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Makalu  Sabotage was  it a conspiracy against Shrimati Indira Gandhi.

Makalu sabotage: Was Indira Gandhi the target in Air-India Boeing 707 affair?


It contained all the classic ingredients of a true-life political thriller - attempted sabotage of the prime minister's aircraft, a spate of arrests, a surfeit of scapegoats, suspicion of a "foreign hand", uproars in Parliament and high courtroom drama.

An Air-India Boeing 707 and  Raj: True-life political thriller

It contained all the classic ingredients of a true-life political thriller - attempted sabotage of the prime minister's aircraft, a spate of arrests, a surfeit of scapegoats, suspicion of a "foreign hand", uproars in Parliament and high courtroom drama.

But by last fortnight, with Mrs Gandhi, the alleged target in the Makalu affair, safely back from her foreign tour, the only ingredient lacking was perhaps the most vital of all - the actual villains of the piece and their possible motive. That it was an attempted case of sabotage has been clearly established. But the manner in which it was done and the Government's ill-conceived reaction to it, has only succeeded in surrounding the case with extra layers of intrigue.


In fact, the sequence of events pieced together by India Today clearly indicates that the Government overplayed its hand and, by turning it into a political issue, has only succeeded in clouding the case unnecessarily.

The Makalu, an Air-India Boeing 707 with registration number VT-DPM, landed at Bombay from Abu Dhabi on April 15 at 1 am. By then, a large number of people, mainly Air-India personnel, knew that Makalu was earmarked for a VVIP flight, obviously Mrs Gandhi's scheduled trip abroad on May 5.

On the morning of April 15, the aircraft was washed down and routine inspection started. Even without the actual confirmation, it was obvious to insiders that Makalu was the aircraft that the prime minister would use.

Out of Air-India's nine 707s, two - Everest and Dhaulagiri - had already been grounded. Two others - Gauri Shankar and Nanga Parbat - were being used as passenger cum-freight carriers, while Kamet and Trishul were fitted with Conway engines, only adequate for short-haul flights. Lhotse, the seventh 707, had been troubled with excessive fuel consumption, leaving only Annapoorna and Makalu.

Of the two, Makalu, bought in May, 1964, was already due for a major overhaul or, in airline parlance, a PIII check. When, on April 16, the protocol division of the External Affairs Ministry formally requested Air-India's Production Planning Department for an aircraft to fly the prime minister on her foreign tour, a total of 537 Air-India employees from various departments knew or could have known that Makalu had been picked for Mrs Gandhi's flight.

Discovery: According to Air-India Chairman Raghu Raj's confidential report on the case on April 17, all the aircraft's control cables were inspected and found "satisfactory" except for one - the elevator cable located under the rear lavatory floorboard which was found to be "slightly frayed". It was decided to replace the cable. Since April 19 was a Sunday, it was not till April 20 that the new elevator cable was installed.

When the system was being tensioned by Kumar Ganeshan, an airline engineer, one of the four elevators refused to respond fully. Engineering personnel assumed that the control cable might have been stretched and it was removed the next day for replacement. During its removal, it was discovered that the control cable was badly frayed at a point above the wing centre section. This was enough for airline maintenance officials to order an inspection of all the control cables in the aircraft.


During the inspection four other control cables were found damaged - the pilot's elevator cable, the rudder cable, the rudder trim cable and the stabiliser cable. Raj's report states that the damage was due to "intentional application of external force", which, in any other language, spells suspected sabotage.

The curtain on the second act of the Makalu drama went up one hour before midnight on April 21, when Raj, who was in New Delhi, received a frantic telephone call from Air-India's Deputy Managing Director, C. L. Sharma in Bombay. Sharma tersely informed Raj that there was reason to suspect that Makalu had been the target of intended sabotage.

Raj asked Sharma to carry out another check and confirm his suspicions. At 10.30 a.m. on April 22, Sharma again confirmed that five control cables had been tampered with and that the tampering was "very recent, only about five or six days old". A hurried message was dispatched to A. P. Sharma, the tourism and civil aviation minister who, in turn, informed the prime minister.

Blunder: Predictably, politics entered the act, with both A. P. Sharma and Home Minister Giani Zail Singh battling to be the first to announce the event in Parliament. Meanwhile, Air-India security staff drew a blank in its efforts to probe the mystery and, on April 25, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) was called in.

A hand-picked team of CBI sleuths led by the agency's Director, J. S. Bawa, flew into Bombay and set up their operational base at the site of the old airport at Santa Cruz. However, there was one major hitch in their investigative efforts - Makalu, the key to the entire case, was missing. Incredibly, Air-India and Home Ministry officials had released the aircraft for a flight to Singapore on April 24. The only evidence was the five cut cables sealed in a locker.

