Mohan Guruswamy | When India & America had stood shoulder to shoulder

When the going got bad for India, it turned to the Western powers for assistance

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 of America. Under the charismatic and young President John F. Kennedy, friendship with the US was no longer politically undesirable, despite 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 USSR. Its internal ideological convulsions and the politics of the Great Leap Forward and its constant tirade of inventive invective, often as much against the Soviet Union as the US, gave it the appearance of an implacable and volatile adversary. Mao Zedo-ng'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 the 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 United States had blockaded Cuba.

Even after the Russians pulled out of the Chinese nuclear programme, it continued to pick up pace. By 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 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. Intelli-gence gathering was still a game largely for the intrepid and risk-taking adventurer, and far less nerdy than it is now.

In Cold War parlance, post-1962 India was a frontline state and Indian and US interests had momentarily converged. This sudden change in political alignments led to many material benefits. 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 receded and even when India's political relationship with the US was once again headed back for its familiar rocky course.

On 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 runway 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 the US, 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.

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 at the Langley headquarters of the CIA. The first attempt to place
this device on the Nanda Devi under the cover of a mountaineering expedition had 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-feet peak. When another India-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 in the picture, anything was possible. In the meantime, the Chinese not only kept on testing nuclear weapons at regular intervals, but ballistic missiles as well. 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 Johnson was turning increasingly frosty.

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.

In April 1978, all hell broke loose in the Indian Parliament about a "nuclear time bomb" ticking away in the Nanda Devi glacier and crawling its way slowly into the holiest of our rivers and by the holiest of our temples.

The Nanda Devi biosphere was closed to all visitors since 1982, till an innocuous announcement appeared early this year that entry would now be permitted by "genuine" mountaineers and trekkers. But read this with a story that appeared on December 21, 2001 in this newspaper that a 40-man mountaineering team belonging to the Indian Army's Garwhal Rifles regiment had scaled the Nanda Devi in September that year and had recovered over 800 kg of hazardous wastes? The then President of India, K.R. Narayanan, sent a congratulatory message to the Indian Army, saying: "Such efforts to preserve the environment need to be appreciated by all." What was the hazardous material recovered that demanded a congratulatory message from the President of India?

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