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ISRO Scandal: The “Spy” Who Came in From the Cold

ISRO Scandal: The “Spy” Who Came in From the Cold

Above: ISRO scientist Nambi Narayanan was working on the cryogenic rocket technology at ISRO in Thiruvananthapuram when he was arrested in 1994

Nambi Narayanan, the ISRO scientist wrongly accused of espionage, has double reason to rejoice. The Supreme Court has ensured that his reputation will stand restored and he will be adequately compensated

~By Ramesh Menon

Not too many 76-year-olds have the stomach for a long fight but S Nambi Narayanan has been involved in one for the last 24 years—to restore his honour and make those responsible for destroying his life and career pay for it. One of India’s best scientists, Narayanan was working on the cryogenic rocket technology at Indian Space Research Organisation in Thiruvananthapuram when he was arrested on charges of selling Indian space secrets to two Maldivian women in 1994.

Twenty-three years later, a bench headed by Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra, Justices AM Khanwilkar and DY Chandrachud said that the Supreme Court would ensure that he was adequately compensated monetarily for being framed in a false case. The Kerala government would initially pay it but would later recover it from state police officials who had maliciously implicated him in a “sensational” espionage case. The compensation would be around Rs 75 lakh, but money would hardly solve his problem, the Court said, adding that his reputation will stand restored. Narayanan has been battling this case since 1998 after he was acquitted, and wanted action taken against the erring officials. He had later moved the Supreme Court in 2015 seeking criminal action against three Kerala Police officers who had fabricated the charges against him.

In 1994, he was arrested by the Kerala Police under the Official Secrets Act on the charge that he was selling sensitive classified information about India’s space programme and activities of ISRO to other countries. Along with him, the police also arrested another ISRO scientist, D Sasikumaran, senior IPS officer Raman Srivastava and two Maldivian women, Mariam Rasheeda and Fauzia Hassan. The top officers did not think it necessary to verify facts. Had they done so, Narayanan and others would not have gone to jail. Glaring contradictions were ignored. The Intelligence Bureau (IB), which took over the case from the police, claimed to have found 75 kg of classified information in Narayanan’s house which related to India’s space research programmes. What is interesting is that as ISRO is an open organisation, it does not have any classified information! This was the biggest hole in the story, but no one thought it fit to investigate.

Narayanan was supposed to have got huge payments for the information he passed on, according to the police. One report said that Rs 250 crore had been dispensed. In Kerala, the media went to town with the case. Malayalam Manorama, the leading newspaper in Kerala, even ran a serial on the case, attributing everything to the police and the IB. The Left Front charged that the Congress chief minister, K Karunakaran, was shielding the culprits and was trying to protect police officer Srivastava, whom he was close to. Congress leader AK Antony also joined in attacking him. Karunakaran was forced to resign. Antony became the chief minister. Public opinion and the trial by media saw the case being handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).

The CBI was quick to note that there was no evidence of any payouts to Narayanan or any of the others. In fact, when Narayanan’s house was searched, they found he lived a very frugal life.

He had a 14-inch black and white television set, just six cane chairs, two tables, some table lamps and basic stuff. They found he had not even met the two Maldivian women to whom he had supposedly sold secrets.

The five conspirators, according to the IB, had met in Hotel Madras International where an Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agent named Zuheira had accepted the documents and paid for them in cash. CBI investigations proved that the five had not been to the hotel. The IB had also said Sasikumaran, one of the “spies”, had met Zuheira in Hotel Manor in Thiruvananthapuram between March and June 1990. The CBI found that the hotel did not exist during that period. It started functioning only in December 1991. The IB had said that in September 1994, Sasikumaran had taken Rasheeda and Hassan to the ISRO complex in Thiruvananthapuram to take photographs. Nothing of the kind ever happened. Till today, the identity of Zuheira has not been established.