The incongruity only succeeded in sparking off doubts that Makalu had been deliberately sent out on a flight to prevent the CBI team from doing a thorough on-the-spot investigation. In fact, when the aircraft returned from Singapore the CBI had to remain content with a mock reconstruction of the sabotage, by which time any possible clues would have conveniently disappeared.

According to V. Chelliappa, former director of air safety, and chief investigator in the crash of Emperor Ashoka in 1978, the mistake in not keeping the aircraft sealed off for investigations was a serious one. A visual inspection by an expert, he said, would have disclosed whether the cables were damaged intentionally or not and also the type of implement used to cut them. It would have also greatly helped the investigating team if the damaged cables could have been inspected in their actual positions in the aircraft.

The error, however, was only one in a series of discordant notes that have been struck ever since a breathless Zail Singh dashed into Parliament on April 27 to announce the sensational news. There are, for instance, differing versions regarding how and when the sabotage was first detected. The First Information Report (FIR) lodged with the CBI states that the reason for ordering a change in the elevator cable was that it could have malfunctioned due to "stretching".

Accidental Find: However, according to Air-India sources, the National Aeronautical Laboratory in Bangalore has categorically stated that "the cables cannot be stretched under tension". The sources also stated that the sabotage was detected purely by accident when some water seepage was discovered near the rear toilet.


To prevent possible corrosion, the painting section was ordered to spray the area with anti-rust paint. After the painting was done, it was found that some of the paint had accidentally been sprayed under the rear toilet floorboard, which had been removed for the Pill check. A cleaner was instructed to wipe off the paint and also grease the cables.

While greasing the stabiliser cable, the cleaner injured the palm of his hand on a sharp object. On closer inspection by Ramjit Singh, the shift engineer, it was discovered that the cable had been cut. A hurried look at the other cables uncovered four more cuts in control cables.


Ramjit Singh's report was relayed to the Deputy Director, A.S. Karnik, who had the cables removed and rushed with them into the office of M. P. Kharkar, the director of engineering, his immediate boss. Kharkar reported the findings to C. L. Sharma, deputy managing director at 11 p.m. on April 21. Sharma immediately telephoned chairman Raj, who had left for Delhi a few hours earlier, and passed on the news.

However, according to a copy of the PHI check list done on Makalu and obtained by India Today, all systems, including the control cables, were checked and found satisfactory. This clearly supports the view that the sabotage was discovered purely by accident.

Another curious feature was the discovery of three brand-new cables in the hangar where Makalu was undergoing the PHI check before the sabotage was actually discovered. According to sources, the cables had been removed from the store without any official indent and airline maintenance staff and CBI sources were unable to explain the mystery.

Political Factor: The major error in the investigations, however, was clearly the political element that was forcibly interjected when the over-zealous Zail Singh stole A.P. Sharma's thunder by being the first to dramatically announce the sabotage in Parliament, thus forcing Sharma into a position where he had to stage something equally dramatic to show his loyalty, however misguided, to the prime minister. Accordingly, he pressurised Raj to sack the officials in charge of security and maintenance.

On April 29, Air-India's headquarters in Bombay issued a terse 35-word press release stating that the services of five officials of the airline had been terminated. No names were mentioned and no reasons stated. The sacked officers were M.P. Kharkar, director of engineering; A.S. Karnik, deputy director of engineering; and three senior security officers, R. Srinivasan, T.K. Raisinghani and N.S. Rao.

That the dismissals were orchestrated by the Government is confirmed by various sources in the airline, though Raj said: "We have terminated their services, not dismissed them, which amounts to retirement. The two areas involved in the sabotage attempt were engineering and security. There would have to be some accountability of senior officers."

A senior security official put it more succinctly: "The net has been cast and there is no saying who will get pulled in. There will be big fish as well as little fish." His words proved prophetic when the CBI arrested a number of technicians in Air-India on April 30. Some had been arrested on the flimsy ground that a search of their houses had led to the discovery of some foreign currency notes.

Chorus: By now, of course, the Government's theory that the sabotage was directed against Mrs Gandhi was being wrung dry by the official media and ruling party members. To add credence to their claim, the Congress(I)'s chorus soon took up the "foreign hand" refrain. Predictably, the suspicions of a foreign government being involved in the attempt were scoffed at by the Opposition and by the general public.


Zail Singh and Sharma: Overzealous

Even the man in charge of the investigations, Bawa, the CBI director, said last week: "There are indications of outside elements being involved. That means," he hastily added, "ouside the Air-India fold."

The "foreign hand" issue was actually sparked off by a casual remark made by a CBI source to a newspaper reporter about the questioning of a Ugandan national who had recently completed a training stint with Air-India and was a regular visitor to the airline hangars as part of his practical training.

