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The death of an unknown Indian pilot, and the lost history of a CIA plot to kill a Chinese premier

In 1955, an attempted assassination to derail the Non-Aligned Movement, and the bravery of those who survived it

M C Dikshit in his home in East Delhi. (Photo credit: Ritambara Shastri)

M C Dikshit died in Delhi on December 5 at the age of 105 after prolonged illness. And with him, the world lost the last of the witnesses to a gruesome Cold War conspiracy that ended up in the mid-air explosion of the Kashmir Princess, which was to take Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai to Jakarta for the historic Bandung conference.

Frail and sporting a Ho Chi Minh beard, few in East Delhi’s Samachar Apartments, where he lived, knew he was the one who co-piloted the Indian Airlines plane Kashmir Princess that fell into the sea after a mid-air bomb blast on April 11, 1955. Even a few months before his death, Dikshit was seen walking to the local market.

A S Karnik wrote a book on the air crash.

The sordid plot began with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru offering to ferry Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai in an Indian Airlines aeroplane from Peking to Jakarta to enable him to attend the Bandung conference from April 18 to 24, 1955. This was in view of the security threat to the Chinese leader. Accordingly, the Kashmir Princess was directed to take the Chinese delegation from Honk Kong to Jakarta.

The plane took off on the night of April 11, 1955, but without Zhou Enlai and his senior colleagues. Five hours after the takeoff, it exploded at a height of 18,000 feet. Sixteen persons, including the crew, were killed as the smoke-filled plane nosedived into the Pacific Ocean near Natua island. Three crew members — co-pilot M C Dikshit who died last night, flight navigator J C Pathak, and mechanical engineer A S Karnik — survived the crash. They kept themselves afloat on the high seas before Indonesian fishermen rescued them the next day.

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M C Dikshit

Captain D K Katar and air hostess Gloria Berry showed exemplary courage in saving the passengers instead of bailing themselves out from the falling plane. Later, they were awarded the Ashok Chakra.

Back in Delhi, Nehru invited the three survivors to Teen Murti House. But typical of those years of idealism, the three politely declined any special honours. They took it as their duty to the nation. Even in his sunset days, Dikshit was reluctant to talk about what happened in 1955.

However, his colleague A S Karnik wrote a book on the air crash.

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In July, 2005, the Chinese government declassified the records relating to the CIA conspiracy to assassinate Zhou. It revealed that four days before the blast, that is, on April 7, Zhou had changed his plans and decided to accept Burmese leader U Nu’s invitation to fly from Rangoon to Jakarta. Nehru and Egypt’s Gamal Abdul Nasser had also joined the team. However, change of the flight schedule was kept secret with a view to confuse Cold War rivals.

China’s investigations later showed that the plot was masterminded by the CIA but executed by Kuomintang agents in Hong Kong. One Zhou Zhu, a cleaner at the airport and a drug addict, had planted the explosive — a US-made MK-7 detonator — in the wheels of the aircraft. In the middle of the investigations by the then British administration of Honk Kong, Zhu was spirited away to safety in an aircraft owned by a CIA-funded firm.

The government of India deputed R N Kao who later became the first chief of Research & Analysis Wing (RAW), to investigate the crash of the Kashmir Princess. The three survivors, including Dikshit, were crucial for the investigation.

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Twenty-nine countries had attended the Afro-Asian conference at Indonesian resort-city Bandung from April 18 to 24, 1955. The conference laid the foundation for the Non-Aligned Movement. Apart from Indonesian President Sukarno, Nehru, Nassar, Zhou Enlai and U Nu played a major role.

From the very beginning, Americans were worried over the Bandung conference, which was seen as a Soviet ploy against the US. As early as January, that is, three months before the conference, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles set up a working group which included intelligence outfits and diplomats to keep a tab on what was seen as an anti-US line-up.

The probe by the Indian team revealed that it was the starboard of the plane that first hit the water after it fell into the sea. The aircraft totally burned in the air. All except three crew members — Dikshit, Pathak and Karnik — were killed. Captain Katar remained in the seat and supervised the rescue operations. Air hostess Gloria Berry kept her calm and distributed seat belts to the passengers risking her own life, Indian investigators found.

The writer is a senior journalist

First published on: 05-12-2022 at 17:52 IST
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