former head of IDSA and for long the strategic affairs editor with us in The Indian Express. As honourable, brave, patriotic and courageous fighter pilot as any you have seen. And he was never bored with any job!

Also read: There’s a mysterious Indian spy aboard the PSLV that ISRO just launched into space

Sadly, he passed away just a fortnight before this article was written originally in The Indian Express in 2013 and India’s strategic community is still mourning the loss. And I don’t know the future of Jet Airways, but when you fly on their Boeing 737, keep your ear out just in case your captain is Ajay Singh. He is Jasjit Singh’s son and, like his father and his uncle, a fighter pilot. Ajay had to leave fighter-flying after surviving a horrific MiG-29 crash that left his limbs battered but spirit intact. So, he is back in the cockpit.

This article was originally published in August 2013 in The Indian Express.

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  1. Hi Shekar,

    This piece of information looks very interesting and helpful. May I know your email ID/contact number to discuss on these topics.


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