Torturous Time

  • 1994: S Nambi Narayanan, in-charge of the cryogenics division at ISRO, was falsely charged with espionage and arrested. He spent 50 days in jail. During his incarceration, he was allegedly tortured by interrogators and had to be hospitalized
  • 1996: Charges dismissed as phony by CBI
  • 1998: Charges dismissed by Supreme Court
  • 1999: National Human Rights Commission passed strictures against the government of Kerala for having damaged Narayanan’s distinguished career in space research along with the physical and mental torture to which he and his family were subjected
  • 1998: Charges dismissed by Supreme Court
  • 1999: National Human Rights Commission passed strictures against the government of Kerala for having damaged Narayanan’s distinguished career in space research along with the physical and mental torture to which he and his family were subjected
  • 2001: NHRC ordered the Kerala government to pay him a compensation of Rs 1 crore. He retired the same year
  • 2012: Kerala High Court orders Rs 10 lakh to Narayanan based on an appeal from NHRC
  • 2012: Kerala government drops charges against police officials who were alleged to have falsely implicated Narayanan on the grounds that over 15 years had passed since the case was initiated. The top officer involved in the case, Siby Mathews, is currently the Chief Information Commiss-ioner in Kerala
  • 2012: Kerala government yet to comply with High Court order to pay compensation of Rs 10 lakh
  • 2015: Supreme Court admits petition filed by Narayanan seeking an order to initiate criminal action against police officers who implicated him
  • 2018: The SC said it would order granting of compensation, which must be recovered from the officers who incarcerated him during the investigation

ISRO, which had been scandal-tainted and targeted during this period, conducted a high-level internal inquiry. The joint secretary (space) wrote to investigation agencies that no documents had gone missing from ISRO. More importantly, he said, ISRO did not classify its documents. The two women, Rasheeda and Hassan, were supposed to be doling out lakhs of rupees for the information they were getting from Narayanan and others. But when the CBI investigated, they found that both were strapped for cash. In fact, Fauzia had borrowed Rs 10,000 for her daughter’s capitation fees from her landlady in Bengaluru. Mariam was found to have sold her gold necklace for Rs 4,000 to fund her extended stay in India. When the court released both on bail, they continued to stay in jail as they did not have the money to pay the bail amount.

Both Rasheeda and Hassan were small-time operators hired by the Maldivian Secret Service to keep a tab on a group of anti-Gayoom supporters in Bengaluru. The ISI was encouraging them as President Gayoom of  the Maldives was friendly towards India. Rasheeda had casually met Chandrasekharan and Sasikumaran and had their numbers in her diary. In fact, Rasheeda had been on her way back to the Maldives but as flights got cancelled due to a plague scare, she went to a police station for help to get her visa extended. The police asked her many questions and got suspicious as she started to drop names of people she knew in India. The IB found Sasikumaran’s name in her diary and called him. When they found that he worked for ISRO, imagination started running wild.

Acting on a PIL filed by a Kochi-based NGO on how the CBI was botching up the case by not accepting the IB theory of spying, the Supreme Court asked the intelligence agencies to present evidence. The IB presented its “evidence” in a sealed envelope and requested the judges not to examine it. But the judges opened it and read it. They also watched three videotapes of “confessions” of those the IB interrogated. The IB line was that Pakistan had penetrated India’s space establishment. Pakistan had reportedly used the Maldivian spies for the operation and had set up a front company in Germany where they had hired renegade scientists from Russia to build missiles for North Korea. The documents were said to have been shipped to North Korea via Holland. Not a single statement was backed with any evidence. But media hype about the case was so high that the CBI’s giving a clean chit to all the five was roundly criticised.

Narayanan had reportedly told the central government not to spend huge amounts of foreign exchange to buy the expensive cryogenic rocket technology from either the US or Russia as he would be able to make it in India. At that time, the US was trying to sell it to India and wanted to keep Russia out of negotiations with India. Sources hint that the framing of Narayanan was to stop him from his scientific effort so that the US could clinch the deal and it might have been a CIA ploy to trap him. But it sounded so sensational and shocking that ISRO scientists could be involved in selling their country’s best- kept secrets. The fake spy case ended up delaying India’s liquid propelled engine project by at least 12 years.

One thing is certain—this case will go down in history as one of the most embarrassing for intelligence agencies in India who showed how crassly unprofessional investigations could be and how innocent people could be framed which could lead to governments collapsing. The Opposition even linked the name of then Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao’s son to the spy case though he was in no way involved. No wonder the apex court has taken a strong stand and probably for the first time has asked the government to recover the compensation costs from the police officers who implicated Narayanan and the others.

But, for Narayanan, his otherwise brilliant career was destroyed. The Court will soon grant him an enhanced compensation but whatever the amount, money cannot compensate for what he has lost. Narayanan has moved on and has even written a book on the case. But, somewhere deep within, he must be hurting.