Meanwhile, the opposition parties were confounding confusion, with members like Janata Party's Subramaniam Swamy branding the event a "hoax" while George Fernandes, a former Union minister, in his inimitable manner, accused Maharashtra Chief Minister A. R. Antulay of having engineered the entire event.

In the flurry of allegations and counter-allegations the fact that the sabotage could not possibly have led to the aircraft crashing while Mrs Gandhi was aboard was largely, and conveniently, obscured.

According to aviation experts and senior airline pilots, no engineer in his right mind would have handed over an aircraft for a VVIP flight immediately after a PHI check. The standard procedure is to schedule the plane for at least two flights before it is handed over. In fact, Makalu was meant to operate two commercial international flights before it finally flew the prime minister on May 5.

Further, the manner in which the cables were cut makes it obvious that any pilot flying the aircraft on its first flight after the Pill check would have known something was wrong with the elevator cables as the plane would have been difficult to control on take off and landing. According to the operating manual of the 707, the cables that were cut are termed "primary controls", and the tampering would have become evident fairly early in the flight.

Aviation experts unanimously agree that the aircraft would have crashed if the sabotage had remained undetected but exactly when would have been impossible to predict. "It is not possible to fix the exact lime when the cables would snap," said Dr Sehgal of the Central Forensic Science Laboratory, "but snap they would."

Moreover, the sabotage was conducted around April 15 - almost 20 days before the prime minister's flight. It is inconceivable that the saboteurs, if their target was Mrs Gandhi, would have cut the cables at such an early stage, when the chances of detection were so high. Investigations and periodic reports have revealed that security at Santa Cruz is full of holes and it would have been just as easy for the saboteurs to have cut the cables just before Mrs Gandhi's flight.

Amateur: In hindsight, investigators are hard-pressed to explain why saboteurs chose the method they did instead of planting an explosive charge at a strategic point. According to aviation experts, there is one point where all the cables that were cut converge. If even a small explosive was placed at this point, it would have been infinitely more effective and more difficult to detect. In fact, the lack of a sophisticated strategy indicates that whoever was involved in the sabotage was a rank amateur.


The cables that were cut are made of high-tension steel with seven intertwined strands. Each strand comprises 19 steel wires. According to the CBI investigating team, the tool used in cutting the cables was a tinsmith's snip, which is normally used to cut the slender aluminium sheeting that makes up the "skin" of the aircraft.


Defective cables being changed on a 707

The sabotage implement was identified by K. G. Appuswamy, former managing director of the airline, who demonstrated to CBI sleuths that the cuts made by the snip on a piece of cable were similar to those made on the Makalu control cables.


This, however, implies that cutting the cables with the snip would have been a protracted and laborious job. No experienced or intelligent saboteur would have chosen to cut the cables when there were simpler and more effective methods available.


Ironically, the security breaches at Santa Cruz were dramatically exposed just before the Makalu story was hitting the headlines when a girl was allegedly gang-raped by Air-India employees and dumped in an airline Jumbo parked in a hangar. She was only discovered the next morning when the aircraft was towed to the terminal to be readied for take off.

Possible Culprits: Air-India sources are convinced that the sabotage was the result of inter-union rivalries in the maintenance and engineering sections. It was either done, they allege, to ensure that the airline's aircraft were grounded, thus giving them an opportune moment to air their grievances, or it could have been done by one union to denigrate the other.

It is entirely possible, however, that the sabotage was the work of a mentally unstable person like Lalwani, the man accused of trying to assassinate Mrs Gandhi last year with a flick-knife.

The Makalu affair, in fact, is the third recorded instance of attempted sabotage of an Air-India aircraft. The first involved the Annapoorna which was scheduled to fly the then prime minister, Morarji Desai, to Moscow.

During the inspection, it was discovered that the aileron cables had been tampered with. Last year, in June, a number of electrical wires in the electronic bay below the cockpit of a 707 were found deliberately severed. The discovery, however, was hushed up and never reported.

However, the saboteurs of the Makalu and their motives will probably never be exposed despite Bawa's optimistic prediction that "we are confident of solving the case soon". By last week, the CBI had interrogated 237 airline employees who had access at one time or another to Makalu, but without making much headway. All possible leads, according to a CBI source, had come up against a dead end and they are no closer to solving the case now than they were when the investigations started.

Even the rumour mills have ground to a groaning halt with the current hiatus in the investigations. It is also unlikely that the court cases against those arrested will shed any further light on the Makalu mystery except, perhaps, to eliminate further leads.

Last week the CBI claimed in court that certain documents relating to the Makalu case had been "tampered" with, but to many observers it merely smacked of another red herring in a case that already has too many of them.


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