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ISRO spy case: Long Wait For Justice

ISRO spy case: Long Wait For Justice
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Above: Photo courtesy

Some retired top officers of the Kerala police and successive state governments are likely to come under the scanner as the SC awards a clean chit and damages to the former ISRO scientist

~By NV Ravindranathan Nair in Thiruvananthapuram

In October 20, 1994, the police arrested a Maldivian woman, Mariam Rasheeda, in the Kerala capital of Thiruvananthapuram on charges of overstaying. A diary recovered from her allegedly had drawings of rocket engines that the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) was developing. A month later, Nambi Narayanan, director of the cryogenic project at ISRO, was arrested along with D Sasikumaran, deputy director of ISRO, and K Chandrasekhar, the Indian representative of a Russian space agency. SK Sharma, a labour contractor, and Fauzia Hassan, a Maldivian national and Rasheeda’s friend, were also arrested.

Narayanan was released 50 days later and though he got a clean chit from the CBI and later the Supreme Court, the last 24 years have been an excruciating ordeal for him. Last week, he was a relieved man as the Supreme Court awarded him compensation of Rs 50 lakh for having been wrongly framed in the infamous spy scandal and ordered the Kerala government to cough up the amount within eight weeks. The apex court also set up a committee to look into the role played by the state police in arresting one of India’s top scientists on purely cooked-up charges and said that Narayanan was arrested unnecessarily and was a victim of malicious prosecution.

The apex court’s order to constitute a three-member committee headed by former Supreme Court judge DK Jain to recommend whether legal action should be initiated against the police officers, including former ADGP Siby Mathews, former SPs KK Joshua and S Vijayan, has been applauded as a landmark judgment. The fact that the bench has delinked the civil suit filed by Narayanan seeking more compensation and ordered an investigation into the role of the police officers gives more teeth to Narayanan’s fight. The Justice Jain Committee will have one representative each from the state government and the central government. The three-judge bench comprising the CJI and Justices AM Khanwilkar and DY Chandrachud came down heavily on the Kerala police and state government for the incarceration and physical and mental torture of the space scientist.ISRO spy case: Long Wait For Justice

Narayanan, who had to spend lakhs of rupees to clear his name fighting police officers who enjoyed the patronage of the state government for their heinous acts, believes that his personal honour is more precious than money. Narayanan’s take on the verdict is that it would help change the mindset of the police officers who consider themselves omnipotent and feel they are a law unto themselves.

He had been exonerated by the CBI in 1996 and the Supreme Court in 1998 but in the last 20 years his fight has been about clearing his name. Sitting in his home, Sangeetha, on the outskirts of Thiruvananthapuram, he says it is high time he did something that he has been putting off for 24 years. “I’ve not spent time with my family. What little is left of my life, I want to spend it with them. At one point of time I had even contemplated committing suicide. But my children wanted me to stay alive. They pointed out to me that if I die, they would have to die as the children of a spy. They convinced me that only I could prove my innocence,” he told India Legal during an exclusive interview.

It was on November 30, 1994, that Narayanan was arrested. While the single bench of the Kerala High Court ordered action against the investigating officer, the division bench of the High Court revoked it. Against this order, he moved the Supreme Court. A civil suit demanding  Rs 1 crore filed by Narayanan is pending before the subordinate court in Thiruvananthapuram. The Supreme Court has observed that Narayanan had to face public outrage and hatred following his incarceration.

Rasheeda, the Maldivian woman, was arrested for overstaying in India after her visa expired in October 1994. She said that as her flight had been cancelled, she was seeking an extension of her visa. The Special Branch of the Kerala police had reported to the higher-ups that Rasheeda had contacted the ISRO scientists while staying in her hotel room and this act amounted to breach of national interest. Later, a local eveninger ran a spicy story linking the scientists and the Maldivian women. There were reports that the police officer who interrogated Rasheeda was giving a new dimension to her overstay when she refused to concede to his demand for sexual favours.

