( Triggered by an interview of the pilot telecast by the Times Now news channel since this morning )
The clandestine Purulia arms drop of December 1995, in which an aircraft piloted by a group of mercenaries hired by an unidentified extremist organisation---suspected to be the Anand Marg--- managed to fly right across the Indian air space to Purulia in West Bengal, air-drop a consignment of arms and ammunition to a collecting party on the ground and fly to Pattaya in Thailand unprevented and unintercepted by the Indian intelligence and security agencies and the Air Force despite the availability of precise advance intelligence is a shameful episode in the history of Indian intelligence.
2. A few weeks before the actual air-drop, the extremist organisation which had procured the arms and ammunition had approached a retired pilot of the British Air Force and offered to pay him handsomely if he organised the air-drop successfullly. Even though tempted by the sum offered, he did not initially agree to carry it out. He asked for time to think over it. He then contacted an official of the British Defence Ministry and told him about the approach made to him by the extremists. The official advised him not to reject the officer and wait for further instructions.
3. The Defence Ministry official then told the MI-5, the British Security Service, about it. The MI-5 immediately informed the Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW), with which it had a liaison relationship, about it.The R&AW, after examining the matter, asked the MI-5 to advise the pilot to accept the task and to keep the MI-5 informed of all his meetings with the extremist organisation and the detailed plans for the air-drop including the date and time, the place of the air-drop and the flight path.
4. The pilot faithfully carried out the instructions and kept the MI-5 informed of all the details at every stage. These details were passed on by the MI-5 to the R&AW which, in turn, passed them on to the Intelligence Bureau, which was responsible for follow-up action. It was reported that the R&AW passed on the details given by the pilot through the MI-5 to the IB as if it had collected them on its own from one of its sources instead of specifying that the details were coming from the pilot himself through the MI-5.If the R&AW had taken the IB into confidence and told it that the details were coming from the pilot himself through the MI-5, the IB might have taken the details more seriously.
5.Normally, in such cases, if the matter had been handled professionally, the R&AW would have taken the clearance of the Prime Minister for flying out a team of officers of the IB and the R&AW to the UK to meet the piliot secretly with the help of the MI-5 and the British Defence Ministry and take his co-operation for organising a trap on the ground so that the collecting party could have been arrested while collecting the air-dropped arms and ammunition and the identity of the extremist organisation established.
6. Nothing of that sort was done. The R&AW passed on the information in a routine manner to the IB without specifying that it was coming from the pilot through the MI-5. The IB, instead of organising the follow-up action itself, passed it on to the West Bengal Police in an equally routine manner. The then Chief Secretary of the West Bengal Government later on complained that the IB had sent the information by registered post and that it was received after the air drop had taken place and the aircraft had flown out of India.
7. One does not know whether the R&AW and the IB kept the Indian Air Force in the picture so that the IAF could have kept track of the plane and made sure that the pilot did not play any tricks. The plane entered the air space over Mumbai from Pakistan, flew to the air space over Purulia, air-dropped the arms and ammunition and then flew on to Pattaya in Thailand.
8. In the meanwhile,most of the air-dropped arms and ammunition had been removed by unidentified elements. The IB issued an alert to all concerned to look for the plane if it flew over the Indian air space again while flying back to the UK. After a couple of days, the British pilot and his Latvian crew took off from Pattaya, flew to Chennai, landed at the airport there, got the aircraft refuelled there and then took off. Only after the aircraft had taken off from Chennai did the intelligence and airport officials realise that it was the same plane that had air-dropped the arms and ammunition.
9. The IAF intercepted the aircraft before it could leave the Indian air space and forced it to land at Mumbai. One person on board the plane, who reportedly belonged to the extremist organisation, managed to quietly walk out of the airport without being stopped by the security and the immigration. The British pilot and crew were arrested. Sections of the media had reported that the pilot was in a very violent mood and abused the police and intelligence officials.
10. No wonder. He had taken the initiative in alerting the intelligence agencies and keeping them informed of all the details. He expected that he would be honoured and rewarded. Instead, he was allegedly treated roughly, prosecuted and jailed.
11. A few weeks after this incident, the then British Home Secretary had come to India on a scheduled visit. In his interaction with our local media, he pointed out how the British intelligence had kept its Indian counterpart informed.
12. I have been writing about this shameful episode off and on since 1996. In my book "Intelligence---Past, Present and Future" published in 2001 ( Lancer Publishers of New Delhi), I had stated as follows on Page 233: " The normal response of any professional counter-terrorism agency, on the receipt of such precise information, would have been to organise a trap in co-operation with the pilot who had reportedly volunteered the information, for catching the terrorists on the ground while they were collecting the arms and ammunition after the air-drop. Till now, no satisfactory explanation has been forthcoming from the security agencies as to why this was not done."
13. We do not know the answer to this even today. (28-4-11)
( The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi )