The year was 1955. Indo China relations were quite warm, the Panschsheel had been signed the previous year. In 1954, Premier Zhou Enlai had visited Delhi, the ICFA was setting up bhai-bhai meetings all over, Nehru visited Beijing, exchange students were selected, delegations and cultural groups go back and forth, and Indian films are carted off to be shown in China. Later in 1955, Defense minister Krishna Menon visits Zhou and Mao in Beijing, Vijayalakshmi Pandit follows, Beijing organizes a 5,000 person meeting to support India’s Goa claims, India arranges a Mecca Hajj trip for Chinese Muslims, ten Chinese students come to Delhi to learn Hindi, while an Indian team plays the Chinese Volleyball team, under the watchful eyes of Mao while Pritviraj Kapoor leads an Indian film show trip around China. The relations between the two countries are carefully stewarded by Ambassador KN Raghavan. Unbeknownst to all, there was a swift undercurrent rushing through to upset the boat which had so far been inching through placid waters.

The Non-Alignment movement was getting warm and the Bandung conference in Indonesia, sponsored by the Indian and Chinese leaders was an important event planned for April 1955. The first of the planned large-scale conferences, it would bring together 29 Asian and African states, during 18–24 April 1955 to Bandung, and represent over 54% of the global population. It was important indeed, very important and not including any of the ‘other’ big powers out west.

At Bandung, Nehru planned to work on twin objectives. He wanted to try and frustrate the aims of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO while the second was to better engage China. Martin Luther king would remark later – As a mediator between the great powers of the East and the West, Nehru had the prestige, the wisdom and the daring to play that role.

Burbank in California is a little North West of Los Angeles and had in the 19th century, started out as David Burbank’s sheep ranch. By the turn of the 21st century, it was a different place, it had become a media capital and was home to a number of film studios. But decades ago, sandwiched between the centuries, it was not exactly artful, it was the place where Lockheed made some of its great flying machines. During the war years, it was home to the huge Vega airplane factory, hidden under a painted canvas depicting a rural neighborhood, complete with fake automobiles and so on to fool the enemy. From under those canopies, emerged the great planes such as the Flying Fortress, the U2 spy plane, the blackbird, the nighthawk, while housing some 98,000 employees!

After the war, the plant produced the legendary Constellation series (Connie’s) commercial aircraft and Air India was one of its first customers, receiving what was to become the Princess series. The Malabar, the Rajput, The Moghul, The Maratha, the Himalayan, the Bengal and the Kashmir princess. The first, the Malabar Princess was to crash on the Mont Blanc in Switzerland, enroute London, killing 48 people, in March 1950. The Kashmir princess, VT-DEP was picked up in 1951 and at Burbank to receive it and obtain training was its AME Anant Sridhar Karnik. He recalled his days there, close to Hollywood, of the thousands of ladies who worked in the plant making these machines, and the relaxed and open work ethic, unreal and alien to an Indian. He was to accompany the plane in its millions of miles during the next four years as its maintenance engineer.

On the 10th-11th April 1955, it was on a special unscheduled chartered mission (flight 300), to fly many delegates and journalists to Bandung for the elite conference. Among its listed passengers was Chinese Prime minister Zhou Enlai. Karnik posted a letter to his fiancé (he was to marry Kamal the following month) and boarded the plane. Commander Neeves flew the plane to Bangkok, was then relieved by Capt Jatar and the plane flew on to Hong Kong, to pick up the Chinese passengers.

Have any of you flown into the old Hong Kong airport? It used to be an experience to land into and fly off the short runway with water on all sides and hills in front, a bit scary if the captain was new to the airport! Nowadays they have the spanking new terminal, and it is like any other major hub, but it was different once upon a time and I still recall a trip many years ago and the old airport!

The plane was now on its last leg, to Jakarta. The engineers supervised the refueling at Hongkong, checked for leaks etc. while the pilots and hostess rested and freshened up. It was the only plane scheduled to depart HK on the 11th.

Navigator Pathak, Capt DK Jatar, 1st officer Cap MC Dikshit, Flt Engr K D’Kunha, Navigator JC Pathak, Pursuers C D’Souza and Joe Pimenta and Aircraft maintenance engineer AS Karnik were having their food at the staff restaurant together with the 23- year-old vivacious hostess, Gloria Berry D’Souza. Many out in the east believed that the lovely Berry D’Souza was a real Kashmir princess (she was crowned with that title, the previous year at Singapore). As they ate, a stranger, a westerner joined them uninvited and tried to quiz them on the trip specifics but was snubbed by the crew. He shot off, as soon as the flight departure was announced on the PA system.

Meanwhile, an AI official from HK asked Karnik to be on the lookout for strangers since there was a fear of sabotage. The suitcases belonging to Karnik and D’Souza were initially missing but reappeared on board.  The Chinese delegates arrived and boarded. Karnik was alone in the front cabin.

It was supposed to be a calm flight, for 7½ hours, down South over the emerald waters of the South China Sea. Underneath the placid waters prowled sharks and barracudas, and one never knew if they were waiting for new prey or just milling around. The sky was blue and clear, and the takeoff was smooth. The passengers ate and smoked out of tins of cigarettes passed around by Gloria. The young revolutionary Chinese and the lone Viet Minh journalist declined to drink alcohol and sipped orange juice. Two European journalists, Polish Strace Jeremi and Austrian Friedrich Jansen completed the entourage. Zhou Enlai who was to come, had decided not to board this flight.

The wreckage of India’s Kashmir Princess plane. Picture: Historic WingsSource:Supplie

Over five hours of the journey had elapsed and the plane was crossing the Bombay reef (near Parcel islands). Capt Jatar walked down and met the passengers and went back to join Capt Dixit in the cabin. The plane was on autopilot, and the aircraft was being tracked by ATF Singapore on the radio, due to the VIP nature of the flight. Victor Echo papa (its call sign) answered to say all was well. Altitude 18,000 feet, airspeed 185 knots (280mph) location 4degrees N and 108 degrees East, OAT (outside temperature) 2 degrees, ETA 1125 Zebra (GMT) at Jakarta. Night landing facilities needed at Jakarta as it would land at 730PM local time.

Jakarta called to check if VVIP Zhou Enlai was on board – Jatar replied in the negative. The time was 0924 GMT. Everybody must have been caught up in their own worlds and thoughts, Karnik and Gloria were thinking about their partners, Jatar was thinking about an impeding transfer, the delegates were absorbed in their historic conference coming up, Dixit was thinking about the possibility of moving with Jatar and his family. They were all drifting off, some lulled into sleep by the droning 18-cylinder twin-row supercharged Cyclone engines of Connie # 300.

A muffled but loud explosion woke them. White smoke entered the passenger cabin, Karnik suspected a bomb explosion in the passenger compartment and ran to the cockpit to inform Capt Jatar, who ordered ‘Carry out emergency depressurization and extinguish fires’.

The right wing then caught fire signaling that the explosion was not in the baggage compartment. Dixit took the plane off autopilot and went into a steep dive as Jatar scooted back to find the source of the fire. Seconds later, he was back and signaling MAYDAY on the radio. He knew the engine and fuel tank were on fire and the chances of survival were bleak.

Within a minute the fire was spreading and entering the cabin, the pilots were desperately trying to control the plane with just one wing and bring it down near the Natuna islands, the passengers were calm, belted and life jacketed, and to confound matters, the radio went dead. Victor Echo Papa had ceased to exist to the ATC’s at Jakarta and Singapore. Ditching operations were on in the plane’s cockpit. The looks on the pilot’s faces and the Navigator Pathak peering over them were desperate. The pilot switched off electric power and Karnik awaited the order to open the emergency exits after full depressurization had been accomplished. CO2 had been released into the burning engine to extinguish it, with no effect, it was just too massive. The order to open exits came, finally.

Now you may wonder why these exits are opened before a crash, well for those who have some engineering knowledge, it is to ensure that egress is available since the fuselage buckles and changes shape on crashing. At that point it will no longer be possible to open doors and window exits.

Karnik rushed and opened as many exits as he could over the left wing, but the passenger cabin was already full of dense black smoke. There were no oxygen masks those days and well, you can imagine how it was for the people inside. They were suffocating and it was only Dixit’s act of opening the cockpit windows which brought in some fresh air. The cabin door was not yet opened, it seemed to be stuck, Karnik simply did not have any strength left to do anything, other than watch with abject despair as the aircraft rushed to meet the seas. It slammed into the waters, broke up into three pieces on impact, still a raging ball of fire.

AIR announced later that night – An air India constellation on a flight from Hong Kong to Jakarta is feared to have been lost in the S China sea, North of Sarawak. Indian newspapers reported that all eleven passengers and the crew of eight perished in the crash.

The ICAO crash records later stated – Around 09:25 GMT, while cruising at FL180, a muffled explosion was heard and smoke entered the cabin. A fire erupted on the right wing behind the no. 3 engine. The no. 3 prop was feathered and an emergency descent was started. During the descent hydraulic failure occurred, followed by an electrical failure. A ditching was planned, but dense smoke entered the cockpit. The aircraft struck the water surface with the right wingtip and crashed. PROBABLE CAUSE: “An explosion of a timed infernal machine (Bomb) placed in the starboard wheel well of the aircraft. This explosion resulted in the puncturing of no.3 fuel tank and an uncontrollable fire.”

But miraculously, three of the crew had escaped the crash and the fire, to tell a tale, them being Karnik, Dikshit and Pathak, who were later picked up from the waters by a British frigate HMS Demper. The tale of their survival against terrible odds, is the subject of the book Karnik wrote.

The bodies of D’Cunha and Pimenta were later recovered, so also that of a third unidentified person.

Peking was indignant – They declared that this was a US-CIA plot to assassinate Zhou Enlai and sabotage the Bandung conference. HK officials admitted that they had received word from the Chinese of a sabotage attempt on the 10th, but that the plane had been kept under close guard as soon as it arrived. It turned out that Air India also received a vague warning from Peking to be on the lookout for trouble.

Zhou traveled two days later and met Nehru at Rangoon on April 14. He affirmed that China and India were both victims in this incident, and that both governments should collectively push the British government to secure the culprits. Krishna Menon was sent to take care of the matter.

Menon had an additional task in those days, which was to secure the release of the American airmen (A 11-man, B-29 crew had been shot down during a Korean mission, on Jan 12, 1953) who had been captured by the Chinese. He rushed to Peking and later Hong Kong to check up on the crash investigations. Meanwhile Indonesians were carrying out a salvage of the wreck and preparing a formal report. Menon did have another motive, according to HK Governor Alexander Grantham – that if Menon could cough up something to please Peking, he could secure the release of the airmen and get some kudos himself. Menon’s plan was to steward a speedy investigation, secure the saboteur and hand him over to China. He also wanted to seek justice for the Indians who died unnecessarily in the sabotage attempt. Tsang tells us that Mao Zedong told Krishna Menon, that “Hong Kong must now attack the center of the trouble, i.e., the ‘secret agent’s organization'”. VKKM recommended a third degree on the suspected persons according to Alexander. But it did not quite happen though Menon did manage to secure the release of four Americans.

Investigations continued and focused on a team working for Formosa’s (Taiwan) KMT Kuomintang. It was also quickly clear that the cause of the explosion was a time bomb, planted while the plane was in HK. It is surmised that the man who planted the bomb was one Zhou Zhu, who worked in the airport. Tsang who prepared an excellent paper of the case explains – Zhou Zhu, better known as Zhou Zemin, was 34 years old, a gambler, womanizer, and in debt. He had worked for the Hong Kong Aircraft Engineering Company since he arrived in the Colony in 1950 and was an aircraft cleaner in 1955. He was recruited for the operation and trained to plant the explosive, in return for a very substantial reward of 600,000 Hong Kong dollars and refuge in Taiwan. He put the bomb into the wheel well, from where it drifted in the tubular structure towards the #3 engine area and blew up as planned. After the sabotage, Zhou remained in HK, was briefly interviewed by the police and later fled to Taiwan.

From the Indian side, in addition to the aviation team, RN Kao was deputed to take part in the investigations and learnt that just before his arrival, Zhou had fled to Taiwan. The HK police toyed with Kao during his 6 months in HK, according to his notes. Since Kao had access to the Chinese top brass, the HK team was using him only to get the information they wanted from the Chinese. As the investigations dragged on, HK concluded that they could do nothing to secure a conclusion and tried to force Kao out. The complete story was still not clear to the public for ages, till the Tsang paper was published following release of Chinese archives.

Those not quite up to date with the Chinese revolution may note that when the Mao led communist civil war happened, the nationalists led by Chiang Kei Shek fled to Formosa (Taiwan) in 1949 and established their bases there. KMT had planned the operation to take out Zhou out with this sabotage, and disturb the Bandung meetings. Nehru as we know, was the leading light in the rapid steps being taken to get China into the UN and help warm up Chinese relations with the US and Britain.

Chinese intelligence who were tracking the substantial KMT operations in HK, did come to know of all these well in advance. It appears that Zhou was in the know and decided to change the AI charter and the travel date from 18th to 11th in order to trick the KMT.

He then took himself off the manifest and went instead to Yangon (Rangoon) on 14th where he met Nehru and Nu and from there traveled to Jakarta. The reasoning and thought process behind all this is well explained in the Steve Tsang paper mentioned under references, for those interested.

To summarize, China had two objectives, one to use this opportunity to ferret out, expose and eliminate the large KMT intelligence apparatus in HK and secondly to launch a huge propaganda campaign against the Americans, as an affected party. Of course, the plane, the Indian crew, the journalists and the Chinese delegates would be collateral damage.

Air India got advance information that something was up, they made sure baggage loading was supervised and to prevent any physical attacks, had passengers driven to the aircraft. Interestingly, the KMT were also aware that Zhou was not traveling on the designated day but went ahead with the operation, to show their capability. But did the Chinese allow the flight to be compromised, in order to force the hand of HK to cough up the KMT conspirators, knowing that an aggrieved India would push for it? Perhaps it was so, nevertheless the crash, the compensation negotiations and the death of the crew cast a shadow on the comradely Indo-Chinese relationship.

