11th April, 1955. The Air India Constellation passenger airliner travelled at high speed through the clouds. One of the delegates of People’s Republic of China (PRC) checked his watch. 9.20 UTC. The passenger airliner, popularly known as the “Kashmir Princess” was carrying the whole of the PRC delegation, journalists and the aircraft crew over to Jakarta, Indonesia for the Afro-Asian Bandung Conference. The Kashmir Princess, chartered by India, had departed the Hong Kong Kai-Tak International Airport at 4.25 UTC.1 Now, the passengers sat silently in the interior of the aircraft. However, they did not know that this was the calm before the storm.
At 9.23 UTC the Aircraft Maintenance Engineer (AME), A.S. Karnik heard a muffled explosion from the side of the no. 3 engine of the aircraft. Upon seeing the appearance of smoke from the cold air ducts in the tourist cabin where he was sleeping, Karnik suspected that a fire had started in the rear baggage compartment. He alerted the pilot, Captain D. K. Jatar. As was the drill, carbon dioxide was discharged into the baggage compartment and Jatar had started a rapid descent. J.C Pathak, the flight navigator rushed into the cockpit. “Fire on the right wing” he reported breathlessly. Gloria Berry, the air hostess handed out life vests to every passenger on board.
“Captain Jatar, the only alternative is to “ditch” the aircraft as soon as practicable.” suggested A.S. Karnik. In aviation terminology “to ditch” often means to land on water in dire circumstances.2 The co-pilot, M.C. Dikshit sent MAY-DAY calls and reported a fire in the rear baggage compartment. The rapid spread of the fire caused hydraulic failure followed by electrical failure. The aircraft had descended from 18,000 feet. The water could now be seen only a few feet below. It would hit any time and one needed to be ready. D. K. Jatar knew the impossibility of this operation going as planned and the success rate was awfully low. “We are ditching.” he announced.
The Kashmir Princess crashed off Natuna Islands, Indonesia soon after. A.S. Karnik, M.C. Dikshit and J.C Pathak survived. Eight hours later they drifted onto an uninhabited island. J.C. Pathak was found on a separate island. Every other passenger was killed.
Gloria Berry had pleaded with D. K. Jatar for him to jump and save his own life, but he knew that this was his plane to man till the end and as the duty of a pilot he did that without hesitation. Gloria Berry remained with him till the end. When the wreckage of the aircraft was recovered during the investigation, D. K. Jatar’s body was found slumped on his chair in the cockpit. Later, D. K. Jatar and Gloria Berry were awarded the Ashok Chakra and the Kirti Chakra respectively by the Government of India as a token of bravery.
The first time I heard about the Kashmir Princess was from my grandfather, Shrikrishna Inamdar. I remember that after finishing the story of the ill-fated aircraft, he said “and the captain of the Kashmir Princess, D. K. Jatar, was my maternal uncle”. I was intrigued and my curiosity increased as this was something my family had been involved in. Two years later, as I was surfing the Internet I chanced upon the blog hosted by the Jatar family. While reading various articles on it, I found one related to D. K. Jatar and the Kashmir Princess. After that I took it upon myself to retell this incredible story. This was the first ever conspiracy that India had been involved in after its independence and this was a crisis on a global level.
On 12th April some Indonesian fishermen located the wreckage of the Kashmir Princess at an average depth of 35 feet of clear water. However, the wreckage could not be seen from the surface. The Indonesian government started an investigation on 25th April and it lasted for ten days. The investigation revealed that there had been a clockwork mechanism trapped in the no. 3 tank. This clockwork mechanism was not part of any component of the aircraft. There was a clear sign of sabotage and a pre-planned operation.3
As mentioned previously, the crash was no accident. It was a well-planned attempt to assassinate Zhou Enlai, the Chinese Premier under Mao Zedong. Enlai was heading the PRC delegation for the Afro-Asian Bandung Conference in Jakarta. But, Enlai was never on the flight. Due to an alleged appendectomy, he was delayed to come to Hong Kong and thus could not reach the flight in time. Enlai later flew down to Rangoon to meet with Jawaharlal Nehru, the Indian Prime Minister and U Nu, the Burmese Prime Minister. From there the trio left for the Bandung Conference. Many historians have argued that Zhou Enlai knew about the bomb placed in the Kashmir Princess and the appendectomy was simply a hoax. In fact many of the accident reports seem to suggest that Zhou Enlai sent his deputies and few of the journalists into the flight as a decoy delegation.4
A failed assassination attempt does in fact raise a few important questions: who was the mastermind behind the Kashmir Princess crash (although Kuomintang, the nationalist party of China has been popularly blamed for it, there are theories that it might have been masterminded by the CIA and executed through Kuomintang in order to eliminate Communists)? What was the need/motive to eliminate the Chinese premier? And lastly, the most crucial of all the questions: if Enlai knew about the bomb, then why did he plant a false delegation and let the lower officers and journalists die? Would it not have been easier to simply call off the journey and warn the Kashmir Princess crew?
Zhou Enlai and the Chinese Foreign Policy in the 1950s
Zhou Enlai was the first Premier of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) under the rule of Mao Zedong. Enlai served China from 1949 to 1976. He was a Marxist and contributed heavily to the development of the Mao Zedong Thought and the establishment of the Communist Party of China alongside nationalist party, Kuomintang.
Enlai believed that if Kuomintang (KMT) and the Communist Party of China (CPC) cooperated, they could overthrow the “foreign imperialism and the semi-feudal forces in China”.5 He also asserted that the coalition between the KMT and CPC would ensure a balance of the polar opposite ideologies that the two parties held. However, the KMT and the CPC had a fallout during the Chinese Civil War over who would govern the country after the defeat of the “foreign imperialism and the semi-feudal forces in China”. At the end of the feud in 1949 Mao Zedong appeared as the victor and the founding father of the People’s Republic of China. He appointed Zhou Enlai as his Premier.6
As soon as the People’s Republic of China was born after the revolution, three goals were set in regard to its foreign policy: forming an alliance with the Soviet Union, helping Vietnam in its fight against France, and interfering in the Korean War.7 Zhou Enlai helped Mao Zedong in negotiating the Treaty of Friendship and Mutual Assistance with Stalin in Moscow in the month of February, 1950. Enlai was also given the responsibility of sending Chinese soldiers in the Korean War. The PRC had aided North Korea since the country had been founded. By mid-1950s China focused on non-aggression and also adopted the five principles of the Non-Aligned Movement.8 However, the Taiwan Issue still persisted.
The island of Taiwan first appeared in Chinese records in 239 C.E. when China carried out an expedition to explore the island. PRC had often used these records to claim the territory of Taiwan. Later, Taiwan was administered by the Chinese Qing dynasty from 1683 to 1895. In 1895 Taiwan was given to Japan following the First Sino-Japanese War. However, in about half a century China’s victory in the Second World War ensured that Taiwan was returned safely to China after Japan’s surrender. In 1949 Chiang Kai-shek’s KMT government was driven out of China by Mao Zedong’s Communist army and on this note the Chinese Civil War ended.9 However, it gave rise to a new tension: the Taiwan Issue. Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang government had fled to Taiwan following their defeat and were now demanding complete autonomy for Taiwan. China refused to provide the autonomy.
In 1954-55 USA supported Chiang Kai-shek’s government in Taiwan and China regarded that as a threat.10 Later, during talks with Henry Kissinger, Enlai contended that China was displeased by USA’s support to Taiwan.11 Zhou Enlai was on the frontline of the Taiwan Issue. The resistance of China towards Taiwan’s demands had humiliated the KMT and this might have served as the perfect motive to sabotage the Kashmir Princess. However, this was not the only reason. The KMT believed that Zhou Enlai was trying to “isolate Taiwan” by persuading the “United States to negotiate with the PRC” over the Mutual Defence Treaty which the Taiwan government had signed to ensure security from its neighbouring nations with the help of the United States. The Kashmir Princess sabotage might have also been planned because the KMT wanted to prevent the PRC from entering the United Nations.12 United Kingdom had already invited the PRC to join the UN and assassinating Zhou Enlai was the only way out for Taiwan. The National Security Bureau of Taiwan was called to the front to head the attack on the Kashmir Princess.
The Predator and the the National Security Bureau of Taiwan
The National Security Bureau (NSB) is the national intelligence agency of Taiwan. It was established on 1st March, 1955; just a month before the sabotage of the Kashmir Princess. The Bureau ran a number of spy networks across southeast Asia, more importantly in Hong-Kong. The reason for so many networks in Hong-Kong was to keep the PRC at an arm’s length and sabotage it if the need arose at any time. The Hong-Kong Guerrilla Unit was in charge of damaging the PRC. According to intelligence gathered by the PRC, the Hong-Kong Guerrilla Unit (later renamed the Hong-Kong Group) was responsible for launching an attack on the Kashmir Princess in order to assassinate Zhou Enlai.13
Zhou Enlai, in his talks with Henry Kissinger in 1971 outlined the incident of Kashmir Princess. In his own words:
When I went to the Bandung Conference in 1955 I almost lost my life. At that time we chartered an Indian plane, the “Kashmir Princess” from Hong Kong. Because Prime Minister U Nu wanted me to go with him, I went to Burma. He asked Nehru and Nasser to go with him and I changed my route at the last minute while the others went via Hong Kong. The saboteurs thought I was on the “Kashmir Princess” and set a time bomb on the plane. Just as the “Kashmir Princess” was about to reach Bandung, it exploded in mid-air and crashed into the sea.
India, together with authorities in Hong Kong, investigated the bombing. We have evidence that the bomb was placed by a Chinese who was brought over to Hong Kong, and I convinced the Indian Commissioner to go directly with our people to Hong Kong and demand from the Hong Kong authorities that they arrest that man. But such news leaks out, and the Indian told his Embassy, and just as we got to Hong Kong that man flew to Taiwan.14
The Chinese man that Zhou Enlai mentioned was Zhou Zhu, a worker at the Kai-Tak International Airport. Zhu was recruited by the Hong-Kong Group not because he was an experienced agent of theirs, but simply because he had easy access to the aircraft. He was an aircraft cleaner after all. Zhu did not have any training in handling explosives and the KMT and the NSB trained him specially for this operation. Zhu came on board with the plan when he was promised an award of 600,000 Hong-Kong dollars and later asylum in Taiwan.15
Zhou Enlai, in a statement to the British authorities reasserted the fact that the sabotage of the Kashmir Princess was carried out by “Jiang Jieshi’s special agents”.16 Jiang Jieshi was in fact Chiang Kai-shek, the chairman of the Kuomintang. Zhou Enlai maintained that the Hong-Kong authorities had handled the case very carelessly. He declared that Hong-Kong had let go of several Taiwanese agents who that had been in the PRC’s hit-list. He also noted that the Hong-Kong authorities personally escorted the accused out of its borders into Taiwan. He further went on to say that this was a very careless move as the Taiwanese agents were a threat to the PRC.17
A Decoy Delegation
During Enlai’s meeting with Henry Kissinger he did not mention anything regarding a decoy delegation. To quote his own words, “Because Prime Minister U Nu wanted me to go with him, I went to Burma. He asked Nehru and Nasser to go with him and I changed my route at the last minute while the others went via Hong Kong.”18 However, historians still maintain that even though Zhou Enlai did not mention a decoy delegation, he had sent it.
Enlai did not want to stall the sabotage. He simply let his deputies take the original delegation’s place and sent many journalists from the Xinhua News Agency. Enlai pulled out all the diplomatic giants from the aircraft like the Vice-Premier, Minister for Foreign Trade and Vice-Foreign Minister. The PRC asked the British authorities to treat the journalists from the Xinhua News Agency as delegates from the PRC, however no explanation was ever given by the PRC as to why such treatment was to be received by the journalists. The PRC could have diverted the Kashmir Princess, however, Enlai did not do that. No explanation was given to this effect also.19 The only probable explanation seems to be that Enlai did not want to attract any unwanted attention or suspicion. If he would have diverted the aircraft then NSB would have gone underground yet again and nailing the responsible party would have proved to be even harder.
Zhou Enlai told the British authorities that he knew about the sabotage on 8th April itself.20 If he could’ve told the British authorities about his foreknowledge then why did he refrain from doing so when he spoke to Henry Kissinger?
A Western Accomplice?
