Friday, December 8, 2023

Nambinarayanan’s wasteland

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A false espionage case against this scientist laid his life asunder. But justice seems near as the Kerala High Court has accepted his plea for action against three Kerala policemen who falsely implicated him

By TK Devasia

hen a team of policemen barged into the house of S Nambinarayanan, a former scientist with the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), on November 30, 1994, and took him into custody, he thought he would soon be back. After all, he had not done anything wrong in his almost three-decade-long career in the space agency.

But it was not to be. He was thrown into prison for 50 days and tortured. He had to wait two years for investigators to establish his innocence and four years to get his name cleared by court. He was treated like a traitor for most of this period. After a prolonged battle, the Kerala government gave him a compensation of Rs10 lakh, sanctioned by the National Human Rights Commission. And last month, after what seemed liked light at the end of a dark tunnel, his plea for action against three Kerala policemen for falsely implicating him in the case, was accepted by the Kerala High Court (HC).


Yet, Nambinarayanan does not feel that he has got justice. He wants eight senior Intelligence Bureau (IB) officials, who were found by the CBI to be party to the frame-up, to be held accountable too. He has submitted a representation to the union government in this regard. The scientist made it clear that he would go to court if the government rejects his plea. He will also be pressing his original case for a compensation of Rs1 crore.

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What drives Nambinarayanan to continue the long battle? He says it is his strong conviction that the spy case was cooked up by the IB and the Kerala police at the behest of foreign forces to prevent the march of ISRO. He says the deep hurt he felt on being branded a spy and a traitor propelled him to continue the legal battle even at the age of 72 and he will continue the fight to the end. He is fighting the battle alone without any support from any quarter. Five others implicated in the case along with him have left the scene.

Nambinaryanan says the deep hurt he felt on being branded a spy and a traitor propelled him to continue the legal battle even at the age of 72 and he will continue the fight to the end.

The case began on October 20, 1994, and involved trading of space secrets to foreign powers for money and sex through two semi-literate Maldivian women. It began with the arrest of Mariam Rasheeda on that day on the charge of over-stay in the country. The telephone number of another ISRO scientist, D Sasikumar, which was found in her diary, gave the case a new twist. The police smelt espionage and the IB, which was called to assist the Kerala police, made it a full-fledged spy case by feeding “half-truths and untruths” to the media. This resulted in the ouster of K Karunakaran from chief ministership as he refused to approve the arrest of Raman Srivastava, the then Inspector General of Police (IGP), who was his protégé. But Srivastava was suspended.


However, the CBI, which took over the investigation, ruled out any espionage in the case. In its closure report, it noted that the investigation conducted by the IB and the Kerala police was unprofessional. It indicted Mathew John and RB Sreekumar, joint director and deputy director of IB respectively, and Sibi Mathew, deputy IGP (Crime Branch), heading the special investigation team of Kerala police, for failing in their duty to conduct the inquiry in an objective and fair manner and recommended action against them. Based on its closure report, the Supreme Court later acquitted all the accused.

However, the CBI has not looked into the conspiracy angle. There are different versions about the forces behind the espionage story. While one section believes it was masterminded by some foreign powers which did not want India to acquire the cryogenic technology that the country needs to enter the lucrative space launch business, another says it was fabricated by a faction in the Congress party to remove Karunakaran from office. There is a third section which feels that inspector S Vijayan of the Kerala police had foisted the false case in order to hush up the alleged sexual advances he had made to Raseehda when she visited his office with a plea to extend her stay in Thiruvananthapuram.

Nambinarayanan believes that the case against the officials may unravel the mystery. He suspects the hand of the CIA behind the false case. He relies mainly on a book by former BBC space writer Brian Harvey and the US interventions against India’s attempt to acquire cryogenic technology from Russia. Harvey’s book, Russia In Space: A Failed Frontier?, reveals that India’s attempt to buy the technology ignoring US opposition was the main reason behind the cooked-up spy case. The sanctions imposed by the US, which extended to ISRO and Glavkosmos, the Russian space firm, supplying the technology, in May 1992, further support this version.

The type of people implicated in the case also hold up this theory. The two ISRO scientists and one of two Bangalore-based businessmen implicated in the case, were directly associated with the project for developing cryogenic technology. While Nambinarayanan was project director, Sasikumar was deputy project director and Chandrashekhar was the Indian agent of the Russian cryogenic firm.

