When Girija Babu tried to sell uranium to IsraelA tour of GP Koirala’s misadventures while attempting to raise funds for the revolution.
Sometime in March, the Nepal Police announced it had arrested four individuals on charges of attempting to sell around 2.5 kgs of uranium. The news, as expected, went viral. How the uranium came into their possession is indeed a story by itself. One of the four’s father-in-law worked at a uranium mine in India, and had brought it back to Nepal. For twenty years, the uranium sat at their home. Finally, the daughter-in-law learnt the material was valuable, and tried to sell it off, according to some reports, for Rs1.5 billion—which was when the police swooped in, arrested them, and grandly declared they had busted the racket.
No one was sure whether the uranium was indeed radioactive or not. Reports suggest it was the naturally occurring isotope U-238, which needs to be refined before it can be used as a weapon. The police portrayed it as dangerous; if so, I wonder if the four have been given a health check-up, along with the woman’s family, in whose home the uranium had been sitting in a plastic jar for two decades.
Nonetheless, I bring up this episode because this was not the first time Nepalis have tried to sell uranium and get rich. One of them was none other than Girija Prasad Koirala; his tryst with the radioactive material is a tale worth repeating—especially because it involves Congress guerrillas, Indian intelligence agencies, gold smugglers in Bombay, and that favoured nation for thriller writers, Israel.
First, the context: After B.P. Koirala’s elected government was imprisoned by king Mahendra in 1960, the Nepali Congress had decided to start an armed insurrection against the monarchy. Several Congress leaders like Subarna Shamsher and GP Koirala were based out of India, but they didn’t have the funds to buy the weapons or the ammunition necessary for the insurrection.
After BP was released from prison in 1968, he too lived in exile in India. As GP writes in his memoir Aafnai Kura (Jagdamba Prakashan, 2010), one ‘Sharma ji’, a Marwadi businessman based out of Bombay who owned a watch repair shop in Kathmandu, had helped him out with funds earlier, which Koirala never told his older brother about. ‘San dai [BP] would send me to Delhi all the time to meet people. He would give me money for a third-class ticket and other expenses. But that money would never be enough. And I didn’t enjoy travelling via third-class either [translation mine],’ he admits. That was when Sharmaji came to him with a proposal: smuggle some gold out of Bombay.
This was the era of Indira Gandhi’s license-raj and import controls in India, and smuggling was a favoured criminal activity. The plan was to smuggle three cars filled with gold and, with Koirala’s assistance, drive them out of Bombay. GPK would be paid with a fourth of the gold. But BP dashed the plans. ‘These guys are mafia! They will kill you! Do not attempt such deals!’
A dejected GP Koirala went back to Sharmaji and told him the plan was a no-go. Sharmaji then proposed another plan: he handed Koirala a packet. ‘It was a small packet, but really heavy. I opened it and saw whatever was inside looked like mud, really cold mud.’ Sharmaji told him it was uranium, and said Israel really needs it. And since BP had good relations with Israel, could he send it to them via diplomatic channels? When GP asked him how much he had, Sharmaji told him he had four sacks of the material.
Again, GP needed to check with his brother. But before that, he went to the Banaras Hindu University laboratory to confirm whether it was indeed uranium. And it was. So he went to BP, who asked him where he got it from. When Koirala outlined Sharmaji’s plan to him, BP was once again furious. ‘Do you even know what you are getting into? People die doing this. No country allows this. There is no question of working with Sharmaji. Return it immediately.’
The uranium plan went nowhere after this. GPK complained to Nona Koirala, his sister-in-law, ‘San dai doesn’t allow me to do anything. We don’t have funds. Our troops have been surviving on water and bread… and to top it all we have to eat right at the end, when nothing’s left for us!’
Sharmaji was persistent, however. He returned with another request: some of his smuggled goods were captured by the Bombay authorities, so could Koirala tell them they belonged to him? GP agreed in exchange for funds. Once he signed off the document, he got a message asking him to come to Delhi.
In Delhi, the Research and Analysis Wing chief RN Kao and the foreign secretary met him with three other officials. ‘Girija Babu, what have you done?’ GPK told them frankly, ‘We want to carry out a revolution, but we don’t have money! We have so many cadres sitting in our camps. What else could I have done?’
The officials didn’t bother him too much, but BP had already learnt of GP’s misadventure. But he was ready this time. ‘You don’t let me do anything. We were getting a fourth of the gold, but you said no to that. You’ve asked us to revolt, to bring down a government. What was the harm in smuggling gold out of Bombay? All Sharmaji had asked was to get the gold outside the city. But if that is so difficult for us, how is the revolution to be conducted?’
As GP writes, it was thereafter that the plan to hijack an aircraft was hatched.
Koirala’s memoir is short on detail in many places, but he does recount several of his escapades and adventures. He doesn’t write what happened to the uranium, or whether Sharmaji found a way to get the four sacks to Israel. Sharmaji himself is a most intriguing character who remains unidentified. Who was this businessman running a watch repair shop in Kathmandu yet involved in gold and uranium smuggling in India?