Why was the American CIA implicated? It was a golden opportunity for Zhou to point fingers at America when it became clear that the detonator was American made, but what people did not know was that it was easily available and did not require any CIA involvement. A few observed that the plane Zhou stowed away to flee to Taiwan was some kind of a CIA front company. Tsang explains that the Americans were surely not involved due to their differing national interests and continuing support in trying to get Taiwan to repatriate Zhou to HK, which Taiwan never did.

A sharp reader may recall the westerner who met with the crew at the restaurant. That was indeed an unresolved issue. But decades later, an American named John Smith who worked as a code clerk in the US embassy in Delhi, defected to the USSR and claimed that he was the CIA man who delivered two heavy suitcases to a KMT agent in 1955. While John Smith’s claims and relations with the CIA have been largely scoffed at as cold war fabrication, the westerner who met the crew seems to have been a nosy-parker.

Tsang concludes the story thus – There is no doubt that KMT agents organized the assassination, and PRC agents knew of it beforehand. Both sides achieved part of their objectives, but the PRC came out on top. By successfully blowing up the “Kashmir Princess,” the Nationalist secret service boosted its own morale, and provoked a renewed Communist propaganda attack against the Americans. Chiang Kai-shek, however, failed in his primary objectives. Zhou Enlai was missed as a target, the PRC’s chance of joining the United Nations was not affected and Anglo-Chinese relations were not damaged. The PRC managed to rid Hong Kong of a significant number of Nationalist agents, won the propaganda battle and gained a better understanding of Hong Kong’s policy and Britain’s “sincerity,” at a cost of eight cadres. On moral ground both sides were losers.

Well, academics usually tend to forget collateral damage, in this case the ill-fated crew of the downed plane. The bombing of the Kashmir Princess is a sad tale, in which 16 innocent people died needlessly, pawns in a larger political game to which they played little or no part. All AI crew members were awarded Ashoka Chakra medals.

VK Krishna Menon did not forget, he was the defense minister then and he wrote a forward for Karnik’s book, The Kashmir princess. He said – The fate of the “Kashmir Princess is thus, not just another airplane disaster, but an unpunished, though not undiscovered, international crime The responsibility for it rests not only on the hands that placed the time bomb in the plane, but also on those who planned and condoned the evil deed. These are parts of the tragedy of world conflicts and intolerance and of the tension that keeps the world awed by the menace of war and annihilation. I cannot do better than echo the sentiments of the author in the tribute that he has recorded in his chapter of dedication to the glorious memory of Captain Jatar, D’Cunha, Pimenta, D Souza, and Gloria Berry, and the eleven passengers, Chinese and others all of whom were on their errands of peace and fraternity and service but fell at the hands and machinations of international assassins This book is dedicated to their memory. I feel, as the author does now, years after the crash, the horror of it even as one is moved by the thrilling story….

The Bandung conference took place as scheduled, with Nehru and Zhou in attendance. Three days later, Zhou would emerge in Jakarta for the conference, riding a wave of positive press coverage in the wake of an attempted assassination that had gone wrong and killed innocent people.

The bhai bhai celebrations continued with a three year plan, delegations went back and forth, ‘Learn Chinese’ classes were started in Bombay, Zhou arrived on a 12 day visit, he is later awarded a D.Litt degree by Viswabharati University, the Laxman sisters and Uday Shankar performed in Beijing, Zhou watched ‘Shakuntala’, Military teams exchanged visits, just to mention a few.

This continued until mid-1959 till the Dalai Lama fled to India, and then, well, you know the rest – Everything went downhill.

The HK sabotage investigation was never closed conclusively, and nobody knows what happened to Zhou Zhu. Karnik continued with Air India and rose up to head the AI maintenance department, but at the end, he had to take the flak for a maintenance lapse related to another VVIP plane on which Indira Gandhi was to travel, the so-called Makalu affair.


Target Zhou Enlai: The “Kashmir Princess” Incident of 1955, Steve Tsang – The China

Quarterly, 1994

Kashmir Princess – AS Karnik

Drama of air sabotages – AS Karnik

The Truth Behind the “Kashmir Princess” Incident – Li Hong

R.N. Kao: Gentleman Spymaster – Nitin N Gokhale, (Chapter 4, 5) Indonesian COE report on the air crash.

Pic – The Air India Lockheed L-749A Constellation VT-DEO “Bengal Princess”, sister ship to the “Kashmir Princess”, is photographed at Heathrow Airport in 1953. Photo Credit: Ruth AS

Source Courtesy: Source: