Uncle Sam's peeping partner

The National Security Archive, a Washington-based NGO, has made the sensational disclosure that the United States launched secret spy missions against China from an airbase in Odisha after the China War of 1962. The missions, using the (in)famous U-2 reconnaissance plane, were approved by none other than Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, an apostle of non-alignment. At least four U-2 flights took off from Charbatia in Odisha between 1964 and 1967, says the report, based on recently declassified files obtained under the Freedom of Information Act of the US.

Covert collaboration between the CIA and India’s Intelligence Bureau (IB), aimed at helping Tibetans and spying on China, predates 1964. As we see below, some of it goes back to the mid-1950s. But the immediate backdrop to the U-2 missions was November 1962, when India faced a rout in the China War, and Nehru made a desperate request for military assistance from the US.
In response, Washington asked for, and received, permission to use Indian airspace for U-2 spying missions flown out of a US base in Thailand. Nehru used the photographs obtained from these U-2 flights in December 1962 and January 1963 to brief Parliament on Chinese troop movements along the border. But the Americans wanted more than overflight rights.

They wanted an airbase in India for the U-2s. In June 1963, President S Radhakrishnan signed an agreement with President John F Kennedy for creating such a base at Charbatia out of an abandoned World War-II airstrip. Besides spying on China, this would be used for electronic surveillance of a Soviet anti-ballistic missile testing-site in Kazakhstan. This raises uncomfortable questions. How could Nehru, with his strong moral convictions and commitment to non-alignment—much celebrated at the 1958 Bandung conference—agree to U-2 overflights, and worse, to strategic collaboration with the US through an airbase?

In 1960, Indian policymakers had strongly condemned U-2 missions, exposed when a CIA plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers, which had taken off from a US base in Peshawar, was shot down, pointing to US-Pakistan strategic collusion. How could they now justify such missions for India?
Why did Nehru write two letters to President Kennedy within a few hours on 19 November 1962, begging for military help? Nehru wrote: ‘We have to have more comprehensive assistance if the Chinese are to be prevented from taking over the whole of Eastern India. Any delay in this … will result in nothing short of a catastrophe ….’ The assistance would include at least ‘12 squadrons of supersonic all-weather fighters’ and ‘modern radar cover’. ‘US Air Force personnel will have to man these … while our personnel are being trained….’ Nehru abjectly pleaded for US help for ‘the survival of freedom and independence in this sub-continent and rest of Asia’. The letters reveal the Indian leadership’s trauma and humiliation at the military debacle then under way. They expose the depths to which its morale had sunk in asking for US air cover even before ordering the Indian Air Force into battle.

The circumstances of 1962 were extreme and exceptional. The Indian Army was hopelessly unprepared for the Chinese attack, which began on October 20. The attack is regarded by many chroniclers (including Neville Maxwell, whose India’s China War is still the conflict’s richest account) as a ‘punitive expedition’ against India’s ‘forward policy’ and refusal to negotiate its borders with Beijing. Tawang fell quickly. Chaos prevailed north of the Brahmaputra. VK Krishna Menon was stripped of his defence portfolio and soon resigned from the Cabinet.

It soon became clear that India’s ill-clad, ill-shod and poorly-armed soldiers wouldn’t hold out for long. It’s only in Chushul in Ladakh and Walong in the Northeast that they put up resistance. But India’s great hope, the 12,000-strong 4th Division, disintegrated. On November 19, army chief PN Thapar was sacked. Defeat stared India in the face. Panic at the thought of China overrunning the Northeast, combined with extraordinarily poor intelligence, provoked Nehru to write his first letter to Kennedy: ‘Bomdila, which was the headquarters of our Northeast Frontier Agency Command, has been surrounded and the equivalent of two divisions … are fighting difficult rear-guard actions…’
Within hours, Nehru wrote again: ‘Bomdila has fallen …. A serious threat has developed to our Digboi oilfields …. [U]nless something is done immediately to stem the tide the whole of Assam, Tripura, Manipur and Nagaland would also pass into Chinese hands… Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh are also threatened. We have also noticed increasing air activity by the Chinese air force in Tibet.’