Both Nambinarayanan and Sasikumar had visited Glavkosmos to facilitate the transfer of this technology as per a 1992 agreement. But Russia backed out of the agreement in July 1993 allegedly under pressure from the US and instead, offered four cryogenic engines sans technology under a new agreement. The espionage case rocked ISRO when Nambinarayanan and his team were trying to indigenously develop the technology.

The US had opposed the technology transfer terming it as a violation of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). Though India pointed out that Americans had offered the same technology at a higher price without any issue with MTCR, the then Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, bowed to the US pressure.

When the American moves against passing the cryogenic technology became clear, ISRO and Glavkosmos had drawn up an alternate plan to pass the technology to India through another company that was not bound by MTCR, as per Spies from Space, a book on the espionage case by J Rajashekharan Nair. The idea was to outsource the manufacturing of cryogenic machines to an Indian company so that technically it would not be a violation of MTCR.

Several companies, including Kerala Hi-Tech Industries Ltd (KELTEC) and Hyderabad-based MTAR bid for the partnership. KELTEC was finally selected because of its proximity to the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC) and the presence of several retired ISRO scientists in the firm. Moreover, UR Rao had agreed to take over as MD of KELTC if the joint venture plan fructified.


However, the spy case scuttled the plan. The case erupted when discussions were in the final stage for floating the joint venture. The IB tried to arrest Chandrashekhar when he went to Bangalore airport on November 18, 1994, to see off Glavasksmos chairman AI Dunaev, who had come to India for the final round of discussions, says Rajashekharan’s book.

Glavasksmos dropped the joint venture move after the IB tried to implicate their men in the case. The IB, according to the book, had interrogated Aleksey Vasin, officer-in-charge of cryogenic technology in Glavkosmos at Moscow. They also questioned the then KELTEC MD, V Sudhakar, and R Ravindra Reddy of MTAR.

The IB also sought to implicate Russian private airline (Ural Aviation), which transported cryogenic equipments and instruments from Moscow to India in a covert manner. The airline had agreed to operate four flights to India after Air India refused to carry the cargo without customs clearance. The national airline was apparently afraid of US sanctions. The job was considered highly risky considering the presence of American spies all over Russia.

Harvey’s book also has elaborate references to the overt operation that would have helped India to acquire cryogenic technology much earlier. Harvey says India had sent “legitimate” trans-shipments of Indian aircraft technology in the return flight to Moscow under the guise of testing them in Russian wind tunnels as a cover.

Ural Aviation operated three flights to India between January 23, 1994, and July 17, 1994. Nambinarayanan said that he was on board all three of them. The spy case scuttled the fourth flight. Nambinarayanan and his team were arrested when they were involved in developing the technology with the help of equipments and instruments they got from Russia.


He feels the espionage angle was an attempt was to demoralize his team and delay the acquisition of technology by ISRO. He says there was considerable pressure on him from IB interrogators to make false allegations against ISRO’s top brass. He was asked by two IB officials to name AE Muthunayagam, the then director of the Liquid Propulsion System Centre (LPSC). When he refused, he was tortured until he collapsed and was hospitalized.

The IB and Kerala police story collapsed after the CBI found that the key accused and their living standards did not fit in with spies who earn millions of dollars. While the two Maldivian women, who were arrested first, were semi-literate and incapable of comprehending complex space technology, Nambinarayanan led a modest life without modern amenities like a fridge, car and computer. The Kerala police and the IB framed him without searching his house or office. Nambinarayanan alleges that the police implicated him in the case as he was capable of analyzing multidisciplinary situations—mechanical, electrical, civil, guidance, control, metallurgy and fabrication—and putting them together.

Family members of Karunakaran have also joined the scientist in demanding action against the officials who ruined the lives and careers of many. The state government, which decided not to proceed against Sibi Mathew, who is currently the state’s Chief Information Commissioner, KK Joshua, superintendent of Kerala police who was involved in the initial investigation and S Vijayan, (both retired), saying the case is too old to be reopened, is silent on the HC order nullifying its decision.


Mathew, meanwhile, has revealed his decision to contest the HC verdict. He will be filing an appeal, citing the directions given by two division benches of the HC to the state government to remove the Human Rights Commission’s recommendation for action against him and other officials. The direction was given while directing the state government to pay an interim compensation of Rs 10 lakh to Nambinarayanan.