What began as a spy thriller was soon to turn into a political bombshell. It was a time when the factional feud within the Congress party in Kerala was at its peak and, sensing an opportunity, the faction led by AK Antony began baying for the blood of then Chief Minister K Karunakaran. The CM’s firm stand against suspending then Inspector General Raman Srivastava in connection with the spy case, as demanded by the Intelligence Bureau, also landed him in a tight spot. As Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao chose to stand by Antony, who was then defence minister and pressed for Karunakaran’s resignation, the latter quit as CM. Without breaking a sweat, Antony became CM.

The scandal set the cryogenic project back by many years

Nambi Narayanan spoke to NV Ravindranathan Nair in Thiruvananthapuram

Twenty-four years have passed since you started your fight for justice. Now that the Supreme Court has ordered that compensation be granted to you and also constituted a committee headed by a former Supreme Court judge to probe further, what is your reaction?

We cannot escape from the system that causes the delay. It is high time we make some changes in the system, keeping in mind the delay being caused in the dispensation of justice. 

Do you feel that at last justice has been done to you?

One of my main demands was for compensation. That has been granted. That is delinked from my civil suit. I can continue with the civil suit. With this judgment I should be able to get the civil suit speeded up. The other demand—I wanted them [errant police officers] to be punished. The Court has taken a major step. The situation today is better than it was yesterday. The Court is constituting a committee. Many people think that it is a judicial commission. But it is in fact a committee headed by a judge, a great judge. The committee, consisting of three, will look into ways and means to punish them [errant police officers]. Based on their recommendations, the Supreme Court will act.

You sought punishment for [errant police officers] Siby Mathews and others. But the Court awarded something else?

No, the SC has taken a step. I asked for a CBI probe into why this espionage case happened. They said, why not a probe by a state agency. My view was that a state government cannot act against its own police. Finally, they [judges] must have thought that it would be better to leave it to the committee. The state government was protecting the errant police officers. Now, that protection is no more possible. That’s a positive development. What I said was endorsed by the CBI years back. But, whenever I went to prosecute the state police officers who harassed me, they scuttled it. They kept on saying that there was a spy case. That infuriated me. Somewhere you have to draw a line, put a full stop. That has now happened. Now, it has abundantly been proved that it was a malicious prosecution. As far as I am concerned, my innocence is not only proved, it is accepted, acknowledged and given the seal of the Supreme Court.

The judgment has political ramifications. Former Chief Minister K Karunakaran’s children say he has not got justice yet.

Karunakaran was an able politician. But his people should have taken efforts to get him justice. Had they revealed the names behind the conspiracy? The sister and brother (Padmaja Venugopal and K Muralidharan, the late CM’s children) speak differently. This is my opinion, they are not telling the truth.

If the espionage case had not happened, do you think life would have been different?

I cannot predict. If I say I would have become the prime minister or the ISRO chairman, will it make sense? It is my perspective. Only thing I can say for sure is that the cryogenic system could have been developed long back. At least by year 2000. Certainly, I would have gone up the ladder. I was working for ISRO and making India a space power.

Have you had any regret in returning from NASA to re-join ISRO?

Till I was targeted in the espionage case I had no regret. I had no craze for luxury. Simple survival, that was all I wanted. I had no craze to work abroad and indulge in luxury or amass wealth. I don’t care for such things.

How did your family take it?

