In 1965, during a secret expedition to Nanda Devi, an atomic device got lost and continues to be missing and potentially hazardous to the people of India if it contaminates the Ganga – a concern that was recently voiced by the Uttarakhand tourism minister. The chilling story of international espionage, involving China, the CIA and the Indian government, is now being made into a Hollywood film. Namita Devidayal spoke to the leader of the expedition, Capt Manmohan Singh Kohli, now 88 and living in Delhi, about the three-year-long project that remains one of India’s lurking unsolved mysteries.

Tell us a little bit about the background to the expedition. 

After the Chinese carried out their first nuclear test in 1964, the US decided to spy on China’s nuclear capabilities via India. The CIA asked the Indian government if it could plant a sensor. The government, which at the time blindly followed the CIA, agreed. On June 23, 1965, we did a trial run on Mount McKinley in Alaska, and then went to Nanda Devi, but had to turn back because of bad weather conditions. Unable to carry it back, we left the device there. We went back in May 1966 to search for it, and again in 1967 but had no luck. In 1968, we finally abandoned the search. Because it was a top-secret mission, we were not allowed to disclose what we were doing even to our families. The American agents used aliases. The whole thing was quite exhausting, but we were in the service of the nation.

What was it like to do a covert operation with the US Intelligence? 

The CIA was not very straightforward and frank with the Indian government when the device got lost. It kept changing its version. The government did not have a say right from the beginning, so the whole thing ended up being a bit topsy-turvy.

What is the potential damage that can be caused by the nuclear device? 

The life of the device is about 100 years and there are still about 40 years left. If it goes into the Rishi-Ganga, the water can get very contaminated and more people would get affected, even die. But once it goes to the main Ganga, there would be quite a lot of dilution, and some people might suffer but it would not lead to fatalities. According to my estimates, the device is very hot and once it touches the glacier, it will start sinking until it touches rock. Then it won’t move.

What has prevented the Indian government from locating the device and preventing any fallout?

It may be worthwhile to try to locate it now that technology has improved and there is machinery that can penetrate ten to fifteen feet of ice. But using such equipment is very expensive and the question remains whether the Indian government should use its own money or persuade the CIA to do the needful.

Do you think China might know where the device is? 

I don’t think so. The device is not active. There are four parts to the device – the generator with the plutonium capsules, two transmitter sets, and one big aerial to collect the radio waves – and they are all buried separately. If not connected together, there is very little possibility of anyone finding it.

There have been reports that Hollywood producer Scott Rosenfelt (of Home Alone fame) is making a film about this. 

They’ve completed the script already and chosen Greg Mclean as director. Now they are going to choose the cast, and they might pick Ranbir Kapoor to play me. They spoke to his mother and she was positive. They had told me that shooting will start sometime in March 2020. They have kept the story 100% authentic.