New Delhi: Over the past few decades, the global movement to fight climate change has picked up unprecedented momentum. Scientists, activists, and environmentally-conscious governments have pointed to changing weather patterns and the havoc that would be caused by global warming in the decades to come.
Every once in a while, global warming not only reminds us of the upcoming upheaval, but also unearths hidden mysteries of the past. Earlier this month, something similar happened in one corner of the French Alps: Indian newspapers from 1966 resurfaced underneath the melting Bossons glacier at Europe’s second highest peak, Mont Blanc.
There was the front page of the National Herald from 20 January 1966, which declared the election of Congress leader Indira Gandhi as the prime minister of India. There were also copies of The Hindu and The Statesman, believed to be from Air India 101, the Boeing 707 named ‘Kanchenjanga’ that crashed into Mont Blanc on 24 January 1966, killing all 117 passengers and crew on board. Back then, just a fraction of the wreckage was found.
These newspapers were found by Timothée Mottin, who runs a cafe, La Cabane du Cerro, in Chamonix, the resort town on the French side of Mont Blanc (the France-Italy frontier passes through the summit). Numerous individuals and news outlets tweeted about the discovery.
A melting glacier at Europe’s Mont Blanc mountain range recently disentombed Indian newspapers buried there for 54 years. pic.twitter.com/Chyw4UxgF9
— Manash Pratim Nath (@IamMPNath) July 21, 2020
— Newstalk ZB (@NewstalkZB) July 15, 2020
Restaurant owner in France finds Indian newspapers from 1966 – from the Air India plane crash near Mont Blanc – which had remained frozen for 54 years.
— Dhruva Jaishankar (@d_jaishankar) July 13, 2020
But they were far from the first objects from the crashed Air India flight to be found.
What has been found and what has it led to
Over the past four decades, every few years, if not months, the remains of the aircraft, the belongings of the passengers, like jewellery, have been found at the site or a little away from it.
2008 ::Climbers find Wreckage of Air India Boeing (AI-101,Named-Kanchenjunga) crashed in 1966 at Mont Blanc,France pic.twitter.com/zdLj6MEOuz
— indianhistorypics (@IndiaHistorypic) March 16, 2014
“It’s not unusual. Every time we walk on the glacier with friends, we find remains of the crash,” said Mottin in an interview to French newspaper Le Daupiné Libéré.
The 1966 Air India crash is shrouded in mystery not only because global warming has continued to tell its story piece by piece, but also because in 1950 Air India flight 245, a Lockheed L-749A Constellation christened ‘Malabar Princess’, had crashed at exactly the same spot on Mont Blanc, killing all 48 people on board.
A 1956 movie called The Mountain, made by Edward Dmytryk and starring Spencer Tracey, was inspired by the 1950 crash.
— Ismail Wafa (@ismailwafa_) May 22, 2020
Since the remains of the crashes began to be discovered in the late 1980s, the world has witnessed a whole set of conspiracy theorists emerge on the one hand, and crash-collectable enthusiasts on the other.
The story’s intrigue is not just limited to aviation geeks and enthusiasts, it has become a matter of political, diplomatic and, in some cases, popular culture intrigue — since one of the passengers on the 1966 flight was Homi Jehangir Bhabha, nuclear physicist and father of India’s nuclear programme, the crash amounted to the loss of a strategic asset for India.
Now, over the years, some of the diplomatic cables being carried by Bhabha have been found, and made what would have been classified information, public.
In August 2019, 53 years after it occurred, the crash got widespread press when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi virtually attended the inauguration of a memorial for the victims at Nid d’Aigle, a French village near Mont Blanc.
Eleven years before, in 2009, the story of the crash combined with unique Indian spiritual beliefs about reincarnation, had led to a segment on a then popular TV show, called Raaz Pichhle Janam Ka. In this show, Swati Singh, a resident of Bhopal, claimed that she saw herself as D. Singh, an Indian sailor who had died in the 1966 Air India crash, during a ‘past life regression’.
Unclear why the 1966 crash happened
The precise reasons why Air India 101 went down remain unknown. The flight took off from Bombay (now Mumbai) to London, via Delhi, Beirut and Geneva. The flight took off from Beirut but crashed a few minutes before it was to land in Geneva.