Enlai and the PRC had accused the CIA and the American government of influencing the events on 11th April, however, no evidence has been found to this effect. The only thing that was USA-affiliated in this whole affair was that the clockwork mechanism was made in the United States and the aircraft in which Zhou Zhu escaped to Taiwan was “an American-owned civil transport company plane”.21 Suspicion of American involvement can also be raised because USA was the only true ally that Taiwan had, and a strong one too. However, as it has already been stated, Taiwan had a very strong network of spies and intelligence agents in Hong-Kong. Therefore, it would not have taken help from the USA because two countries being involved would have been a messy business.
This whole incident of the Kashmir Princess was an attempt to destroy the Communists of the PRC and reinstate the old regime of the Kuomintang nationalist party in China again. Assassinating Zhou Enlai was the key point. Even if he was not the supreme leader and was on a lower rung than Mao Zedong, he held the reins to the institution and was a key figure behind each and every success of China till 1950s. If this had been a successful attack by the KMT and the NSB then today the world would have been very different. Taiwan would have been an Asian powerhouse and China would have been a small-time nation trying to get back on its feet after the destruction of its Communist ideals.
1. Aviation Safety Network, accident Lockheed L-749A Constellation VT-DEP Great Natuna Islands. Retrieved from Aviation Safety Network (aviation-safety.net)
2. Karnik, A.S. (1958). Kashmir Princess. Mumbai, Jaico Publishing House.
3. Ministry of Communications, Government of India. Report of the Indonesian Commission of Enquiry on the accident to Air India International’s Constellation Aircraft. 1955.
4. Tsang, S. (1994). Target Zhou Enlai: The “Kashmir Princess’ Incident of 1955. The China Quarterly, 139, 766-782. doi:10.1017/S0305741000043150
5. Enlai, Zhou. (1981). Selected Works of Zhou Enlai Volume 1. Beijing. Foreign Languages Press. Retrieved from marxists.com.
6. Kampen, Thomas. (2000). Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai and the Evolution of the Chinese Communist Leadership. Nordic Institute of Asian Studies.
7. Jun, Niu. The Transformation of Chinese Foreign Policy and Its Impact on East Asia: International Patterns in the 1950s. Retrieved from: http://src-h.slav.hokudai.ac.jp/rp/publications/no09/09_07_Niu.pdf.
8. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China. Zhou Enlai. Retrieved from https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/ziliao_665539/wjrw_665549/3606_665551/t44145.shtml.
9. What’s behind the China-Taiwan divide? 2 January, 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.com/.
10. Bush, Richard. Brookings Institution. Rigger, Shelley. Davidson College. The Taiwan Issue and the Normalization of US-China Relations. Retrieved from: https://www.brookings.edu/.
11. Office of the Historian, Government of the United States. 162. Memorandum of Conversation. Beijing, October 21, 1971. Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969-1976, Volume XVII, China, 1969-1972. Retrieved from: Office of the Historian, United States Department of State (https://history.state.gov/).
12. Tsang, S. (1994). Target Zhou Enlai: The “Kashmir Princess’ Incident of 1955. The China Quarterly, 139, 766-782. doi:10.1017/S0305741000043150
14. Office of the Historian, Government of the United States. 162. Memorandum of Conversation. Beijing, October 21, 1971. Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969-1976, Volume XVII, China, 1969-1972. Retrieved from: Office of the Historian, United States Department of State (https://history.state.gov/).
15. Tsang, S. (1994). Target Zhou Enlai: The “Kashmir Princess’ Incident of 1955. The China Quarterly, 139, 766-782. doi:10.1017/S0305741000043150.
16. Zhou Enlai’s Brief Statement to British Chargé d’affaires ad interim Con O’Neill Regarding the
Princess of Kashmir Investigation, February 06, 1956, History and Public Policy Program Digital
Archive, PRC FMA 207-00011-15, 111-115. Translated by Jeffrey Wang.
18. Office of the Historian, Government of the United States. 162. Memorandum of Conversation. Beijing, October 21, 1971. Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969-1976, Volume XVII, China, 1969-1972. Retrieved from: Office of the Historian, United States Department of State (https://history.state.gov/).
19. Tsang, S. (1994). Target Zhou Enlai: The “Kashmir Princess’ Incident of 1955. The China Quarterly, 139, 766-782. doi:10.1017/S0305741000043150.
21. Gokhale, Nitin A. (2019). R. N. Kao: Gentleman Spymaster. New Delhi. Bloomsbury.
© Anurag Inamdar, 2020