It was well past midnight when the door of a Russian transport plane opened on the tarmac of Bombay’s Santa Cruz airport. In the darkness, a wiry, blond and bespectacled man with a goatee and sunken cheeks climbed down the stairs to meet a group of men in an Airports Authority of India jeep that had driven up to the AN-26 aircraft after it was instructed to land.
After a quick chat with the men, he hitched a ride on the jeep to the airport terminus ostensibly to pay landing/parking charges. Instead he made two phone calls to Hong Kong from a phone booth, coolly walked out of the airport building, hired a taxi and headed for Pune.
Since that night, on December 22, 1995, the man who would attain notoriety as Kim Davy, aka Niels Christian Nielsen – the so-called mastermind of the sensational Purulia arms drop – could not be traced for nearly 10 years, until he surfaced in his native Copenhagen, Denmark.
Purulia Arms Drop Mystery
- A CIA covert operation that went horribly wrong.
- Final end-users of the massive cache of small arms were the Kachin Independence Army.
- Successive Indian governments have buckled to pressure – from the Russians, the Britons and even the Americans.
- Process to get mastermind Nielsen extradited to India remains a humongous failure.
Arms Drop Remains a Mystery
Twenty years later, the Purulia arms drop continues to remain a mystery and the putative process to get Nielsen extradited to India has proved to be a humongous failure – the result of official lethargy, if not rank submission to the wiles and wishes of a foreign intelligence agency.
At Bombay airport, Nielsen’s guile and presence of mind, and the rank stupidity of Indian intelligence helped him escape. Over the years, some sections of an uninformed Indian media have given credence to the lies that Nielsen chose to propagate by claiming that the Purulia arms drop was a clandestine operation of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) to topple the Left Front regime of Jyoti Basu in West Bengal.
One television news channel, led by its garrulous chief anchor, frequently claimed to “break” interview-based stories on the arms drop. But they did not even bother to ask basic questions to Nielsen: if he was indeed working for RAW, who was his case officer/handler? And when was he recruited?
A Covert Operation
Enough has been written about how the botched arms drop operation was undertaken. Last year, Rupa published my book, The Night it Rained Guns, in which I tried to unravel India’s deepest national security mystery. Instead of flogging a dead horse, I would only say that the Purulia arms drop was a covert CIA operation that went horribly wrong. It had all the hallmarks of a black op – hugely circuitous, the actors spread over at least 14 countries, the fast and easy transfer of massive sums of money through Swiss bank accounts, and behind-the-scenes shadowy activities of foreign intelligence and paramilitary men. In other words, there was complete deniability.
My investigations, along with a corpus of classified and unclassified documents I had collected over the years and pieced together, besides scores of interviews with a range of knowledgeable Indian, American, Russian and Nordic intelligence officers, Interpol and CBI sleuths who investigated the case, suggest that the final end-users of the massive cache of small arms were the Kachin Independence Army.
I admit the link is tenuous but sufficient enough to establish why the CIA would have picked a buccaneer, a hired hand, instead of an asset to undertake this daring mission that was ultimately bungled. If you refer to The Night it Rained Guns, you will find stark and stunning similarities between Nielsen’s Purulia operation and the manner in which a Russian arms dealer-cum-transporter Viktor Bout was used by the CIA to fly deadly weapons to some civil war-torn African countries in the 1990s.
It is my contention that successive Indian governments have buckled to pressure – from the Russians under Vladimir Putin, from the Britons under Tony Blair, and perhaps even the Americans. The NDA government of AB Vajpayee pardoned the five-member Latvian crew of the AN-26 (yes, they were innocent and took no part in the conspiracy), and the British MI6 agent Peter Bleach. I am not surprised by the behaviour of the Danish authorities, including its judiciary. All evidence – direct or indirect – point to one inescapable conclusion: the Americans nudged to protect Nielsen at all costs.
No Pressure on Denmark
Successive Indian governments did not put sufficient pressure on the Danes. On the contrary, they ran an extra mile to be polite, and promised sovereign guarantees that Nielsen won’t be mistreated in jail should Denmark decide to hand him over. Sometimes coercive diplomacy does work. A firm and determined approach – temporary snapping of diplomatic ties, for instance – would have had the right impact and produced the right results.
The Purulia arms drop and the investigation (which remains incomplete) that followed may not figure in the consciousness of a new generation of Indians. Governments will continue to hedge and dodge. It is not that they want to shield a semi-competent national security bureaucracy.
The silence on Purulia will continue for another 20 years. Not because RAW was complicit in the arms drop – it was not – but because our intelligence agencies would not want to endanger the cosy liaisons they enjoy with their western counterparts.