The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, May 11, 2003

A spy thriller that isn’t fiction!
Kirpal Singh Grewal

Spies in the Himalayas: Secret Missions and Perilous Climbs
by M.S. Kohli and Kenneth Conboy.
 Harper Collins Publishers India, New Delhi.
Pages xi + 226, Rs 395.

Spies in the Himalayas: Secret Missions and Perilous ClimbsWE often hear from protagonists of friendly relations between India and the United States of America that being the two largest democracies, these nations are natural allies. This book is a good reminder to the present generation that historically India and the USA have been playing games together on the same side of the fence, most of the times, if not always. This is not withstanding occasional outbursts by India on the US attitude of not abandoning its traditionally cosy relationship with Pakistan as also for keeping the leftist lobby in the country in good humour.

The backdrop of the plot is the Chinese invasion of Indian territories in the North and North-east in late 1962 and India’s subsequent efforts to get back to its feet with the US’ support. At the same time India had to keep itself prepared for any possible threat from Pakistan in J&K and its western borders. Not to be left behind in the arms race, Chinese conducted their first nuclear test in 1964. Besides India, the test unnerved America as well. The CIA needed more information on China’s growing nuclear capability but had no means of peeking behind the Bamboo Curtain. They found a ‘natural ally’ in India.


India’s Intelligence Bureau and the CIA of the USA set upon a joint effort to plant a nuclear-powered sensing device on a high Himalayan peak in order to listen in to messages from China and monitor its missile launches. The mission required accomplished mountaineers instead of career spies. This vacuum was filled by one of the authors, Capt M.S. Kohli of the Indian Navy, famous for conquering Mount Everest in 1965 and producing a number of books related to mountaineering. Other mountaineering stalwarts who joined the mission had commendable climbing feats to their credit, such as expeditions to Mt. Everest, Kanchanjanga, Nanda Devi and a host of other treacherous peaks. They were joined by a group of American climbers who had set mountaineering records during expeditions to the Alps in Europe and Mt. McKinley in Alaska in the Arctic Circle.

The Nanda Devi peak was selected for its obvious advantages. The aim was to place an unmanned monitoring device on the peak, which would pick up electronic activity and path profile generated by any test-fired Chinese nuclear device in south-eastern provinces of China or in Tibet. The activity so picked up was automatically to be relayed to a ground station in the lower Himalayas for analysis by an American team of experts. The device on the peak was to be powered by a thermo-nuclear generator with radioactive fissile material. Unfortunately, the mission was beset by the perils of hazardous climbs, weather delays, aborted attempts and finally the accidental loss of a generator with radioactive material along Nanda Devi slopes. This posed a serious contamination threat to the Ganga and its tributaries. The information regarding the non-recovery of the radioactive material was kept under wraps for more than a decade until a partial leakage of the same by one Howard Kohn in the Outside magazine, USA, resulted in a media explosion, which rocked the Indian Parliament. The then Prime Minister Morarji Desai was forced to give a detailed statement in the House listing the compulsion of the then government of going into such an arrangement with the USA in the sixties. He also told the House that the governments of the day were fully in the know of and had approved of the joint expeditions. They were also aware of the non-recovery of the nuclear generator, the efforts made to retrieve it and the negation of any contamination threat to the river waters.

The book does not claim to be a spy versus spy thriller but it gives gripping accounts of many mountaineering feats undertaken from 1965 to 1968 beginning with the aborted Nanda Devi mission, planting of the first device at Nanda Devi and the loss of equipment, including the nuclear-powered generator. This was followed by subsequent failed missions to recover the device and understandable building up of tension at the Intelligence Bureau and the CIA headquarters. Successful installation of a fresh set of devices on Nanda Kot in 1967 gave some short-lived relief to the agencies involved. Finally the device was installed in the Ladakh region by reducing the height parameters and changing to a non-hazardous power source. By the time this information-gathering system started proving its usefulness it had become obsolete due to easy availability of satellite imaging techniques with the USA. Thus ended the honeymoon of almost four years between the intelligence agencies and mountaineers of two nations.

The book also throws light on the involvement of people in the Indian intelligence hierarchy, such as B.N. Mullick, R.N. Kao and A.K. Dave, in the execution of the joint project. It also talks of our mountaineers of the calibre of Kohli, Sonam Gyatso, Gyan Singh, Bhangu, two Wangyals, and Thondup the cook, who took each mission as a fresh challenge as a well-knit team and enjoyed climbing the peaks year after year. The book also gives insight into the functioning of some of the ‘classified’ Indian agencies such Establishment 22, Aviation Research Centre, High Altitude Operation Training Centre, Special Frontier Force and Special Service Bureau.

All chapters in the book revolve around Capt M.S. Kohli. Kenneth Conboy has worked as a policy analyst and deputy director at the Heritage Foundation and has written on CIA’s operations in Tibet. This is a well-documented and illustrated book, covering a historical episode.