'Diplomatic bag' reaches New Delhi

Frozen news comes alive

 “Pindi will implement Tashkent accord”, “Prisoners swap to start soon”, “Indira to visit US”…These headlines from January 1966 once again came alive on Tuesday, as the Ministry of External Affairs put on display newspapers that miraculously survived icy onslaught of nature in French Alps for more than four-and-a-half decades.

The newspapers were in a jute sack that was recently recovered from the Bossons Glacier on the southwest face of Mont Blanc, near the site where the ill-fated Air India flight AI 101 crashed on January 24, 1966.

The crash killed all  11 crew members and 106 passengers, including the “father of India’s nuclear programme” Homi Jehangir Bhabha. But the khaki sack – a diplomatic bag the MEA dispatched from its headquarters in Delhi for the Consulate General of India in New York – survived and lay frozen for 46 long years, till French mountain rescue worker Arnaud Christmann and his neighbour Jules Berger recovered it on August 21 last.

A few words – “Indian Government Services – Diplomatic Mail – Minister of External Affairs” – printed on the sack were still legible enough to recognise its source. And French National Police soon informed the Indian Embassy in Paris about its recovery.

New Delhi then asked its diplomats in Paris to work with the French government and get hold of the bag fast. The MEA top brass were anxious as the sack could have contained sensitive communications, which – if leaked – might have had diplomatic repercussions.

They were, however, relieved, after it was found that the diplomatic bag was marked ‘C’ – not ‘A’ or ‘B’ which denote “classified” and “official communications” categories respectively.

Indian Embassy in Paris received the bag from the French officials on September 3 last and sent it to New Delhi last week.

When the MEA officials opened the sack, they were relieved to find that it contained just newspapers of the third week of January 1966, some magazines, and Indian Airlines’ calendar for that year. Those were the days when world was still far away from advent of Internet and South Block used to courier newspapers and magazines to missions abroad in diplomatic bags.

Top diplomats who checked the bag and its contents last week found it intriguing that the issues that dominated front-pages of the newspapers those days still take much of their time even 46 years later.  

It was just a year after the 1965 India-Pakistan war and the Tashkent Declaration by prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri and Pakistani President Ayub Khan was just about a fortnight old.

So while a newspaper front-paged the visiting Pakistani Army Chief General Muhammad Musa’s assurance to abide by the declaration, another reported that he and his Indian counterpart Gen J N Choudhary agreeing to start swap of prisoners soon. Yet another carried a news-report on the then prime minister Indira Gandhi’s likely visit to US.

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