Gerard Devoussoux, a French mountain guide who was one of the first to reach the crash site, told the BBC back then: “Another 15 metres (50ft) and the plane would have missed the rock. It made a huge crater in the mountain. Everything was completely pulverised. Nothing was identifiable except for a few letters and packets.”
After a few hours, the search was called off due to poor weather, and the authorities radioed back the news that “there was no hope for the passengers”.
Following the crash, French authorities conducted an official enquiry, and their report provided a most-likely hypothesis: “The pilot-in-command, who knew on leaving Beirut that one of the VORs (a radio navigation system for aircraft) was unserviceable, miscalculated his position in relation to Mont Blanc and reported his own estimate of this position to the controller.
“The radar controller noted the error, determined the position of the aircraft correctly and passed a communication to the aircraft which, he believed, would enable it to correct its position.
“For want of a sufficiently precise phraseology, the correction was misunderstood by the pilot who, under the mistaken impression that he had passed the ridge leading to the summit and was still at a flight level, which afforded sufficient safety clearance over the top of Mont Blanc, continued his descent.”
Soon, an official narrative emerged — that Boeing 707 ‘Kanchenjanga’ had crashed due to pilot error. But it failed to convince everybody.
Philippe Réal, an editor at ORTF, France’s public broadcaster, didn’t buy this official narrative and sent his own camera crew to investigate, from the Italian side of Mont Blanc. According to a report in The Economist’s sister publication 1843 magazine, Réal’s team found two strange pieces of evidence — first, one part of the wreckage that was stamped with the date 1 June 1960, whereas the Boeing 707 had come into service only in 1961, and second, a yellow section of a fuselage, which experts said didn’t seem like it came from the Indian airliner.
Beginning of conspiracy theories
Soon, the ORTF announced it had sent its team to Mont Blanc to find the black box, but just the news of someone looking into the incident was enough to stir up a controversy. France’s then-interior minister rang up the head of ORTF and asked him to immediately call his team back. But it was too late for the authorities to crack down on the investigation.
Once the members of Réal’s investigation team were off the mountain, they made their own theory behind the crash public. According to this team, Air India 101 had crashed after colliding with another aircraft. “The authorities confiscated the wreckage the journalists had brought down. But the theory didn’t die,” noted the 1843 report.
This notion that the French authorities tried to suppress the truth was enough to start a string of conspiracy theories trying to decode the real reason behind the crash. The death of Bhabha, the man spearheading India’s drive towards nuclear weapons, gave the conspiracy theorists more ammunition.
“Over subsequent decades, the explanations would ramify and mutate. And one person would do more than anyone else to dredge up evidence that challenged the authorised version of events,” added the 1843 report.
The person being mentioned is Jean-Daniel Roche, a French businessman and former sportsperson, who would go on to become an aviation disaster enthusiast. He got
interested in the 1950 and 1966 Air India accidents after reading a book called Crash au Mont Blanc by French journalist Françoise. Since then, making dozens of trip to the site and unearthing the truth became Roche’s obsession in life.
Roche’s most popular conspiracy theory
In general, glaciers tend to move by less than a metre every year. If everything was normal, it would take nearly half a century for ice to move from the top of the Bossons glacier in Chamonix to the bottom, but global warming has accelerated that process. “And as the ice turns to water, it is releasing secrets that have stayed frozen for the past 60 years,” noted the report in 1843.
In Chamonix, that means the Bossons glacier has revealed the remains of the two dismembered Air India airplanes.
There are essentially two mechanisms through which these glaciers continue to reveal the remains. First, the flow of Bossons glacier has transported the wreckage of planes to the bottom of the mountain, which lies just 4 kilometres from Chamonix’s city centre. Second, the rapid melting of the glacier is bringing up dramatic remains of the two aircraft and several belongings of the passengers from deep freeze.
Roche, like many other wreckage enthusiasts, has capitalised on this to collect remains of the two Air India aircraft and used them to stitch together his own theories about the true reason behind the crashes.