In reality, the Chinese air force had been immobilised by a severe lack of Soviet spares—thanks to rising Sino-Soviet tensions. But the IB and Nehru ‘didn’t know this. He wanted ‘two squadrons’ of B-47 bombers, for which Indian pilots and technicians would be trained in the US. He wrote: ‘We are confident that your great country will in this hour of our trial help us in our fight for survival...’
US Ambassador John Kenneth Galbraith wrote in his Ambassador’s Journal on 21 November: ‘Yesterday was the day of ultimate panic in Delhi, the first time I have ever witnessed the disintegration of public morale…The wildest rumours flew around the town, the most widely believed being that a detachment of 500 paratroopers was about to drop on New Delhi…’
The letters, some commentators contend, prove that Nehru was not a principled believer in the ideology of non-alignment, whose cornerstone lay in decolonisation, peace and opposition to the Cold War and a nuclear arms race. Rather, he was ‘pragmatist’ or ‘realist’ who considered ‘the national interest’ paramount over a ‘third-worldist ideology’, and wanted a strategic alliance with the US, of the kind that Prime Ministers Atal Behari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh later pursued.

This is a distortion of the Nehruvian legacy, although the letters show Nehru at his weakest—and panicky—worst and undoubtedly represent an aberration from non-alignment. But an aberration is different from wholesale abandonment of non-alignment—and a comprehensive or treaty-based embrace of the West (as in the Pakistani case). India under Nehru refused to kowtow to the West, and condemned the British-Israeli invasion of the Suez Canal, the Korean War, and US hegemonism.
Nehru took a critical line towards the West just when it was lobbying India against closer economic and military relations with the USSR. But he also didn’t hesitate to condemn the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary.

Yet, the China War left Nehru broken and disoriented. He felt particularly let down by Intelligence Bureau director BN Mullik, described by former foreign secretary YD Gundevia as a ‘practised sycophant’ who underplayed Chinese preparations even in mid-October 1962 and exaggerated threats from Pakistan. Mullik, a dishonourable man, repeatedly misled Nehru. A visceral anti-Communist, he advised him to dismiss the elected Namboodaripad-led Communist government in Kerala in 1959.
However, none of Nehru’s mistakes and misjudgments compares in magnitude or consequence with other Indian policymakers’ great follies vis-à-vis China and Tibet both before and after 1962. In 1956, the CIA launched ‘Operation ST Circus’ to foment a Tibetan rebellion against China. It trained some 300 Tibetans, in particular Khampa tribesmen, in armed warfare and sabotage in Colorado and airdropped arms for the Tibetan resistance, briefly crossing Indian territory.
Briefed by the CIA, the IB became complicit in this—without, by all accounts, approval from the political leadership. Worse, after the 1962 China War, it actively collaborated with the CIA to set up the Special Frontier Force (earlier called Establishment 22), a paramilitary commando unit with 5,000 Tibetans, which could be parachuted on to the Tibetan plateau to fight the Chinese. The CIA suddenly abandoned the operation in 1969 after sacrificing thousands of Tibetans—a terrible human tragedy. Learning no lessons, Indian agencies seem to have continued with the SFF.

An even more dangerous CIA-IB operation was jointly launched in 1965 to place espionage equipment powered by a plutonium power pack on top of the Nanda Devi peak to monitor Chinese nuclear activities. A monstrous avalanche prevented the mountaineers’ team from securing the equipment in the planned location. They abandoned it.

The equipment, including the power pack, has remained untraceable despite repeated searches, raising fears of radioactive contamination of the Himalayan glaciers, and eventually, the Ganga. The scandal became public in 1978 with an American media story.
The Indian government instituted an inquiry, which surmised that there was little danger of contamination. But the truth of what happened to the plutonium pack still remains shrouded under snow.

None of this deterred the CIA and Indian agencies from trying to place yet more sensors on Nanda Kot, near Leh, and in Arunachal Pradesh. The collaboration continued into the 1970s.
Such deviations from non-alignment have got multiplied, magnified and morphed into a US-India ‘strategic partnership’ and alliance with the West.
Yet, the anti-hegemonic thrust of an independent non-aligned policy remains relevant even today. As do the tasks of correcting global inequalities and reforming the world order by promoting multipolarity and giving underprivileged people a greater voice.
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