As regards the CBI recommendation, he said that neither the Supreme Court nor the court of the Chief Judicial Magistrate who accepted the agency’s final report, had issued any direction to take action against the officers. He claimed that the state government dropped criminal action after examining the entire records of the case.

Meanwhile, Sreekumar of the IB has pooh-poohed Nambinarayanan’s plea for action against IB officials, saying that the last NDA government had examined the matter and closed the file as early as September 2000. The government had issued charge-sheets to nine IB officials as per the CBI recommendation in November 1999. He pointed out that the government had accepted their explanation and not only exonerated them but also promoted them.

Sreekumar has refuted Nambinarayanan’s charge regarding his human rights violation, saying that he had neither met nor interrogated him while he was in police custody. He has also termed the scientist’s charge that IB officers had acted for CIA as “baseless and sinful”. He points out that the CBI report submitted to the government in May 1995 did not contain any such charge. “Even today, except for vague allegations about the CIA acting through IB officials behind the ISRO espionage case, there is no specific verifiable and probable information about this allegation,” he adds.

But it is a fact that the Kerala police and IB officials did not deny the grave lapses that the CBI pointed out in their investigation. People like Nambinarayanan believe the lapses were deliberate and, therefore, those responsible for them should pay a price.


“I will not spare the IB”

ISRO scientist S Nambinarayanan is a determined man. He is determined to get justice for himself and believes that God will be his savior. He tells TK  Devasia that his autobiography will reveal more about the role of the IB and Kerala police in this whole sorry episode.  


 How do you view the high court verdict?

I consider this the beginning of justice. The action against the three Kerala police officials will ensure only partial justice. Please note that the IB and the media are also equally responsible. But the media did not fabricate the case. It was misled by both the police and the IB and corrected its mistake and made necessary amends. Hence, I don’t intend to take any action against the media. But I will not spare the IB. It played a major role in fabricating the case. The union government dropped action against them illegally. I have already taken up the matter with the Ministry of Home Affairs and I hope to get a favorable response. If not, I will go to the judiciary. The HC verdict may prompt the union government to correct the mistakes of the last government in exonerating IB officials.

Why do you think the police and IB have fabricated this case?

There must be the hand of some agency behind them. This needs to be thoroughly investigated. There were some agencies which did not want India to acquire cryogenic capability as it would put it in the elite club of the US, France, China and Russia. They tried to delay the technology acquisition by demoralizing ISRO. They operated through IB and the Kerala police. IB officers, who interrogated me, wanted me to make false accusations against the top brass of ISRO.

Can you describe the tortures you underwent during police custody?

I don’t want to talk about the inhuman tortures and so-called interrogation methods followed by IB and the Kerala police. I was interrogated by lowly sub-inspectors and constables, who could not even pronounce the word “cryogenic” correctly. They were unleashed on us by their top brass, who were not interested in knowing the facts because they were hell-bent on fabricating the story. I will describe everything in detail in the autobiography I am writing.

Do you find the hands of any fellow scientists behind your travails?

ISRO personnel may not have any direct role in the episode. That would have been suicidal. But I am not sure. I think there was a deeper conspiracy. This has to be investigated further and the accountability of all personnel brought to open.

Did you get any support from ISRO in your fight to prove your innocence?

Yes, but a little later. Initially, everybody tried to distance themselves from the case. But an open letter written by Prof Dhawan and Prof UR Rao, former chairmen of ISRO, later came as a big relief. They gave me strength to carry on my battle.

What about now?

I have fought the case all alone for the last 20 years. Others who were implicated with me don’t want to spend another lifetime fighting the powerful government. I will continue the battle till complete justice is done in the case. I believe in God. I go to the temple every day. I want all those who hoisted this false case to be punished for what they have done, not only to me but to the country. I also trust the Indian judiciary, which is above influence.

How do you carry on the battle without financial s­upport?

I have sold all my property and borrowed money on heavy interest.

How has the case cost ISRO and the country?

The scandal delayed ISRO projects by 10-15 years. If the case had not erupted, India would have been a major player in the launch business. I am sure the country could have earned a substantial share of this business, then estimated at $300 million, if we had acquired the cryogenic technology as per our original plans. It is strange that the people who did so much against the country are still sitting safe.


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