An IDC Analysis 


New Delhi, 21 May 2003  

The Golden Jubilee of the historic conquering of Mt Everest by Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary on 29 May 1953 is being celebrated all over the world. Prime Minister AB Vajpayee recently honoured Sir Edmund, now 83, at an award ceremony held in New Delhi.

This seems an appropriate time for us to highlight other attempts to climb the mighty Himalayas, especially those undertaken by the daring officers and men of the Indian armed forces since 1962. 

Mohan Guruswamy vividly tells us the story of several such efforts while reviewing a recent book 'Spies in the Himalayas’ by MS Kohli and Kenneth Conboy (Harper Collins), paying rich tribute to our own 'Mountain Man' 

Captain M S Kohli (Retd) of the Indian Navy.


The Looking Glass War in the Himalayas

By Mohan Guruswamy

At its surface the earth is not a very stable place. Geophysicists have us know that its tectonic plates are perpetually adrift and that their great collisions have recast its geography several times. The Himalayas are now where there once was a great ocean, because of one such collision. Mercifully geophysical time runs at a million years a tick.

Geopolitical tectonic plates, however, drift in real time and their frequent collisions have given us an ever-changing kaleidoscope of political maps. The march of technology has also made once great geographical barriers now far less impervious to the ambitions of rulers, the clash of ideologies, and the conflicts of national interest. The consequence of the collision of Asia’s greatest geopolitical tectonic plates, India and China, is seen in the face off between two of the world’s oldest civilizations across the high Himalayas. The conflict, while redolent with drama, high adventure and tragedy, also has tales that tell us of the transitory nature of human conflict under a geopolitical firmament of changing constellations.

One such tale has to do with the adventures of a team of expert mountaineers captained by the indefatigable MS Kohli, an Indian Navy officer who found his true calling in the high Himalayas.

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 favor 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 USA. Under the charismatic and young President John Kennedy, friendship with USA was no longer politically undesirable, notwithstanding the fact that he too was no less a Cold Warrior than his predecessor.

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 USSR as the USA, 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 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 USA blockaded Cuba.

Even after the Russians pulled out of the Chinese nuclear program 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 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. A few years ago I visited the frontline Indian Army positions in Arunachal Pradesh and was outfitted with a silk lined US Army great coat 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 receded and even when India’s political relationship with the USA 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 USA 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 60’s. The SFF was headquartered in Chakrata near Dehra Dun and was then commanded by Major Gen. Sujan Singh Uban, a serving officer of the Indian Army. All through the 1960’s 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?

The CIA has a particular fondness for clandestine air operations. We have all heard about Air America in Vietnam. We have heard about Richard Bissell’s U-2 stratosphere kissing spy planes over Russia and China. We know about the high speed runs by the SR-71 Blackbird. But we don’t hear very much about the Aviation Research Center (ARC), now still a very shadowy part of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) of the Cabinet Secretariat.

The ARC was also established in 1962, with much help from the CIA and a good bit of political pushing by Biju Patnaik. Patnaik who earned his spurs by flying Mohammed Hatta out of Indonesia, also made a fortune when his privately owned Air Kalinga began flying supply dropping missions for the Indian Army in the northeast. Besides the SFF needing air logistical support, it was also felt that planes that could snoop over Tibet and southern China would provide better intelligence. Thus the ARC came about with a mix of fixed and rotary wing transport and light aircraft supplied by the CIA and flown by officers seconded from the IAF. The first boss of the ARC was Ramnath Kao, the legendary founding chief of RAW. Over the years the ARC has grown into a large operation and flies a large and varied fleet that till recently included the high flying Mach 3 capable MIG 25 that for long flew with impunity over Pakistan and China.

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 Orissa, 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 the USA, 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, Captain MS Kohli, enters. Kohli must be the last of our truly great adventurer heroes. He began life as an Education officer in the Indian Navy, and made climbing mountains a passion, the highpoint of which was the conquest of the 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. 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 the US’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. LeMay loved the idea and sold it to the CIA.

The book ‘Spies in the Himalayas’ by MS Kohli and Kenneth Conboy and published by Harper Collins 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 feet 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 Ganges.

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 RN Kao in the picture anything was possible? Whatever be where the final destination of the missing SNAP 19C power pack, it was not before 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 USA kept collaborating though the relationship between Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and US President Lyndon 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 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 6000 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 to rely on the old Elint devices. Nor did they have to share the information with India.

Kohli and Conboy write with the benefit of expert knowledge and a deep insight of the politics of the period and the key players in the field. To read about men, with their blood turning into mush due to oxygen deprivation at the high altitudes, clambering along razor sharp wind swept ridges while looking down several thousand feet and hanging on to their lives strung to each other with ropes is to experience death defying high adventure without having to get off ones soft sofa. The prose is as taut as a line hitched to a piton on the sheer face of a mountain. It is the book that takes you back in time but is still an adventure yarn for the future. Its as much about men who climbed mountains just because they were there, and gave so much of themselves when the national cause demanded it, however notional the value may have been in the end. It’s a pity we don’t make men like Kohli our heroes any more?

The Kohli and Conboy story ends in 1969. But the story apparently continued to unwind. 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 ‘The Asian Age’ reporting that a forty 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 eight hundred kilograms of hazardous wastes? 

The President of India, Mr. KR 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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