After reading Rey’s book, Roche learnt mountaineering and started making frequent visits to Bossons. After several trips, he was able to find “uncovered sections of metal, seatbelts, throttles from the cockpit, a flare pistol and a camera whose film, once developed, showed a murky mountaineer”. In 2007, he managed to find a propeller from the ‘Malabar Princess’ and, in 2018, he came across a jet engine from the ‘Kanchenjanga’, which he got airlifted by helicopter.
Roche’s relentless endeavours have earned him the title of “Tintin of Mont Blanc”, in reference to the fictional Belgian reporter being relentless in finding crash wreckage in Tintin in Tibet.
According to Roche, the authorities have made several efforts to sabotage his quest, and to highlight his version of the story, Roche even made a documentary titled Les Sanglots Indiens du Mont Blanc (The Indian Sobs of Mont Blanc).
His version of the story has also changed with time. Initially, Roche propagated the idea that the 1966 flight had been downed by a missile. But now, he subscribes to the theory put out by the ORTF team more than 50 years ago, that the Air India flight crashed after colliding with another aircraft, “namely an F-104G Starfighter fighter jet”.
According to Roche, back in the 1960s, the Italians would use Starfighters to spy on French military installations at Mont Blanc, visiting every week to take photographs.
“It would cut its transponder to avoid detection — but this meant that it would have been invisible to the aircraft with which it collided,” said Roche. “The case was covered up. Because in France, we do that with anything disturbing.”
For Roche and many like him, the key piece of evidence regarding their theory lies about 1,000 kilometres away, on the other side of France. Jean-Noël Benoît, a helicopter pilot in the French air-ambulance service, has built a memorial in Brittany, which houses a lot of wreckage from various crashes, but is dominated by the remains of the Air India crashes.
“Crash conspirators find one object in his collection particularly significant. This is a bent panel, 25cm by 12cm, bearing bunches of wiring, circular switches and rusting brackets. Four letters are printed on it, three times, above numerical codes: USAF, or United States Air Force,” notes the 1843 report. “For Roche and his supporters, this item serves as definitive proof that the Boeing’s fatal problem was due not to weather conditions, but because it collided with an American-built F-104G Starfighter.”
There is also an extension of this conspiracy theory, which suggests that the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) could have been behind the Air India 101 crash and the death of Homi Bhabha. This theory gained popularity in 2008, when an alleged conversation between former CIA officer Robert Crowley and journalist Gregory Douglas was published in the book, Conversations with the Crow.
This theory suggests that the CIA might have downed the Air India fight in 1966 to take out Bhabha and sabotage Indian’s nuclear programme. In the book, the CIA officer refers to Bhabha and the alleged incident by saying: “That one was dangerous, believe me. He had an unfortunate accident. He was flying to Vienna to stir up more trouble when his Boeing 707 had a bomb go off in the cargo hold.”
Regardless of Roche and others’ conspiracy theories, the Bossons glacier continues to reveal more and more about the Air India crashes every year.
In 2008, a copy of The Hindustan Times Weekly was found.
Then, in 2013, a mountain climber found a jewellery case, the contents of which were believed to be around $270,000, which led to a major folklore regarding Mont Blanc’s hidden treasure. According to Rey, in all probability, the mayor of Chamonix and the climber struck a 50-50 deal.
In 2017, some human remains from one of the Air India flights was found on Mont Blanc. According to Roche, this was significant as no human remains had been found before.
Many of the discoveries at Mont Blanc have been sold to make money. Even Roche admits to selling some of the wreckage of the two planes.
But among all the discoveries on Mont Blanc, the biggest and most interesting have been some diplomatic cables that were being carried by Bhabha. Jayita Sarkar of Boston University and the Wilson Center sat down with Rey to review these documents.
“Included among these documents are New Delhi’s assessments of Chinese defence and nuclear capabilities in early 1966. Some are Indian analyses of Chinese foreign policy, particularly Beijing’s relationship with the West and the Sino-Soviet split,” wrote Sarkar.
“If more can be found, these records from Chamonix could be a window into little-known Indian discussions on nuclear security guarantees during the Geneva-based negotiations at the Eighteen Nations Disarmament Committee (ENDC), which led to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty,” she wrote.
However, not all discoveries at Mont Blanc are as valuable. Many of them have been picked up by local residents and even café-restaurant owners, who have displayed them as part of the décor. Many of these cafes are now Air India-themed.