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The Indian master spy who solved the plot to kill Zhou Enlai

In 1955, when an aircraft supposed to fly the Chinese premier crashed, RN Kao, the first chief of R&AW, was called upon to crack the mystery

The Kashmir Princess was a chartered Lockheed L-749A Constellation (representational image above) (Jon Proctor via Wikimedia Commons)

R.N. Kao was born in Benaras to a Kashmiri Pandit family in 1918. He joined the United Provinces Cadre of the Indian Imperial Police (the Indian Police Service after Independence) in 1940. After Independence, he was transferred to the IB—India’s oldest Intelligence agency, formed in London in 1887 and recast in 1947 as the Central Intelligence Bureau under the Ministry of Home Affairs.

One of the principal tasks assigned to Kao at IB in those days was VIP security. In this role, he had handled the security detail for Nehru himself. Kao was also in charge of VIP security for foreign dignitaries visiting India. It was the training that he received in this capacity that prepared him for this, his first major assignment: the 1955 Kashmir Princess (crash) probe in Beijing, formerly known as Peking.

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Kao knew he had been handpicked to lead the investigation and was well aware of the magnitude of the task that lay ahead of him. The eyes of China, Hong Kong, the UK and India were on him. It was his first ‘special assignment’ and the pressure was tremendous, even for the usually imperturbable Kao.

At the Beijing airport, the immigration officer asked Kao how long his visit was going to be. Kao told the officer that he would be staying a few weeks, not knowing at the time that the investigation would stretch on for almost half a year.

At the Chinese premier’s office in Beijing, Kao’s one-on-one briefing with Zhou Enlai was held behind closed doors. Even though Kao was determined to be the neutral investigator on the case, Enlai advanced theories of a Taiwanese conspiracy behind the crash and urged Kao to expedite the investigation process and submit his findings.

Little did Kao realise, as he took on the assignment, that he was going to be caught up in the crossfire of the internal politics between China, Hong Kong and Britain. From the outset, the case was rife with complications. The plane had taken off from Hong Kong, and it had crashed into Indonesian waters. The aircraft had been built in the US but was owned by India. The people aboard who had died in the crash were all Chinese. Hence, de facto, five countries—the UK, Indonesia, the US, India and China—became part of the investigation. And it fell to Kao to navigate this very complex political labyrinth in order to find out the truth.

The War that Made RA&W by Anusha Nandakumar and Sandeep Saket, Westland Books, 256 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>499
The War that Made RA&W by Anusha Nandakumar and Sandeep Saket, Westland Books, 256 pages, 499

Over several months, Kao worked doggedly in collaboration with the Chinese, Hong Kong and British police to unravel the threads of the conspiracy. The investigation took him to Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, Hong Kong and China. His diplomatic demeanour allowed him to investigate freely and build strong friendships, particularly with MI4, British Intelligence, who were posted in Hong Kong and Indonesia at the time. While forging these connections, Kao was unaware that in the future they would be instrumental in the formation of R&AW.

Throughout this period, Kao was all alone in foreign lands, with no real ally. The language, food, customs and traditions were strange and alienating. However, he did not allow himself to succumb to any kind of pressure, internal or external. He knew he had to finish what he had started. A thorough professional, he painstakingly put together an exhaustive file on the investigation and his findings. Every detail, however minor, was recorded, every lead followed up on, and every fact corroborated.

His patience and rigour finally paid off in September 1955. A clear picture had started emerging of the events that had occurred on the day of the Kashmir Princess crash. Realising that he had finished his probe, Kao sent an official message to Enlai with his investigative results. In Beijing, Enlai immediately sent for Kao.

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In a detailed briefing, Kao told Enlai how his investigation had led him to Chou Chu. A Taiwanese national working as a member of the ground maintenance crew of the Hong Kong Aircraft Engineering Company, Chu had agreed to place a time bomb—a weapon of choice in those days—in the Kashmir Princess. In return, he was promised a reward of 6,00,000 Hong Kong dollars.

The mastermind behind the plot was Chiang Kaishek, an ousted Chinese leader, who had gone on to become the ruler of Taiwan. Kai-shek was plotting to kill Zhou Enlai, and when it was publicly known that he would be taking a chartered flight from Hong Kong to attend the Bandung Conference, he made his move. The Kashmir Princess crash was the result of this ongoing political rivalry between China and Taiwan.

Enlai was highly impressed with the conduct of Kao’s investigation, including the dexterity of his mediations between the colonial government in Hong Kong and the communist government in mainland China. To show his appreciation, Enlai rewarded Kao with his coveted personal seal, an honour reserved for the most deserving public servants in the Chinese republic.

Kao came back to India a true hero in December 1955.

Excerpted from The War that Made RA&W with permission from Westland Books.

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