Operation Kahuta: An Intelligence Triumph Destroyed by Political Cowardice

Operation Kahuta. This operation undertaken by India’s Research & Analysis Wing (RAW) was one of its most daring and complicated of missions. Despite its significance, people are greatly unaware of the operation and the unfortunate manner in which it ended.

Why ‘Kahuta’?
Kahuta is a city in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. It is here that the Khan Research Laboratories was founded which was the home to the ‘Kahuta Project’, officially known as Project-706, a project meant to develop Pakistan’s first atomic bomb. The project ran from 1972 to 1983.

What was Operation Kahuta?
Launched in 1977, the motive of the operation was to locate and confirm the existence of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. It is said that Israel’s intelligence agency, Mossad, also provided RAW with intelligence.

Under the leadership of R.N. Kao, the legendary spymaster, RAW had effectively built a network in Pakistan. RAW operatives in Pakistan picked up on information about a fissile material production facility.Priority of RAW was to pin point the location of this facility. However,this was not easy as Pakistan, post withdrawal of support from the French government, had started to maintain much greater secrecy with respect to the project.

‘Hairy’ Investigation
RAW agents were aware of various such facilities in Pakistan, but they still weren’t sure which one was the ‘motherlode’. It was impossible to infiltrate each facility. So, they planned ‘infiltrate’ a different kind of establishment – barber shops.

RAW agents were surveilling Pakistani scientists. The agents went into barber shops that were visited by these scientists to collect the scientists’ hair samples. These samples were then sent for testing. Results showed that the hair contained radiation traces proving that the plant where the scientists worked was refining plutonium. This enabled the possibility to infiltrate and sabotage the plant.

The Political Betrayal
The betrayal of the sacrifices and relentless work of the intelligence officers came at the hands of the then Prime Minister, Morarji Desai. During his regime, there was great distrust between politicians and the intelligence agencies which may have played a role in what Desai did next.

First, he slashed RAW’s budget by as much as 40% which lead to RAW founder R.N. Kao quitting. There couldn’t have been a more unfair and pathetic end to his awe-inspiring career. The Desai government also isolated and then successfully got rid of K.S. Nair who had been handed the RAW leadership after Kao.

Back in Kahuta, after having confirmed the location of the plant, the next step of RAW was to get hold of the blueprints. A mole at the plant agreed to provide them in exchange for money. For any such ‘fee’ to be given,approval by the Prime Minister is essential. So, N.F. Suntook, the next head of RAW, took the matter to Desai for approval.

Instead of lending approval in national interest, Desai flatly denied support and even lectured the chief on how RAW/India shouldn’t interfere in Pakistan’s internal affairs! But worse was yet to come. In an informal conversation with Zia-ul-Haq, Morarji Desai revealed details of RAW’s network in Pakistan and also confirmed that India was aware of the enrichment happening at the Kahuta facility.

What happened next was on conceivable lines. Pakistan hunted the brave Indian officers on its land, killing many of them brutally. The entire network was neutralised, and this dealt an unprecedented setback to our Pakistan-specific intelligence by at least a decade.

What a sad tale indeed. What’s even more unfortunate is that no one has or will be held responsible for this act of treachery, whether intentional or not doesn’t matter. Had India been able to sabotage and deal Pakistan’s nuclear ambitions a blow, who knows if Pakistan would’ve tried to pursue its wild dreams again with the same gusto. There would’ve been a deep fear in Pakistan over India’s abilities.

However, such betrayals aren’t a rarity. Jawaharlal Nehru’s indecision and even explicit idiocy cost the Indian Army numerous lives during the Indo-China war. From cutting funds for the army in fear of a coup to not paying heed to warnings of a Chinese ingress to forcing the IAF to stay on ground, Nehru took numerous decisions – or didn’t – that turned a war that could’ve seen parity in terms of its outcome into an outright disaster.

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