It was they who suffered the most. Though they had hidden their mental agony from me, I knew they were suffering a lot. My colleagues were sympathetic. But they were also afraid. Nobody had any clue to what was happening. I engaged the best of lawyers. Kalam [APJ Abdul Kalam] asked me why I continue to struggle with the court cases. He asked me to stay with him as he could give me an appointment. He actually said there was a court above (referring to God) and none could escape it. Besides Kalam, stalwarts like Sathish Dhawan, TN Seshan, Narasimhan, Chandrasekhar, Prof Yashpal wrote an open letter, a strongly worded one, asking what nonsense you [police] are doing. CBI officers Vijayarama Rao, ML Sharma, PM Nair, Ashok Kumar, PC Sharma, Saxena, Arun Bhagath, DR Karthikeyan, I remember all the names, all top-level IPS officers who signed the document that it was a false case. They conducted lie detector tests on the six accused. But they [Kerala police officers] never agreed to go through the lie detection. Question remains why the case was fabricated. If it was to topple Karunakaran, it’s a small crime. If it was to sell the country, the rest of your life you will remain in prison.

Any involvement of external agencies in the entire incident?

My gut feeling is that there are chances of some external agencies being involved to retard the progress of India’s space programme.

The media also was a culprit in sensationalising the case; only saner elements could restrain themselves to keep away from the bandwagon.

Yes. The media did severe damage. But my feeling is that the media is not at all intelligent enough to create such a story. There were five to six people from the leading Malayalam dailies [He names them] to produce volumes of filth. Some of them had come to my house and personally apologised. My view is that if anybody commits a crime he should be punished. I am not magnanimous enough to pardon them. In spite of all such attacks from the media, journalists like Anand Parthasardhy, KM Roy, Rajasekharan Nair, MP Narayana Pillai, Ramanan, Govindankutty, CS Subrahmanian, Gopal Raj, Ritu Sarin, and Shekhar Gupta stood by me. They had stated that it was a cock and bull story. Cryogenic technology was not available with India in 1994. Using that technology no missile had ever been launched anywhere in the world. If anyone had that much elementary knowledge about this, such absurdity would not have been served through their papers. The SIT under Siby Mathews did not even raid my office or house even when they referred to me as the kingpin. You [Siby Mathews] were the SIT head, Sherlock Holmes [a major daily described him as the Sherlock Holmes of Kerala]. But why didn’t you question me. He flouted the responsibility of an IPS officer. When Vijayarama Rao and others from CBI came to me, they showed me their ID cards, introduced themselves. But the Kerala police brought just constables to interrogate. Two guys in khaki shorts and baniyans stood behind me to beat me up. 

What next?

You can’t expect everyone to keep fighting for 25 years. In this case, since 2015, I had to go to Delhi 19 times, spending a lot of money for travel, stay and other expenses. My advocate, C Unnikrishnan, fought for me free of cost. Both LDF and UDF governments protected police officers. Achuthanandan even supported the UDF government’s decision to appoint Siby Mathews as the information commissioner. If an administrator can’t understand the character of an officer, what to say about the fate of the state.

The CBI, which took over the case on December 2, 1994, found that there was no merit in the case and issued a report in 1996 recommending closure of the case. But the Kerala police wanted the state government to proceed further. The new state government under EK Nayanar elected in 1996 appointed a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to conduct a reinvestigation. It was one of the rare occasions when a case whose closure had been recommended by the CBI was reopened by a state police. When Narayanan challenged the same in the High Court, it upheld the government’s stand, citing that it had the authority to conduct a SIT probe. Narayanan then challenged it in the Supreme Court in 1997, which revoked the High Court order and allowed Rs 1 lakh as court expenses to the accused.

While Siby Mathews and S Vijayan preferred not to comment on the apex court verdict, KK Joshua said that except recording the case diary he had nothing to do with the case. The former DGP, Raman Srivastava, who was suspended in connection with the spy case, said that the conspiracy behind the case should be unravelled.

Besides Narayanan, Sasikumaran and Chandrasekhar were the other ISRO scientists who were incarcerated in the false case. While Sasikumaran leads a simple life away from media glare and is still struggling to come to terms with the misfortune that visited him, Chandrasekhar had been ill for a long time and was in hospital. He went into coma on September 14, a few hours before the Supreme Court gave the verdict that he had awaited for 24 years. He died five days later.