The looking glass war in the Himalayas

Columnist  | Mohan Guruswamy

Opinion, Oped

The plan to install a snooping device, a veritable looking glass to peer into the Chinese nuclear grounds.

In late 1962 India and China fought a fierce war amidst the swirling clouds of the Himalayan ranges. (Photos: AP)

In late 1962 India and China fought a fierce war amidst the swirling clouds of the Himalayan ranges. The collision of two great geopolitical tectonic plates at that point of time threatened to irrevocably change the political map of Asia and tilt the balance in favour of world Communism. When the going got bad for India, it turned to the Western powers for assistance. It was also the time of Camelot in the United States. Under the charismatic and young President John F. Kennedy, friendship with the US was no longer politically undesirable, notwithstanding the fact that he too was no less a cold warrior than his predecessors.

China in the meanwhile had also fallen out with the world’s senior Communist state, the Soviet Union. Its internal ideological convulsions and the politics of the Great Leap Forward and its constant tirade of inventive invective, often as much against the USSR as the US, gave it the appearance of an implacable and volatile adversary. Mao Zedong’s pronouncements about his willingness to joust with nuclear weapons and his stated belief that China could afford to lose half its population and still come out a winner in a nuclear war gave the world’s political leaders plenty of sleepless nights. Mao was at his inscrutable best when he said: “In the end the bomb will not destroy the people, but it will be the people who will destroy the bomb!” At another time he jeered that Nikita Khrushchev’s scrotum was just an empty bag because the USSR seemed to have backed down in October 1962 when the US had blockaded Cuba.

Even after the Russians pulled out of the Chinese nuclear programme it continued to pick up pace. By 1963 it seemed that the Chinese were close to testing a nuclear bomb. All through 1964, intelligence reports kept indicating that China was preparing to test a nuclear bomb at its Lop Nor nuclear installation in Xinjiang. Mind you, those were the days before the advent of spy satellites that could glean masses of information about another country in just a few passes, as they do now. Intelligence-gathering was still a game largely for the intrepid and risk-taking adventurer and far less nerdy than it is now. With information about Chinese nuclear and missile capability acquiring urgency and importance, all sorts of schemes were underway to pierce the secrecy behind the bamboo curtain.

In Cold War parlance, post-1962 India was a frontline state and Indo-US interests converged. This sudden change in political alignments led to many material benefits. Some years ago I visited the frontline Indian Army positions in Arunachal Pradesh and was outfitted with a silk-lined US Army greatcoat to protect me from the cold and howling winds. The coat has lasted long after the interests ceased to be convergent!

As can be well imagined, there were more lethal benefits as well, of which India’s intelligence community too got its share, having forged a close working relationship with the CIA. In fact, this lasted long after the Chinese threat had receded and even when India’s political relationship with the US was once again headed back for its familiar rocky course. The CIA’s relationship with our Intelligence Bureau (RAW came later) was forged soon after the 1962 war, when India and the United States agreed to establish a 5,000-strong commando force of Tibetan fighters. This was the RAW’s Special Frontier Force (SFF), which while no longer an all-Tibetan unit is still as secretive as it was in the early 1960s. The SFF was headquartered in Chakrata, near Dehra Dun, and was then commanded by Maj. Gen. Sujan Singh Uban, a serving officer of the Indian Army. All through the 1960s the Chinese used to complain about the depredations of Khampa tribesmen in Tibet, which tells you a little about what the SFF was up to.

In October 16, 1964 China tested a nuclear weapon in Xinjiang. It was expected, but not enough details were known. Earlier in May 1964, the CIA launched a U-2 out of Charbatia airfield in Odisha, but its return turned out to be a bit of a mishap. The U-2 overshot the runaway and got stuck in slushy ground. Getting it unstuck and out of India without being noticed by the Indian press, then even much more subject to leftist influences and hence antagonistic to America, was another clandestine operation that might yet result in a book. This gave all concerned quite a scare and it was decided to rely on other technical means.

This is where our hero, Capt. M.S. Kohli, comes in. Capt. Kohli must be the last of our truly great adventurer heroes. He began life as an officer in the Indian Navy, and made climbing mountains a passion, the high point of which was the conquest of Mount Everest. The passion for mountaineering and the deep knowledge of the Himalayas took him to the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, a tough and muscular paramilitary force, and then into a series of adventures required by the unique geopolitical constellation of that time. The plan to install a snooping device, a veritable looking glass to peer into the Chinese nuclear grounds, on the Nanda Devi mountain was hatched far away in Washington DC, in the offices of the National Geographic Society. Barry Bishop, a photographer with the magazine, interested Gen. Curtis LeMay of the US Air Force in the idea. Gen. LeMay, who was the model for the trigger-happy USAF general played by George C. Scott in the movie “Dr. Strangelove”, was the author of America’s single integrated operational plan (SIOP), that began with the chilling objective of “turning the Soviet Union into a smoking radiating ruin in a few hours”. He was a Cold War Neanderthal with a finger on the nuclear trigger. Gen. LeMay loved the idea and sold it to the CIA. The CIA in turn turned to the Aviation Research Centre, another Indian intelligence outfit, which enlisted the SFF and ITBP, where Capt. M.S. Kohli, rather conveniently, was on deputation.

Spies in the Himalayas, by M.S. Kohli and Kenneth Conboy and published by HarperCollins, is the account of the efforts to place a permanent electronic intelligence (Elint) device powered by a nuclear fuel cell. The first attempt to place this device on the Nanda Devi, under the cover of a mountaineering expedition, failed as the team had to retreat in the face of adverse conditions after having hauled the device to just short of the 25,645-foot peak. When another Kohli-led expedition returned the following year to recover the device, it was found to be missing.

There are many theories about what happened. Most of them are that the device rolled off the mountain and is now lodged at the bottom of the glacier. More imaginative theories speculate that the supposedly indestructible nuclear power pack with a highly toxic plutonium isotope in its core, with a half-life of many thousand years, is inching its way into the Ganga. Another plausible theory is that another team of Indian mountaineers came up furtively early the next season and spirited away the device for Indian nuclear scientists to study. Many Americans lean towards this, and with R.N. Kao (the legendary founder and long-time chief of RAW) in the picture, anything was possible. Whatever be where the final destination of the missing SNAP 19C power pack, it was not before Capt. Kohli led a particularly arduous search and retrieve mission. In the meantime, the Chinese not only kept testing nuclear weapons at regularly intervals but also ballistic missiles. The urgency to gather information was never greater. India and the US kept collaborating though the relationship between Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and US President Lyndon B. Johnson was increasingly frosty.

The Americans were not about to give up so easily. Another mission was launched in 1967 to place a similar device on the Nanda Kot. This mission was successful but another problem cropped up. Snow would pile up over the antenna and render it blind. So off went Capt. Kohli and team once again to bring it down. This time they retrieved it. But the story doesn’t end here. In October 1967, the Chinese began testing an ICBM capable of reaching targets 6,000 miles away. There was renewed urgency to find out more. So our intrepid mountaineers went off on one more mission in December 1969 to successfully place a gas-powered device on a mountain peak near Leh. But by the following year, the Americans had the first generation of the TRW spy satellites in place and did not have rely on the old Elint devices. Nor did they have to share the information with India.