UFOs, H-bombs, new religion: CIA cables reveal an era of intrigue and assassination plots in India

For a good part of the last century, India and the US weren’t the best of friends.

While the US saw India tilting towards the Soviet Union, India viewed with suspicion America’s support for Pakistan. It is only in the late 1990s, after the Cold War ended, that Indo-US ties began improving.

However, all through the troubled relationship, the US took a keen interest in India. While this is understandable considering the Cold War dynamics, some of the 13 million pages of documents declassified by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) on Jan. 18 reveal the extent of this interest.

Quartz looks at what these documents say about India.

An assassination foretold

Five years before former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by Sri Lanka’s Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 1991, the CIA had prepared a detailed “brief” of such an eventuality.

Mikhail Gorbachev confers with his host, Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, during a special session of the Indian Parliament addressed by the Soviet leader November 27, 1986. Gorbachev's speech proposing security measures to reduce the risk of war in Asia was warmly applauded by the Indian parlimentarians. SCANNED FROM NEGATIVE.Mikhail Gorbachev with Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in November 1986. (Reuters/Arthur Tsang PN)

“Prime minister Rajiv Gandhi faces at least an even chance of assassination before his tenure in office ends in 1989,” one of the CIA documents says. “We believe Indo-US relations could also suffer as a result of domestic political changes following Rajiv’s assassination.”

Gandhi, it seems, was viewed as being favourably disposed towards the US, in a marked departure from India’s traditional stand, with the prime minister even sacking a US-baiter foreign minister. “His (Gandhi’s) removal of foreign minister (Bali Ram) Bhagat, who criticised US actions against Libya, probably is intended in part to smooth relations with Washington,” the Memo NESA/M/86-20075, dated May 22, 1986, says.

The Himalayan UFOs

A CIA report from April 1968 details six sightings of unidentified flying objects (UFOs) over Ladakh, Sikkim, Bhutan, and Nepal between February and March that year.

“A huge metallic disc-shaped object with a six-foot base and four feet in height was found in a crater at Baltichaur, five miles NE of Pokhara,” the report said. Another said, “One white light and simultaneously two blasting sounds were heard. Also, one reddish light followed by white smoke.”

Assessment of Indira Gandhi

In 2013, Wikileaks had released cables detailing how the CIA had planted its source in Indira Gandhi’s household during the Emergency in 1975. While the CIA documents don’t confirm this, the agency’s intelligence gathering seemed to have improved significantly during the Emergency.

U.S. Vice President George H. W. Bush, right, and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi are shown discussing the international situation and bilateral affairs, Monday, May 14, 1984, New Delhi, India.US vice-president George HW Bush with prime minister Indira Gandhi in May 1984. (AP Photo/Sondeep Shankar)

“In both government and party, Gandhi has made it clear that she wants individuals whose loyalty to her is beyond question,” the report said. “Development of a personality cult around the prime minister has been one of the more prominent features of the Emergency…the prime minister relies for advice on a small group of confidants, including her son, Sanjay. This inner circle is composed of bureaucrats and family retainers, reflecting the prime minister’s general distrust of politicians who might one day challenge her control.”

The intelligence agency also spoke about how nearly 40% of the members of parliament from Indira Gandhi’s Congress party received Soviet political contributions.

IndoPak ties and the H-bomb

The US believed that after the successful liberation of Bangladesh in 1971, India could wage a war to reclaim Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. The US even held high-level meetings to discuss the course of action in such a case.

While there was no subsequent war, India-Pakistan relations remained a cause of worry for the CIA.

“India’s ability to carry out the military option is not in question…The enrichment plant (in Pakistan) would be a soft target…The difficulty of acquiring necessary components and rebuilding the plant would probably rule out production of highly-enriched uranium for years,” the September 1981 CIA report says.

In 1985, the Rajiv Gandhi government made preparations to test a hydrogen bomb in response to Pakistan’s nuclear programmes. The CIA noted that the hydrogen bomb was created by a team of 36 scientists at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Mumbai. “A rapid series of Pakistani tests would compel New Delhi to develop nuclear weapons and touch off a nuclear arms race between the two,” a CIA document says. The US even considered sending a nuclear emissary to the two countries to calm down tempers.

Pakistan‘s grouse, India’s inferiority complex

The CIA reports document why Pakistan chose to ally with the US during the Cold War.

“Pakistan’s pro-Western orientation stems from her fear of India and USSR rather than any basic sympathy with capitalism or Christian civilisation. It is more negative than positive,” an undated CIA document says. “Pakistan believes India has never accepted its independent existence and it wants to make it a weak buffer state under Indian hegemony,” the declassified documents say.

The agency, meanwhile, was also scathing of India’s national sense of “inferiority.” “National achievements, especially the crushing victory over Pakistan in December 1971 and the apparent ability to create a nuclear weapon, have tended to buoy self-confidence, but euphoria is transient and the feelings of national inferiority are deeply imbedded,” the documents say.

Sathya Sai Baba

In the 1990s, the CIA prepared a secret report on Sathya Sai Baba, a popular spiritual guru, who the agency believed could build another “worldwide religion.”

Indian spiritual leader Sathya Sai Baba, right, looks on at a function to meet his devotees in New Delhi, India, Saturday, April 10, 2010.Sathya Sai Baba in April 2010. (AP Photo/Mustafa Quraishi)

Sai Baba had repeatedly referred to himself as Kalki, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. The CIA drew parallels with the messianic return of Jesus Christ in Christianity or the Mahdi in Islam. “In fact, he says he is the Biblical second coming. While such claims may be incredible, most of his devotees believe him,” the report says. The spiritual guru was well known for numerous miracles, including his ability to “materialise” objects such as holy ash, gold, and food.

“Such claims have not been scientifically verified in a laboratory, although a team of western parapsychologists observed some of these events in a field study. While the scientific paradigm may reject the possibility of such capabilities, traditional Hindus accept them as entirely plausible,” the report says.

Target: Gen Cariappa

The declassified documents disturbingly suggest that one of India’s greatest military figures, General KM Cariappa, was the target of an assassination attempt and that the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) had a role to play in this.

“An attempt to assassinate General Cariappa, the commander-in-chief of Indian Army, was made during the General’s recent inspection tour of East Punjab,” says a report. This was amidst a reported rift in the Indian Army on the north-south lines. Gen. Cariappa, the army’s then commander-in-chief who went on to become Field Marshal, was from the Kodagu region of southern India. “RSS is capitalising on the north-south split among Army officers, persuading Sikh officers, whom the informant considers treacherous and unreliable, to spread dissension,” a document titled “Rift in Officers corps of the Indian Army” says.

Six persons were sentenced to death for this alleged assassination attempt, the report states.