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Nambi Narayanan and the Other Side of the ISRO Spy Story

Nambi Narayanan and the Other Side of the ISRO Spy Story

Nambi Narayanan. Source: YouTube

  • Much has been written about the ISRO spy scandal, and how the Supreme Court found Nambi Narayanan innocent of the charges, after the completion of the CBI probe.
  • A new book by journalist J. Rajasekharan Nair, Classified: Hidden Truths in the ISRO Spy Story, claims to unravel certain unanswered questions about the scandal.
  • But Nair’s effort remains only partly successful, even as he tries to tarnish the reputation of Narayanan in the process, according to this review by V. Venkatesan.

The receipt in 2020 of “additional compensation and solatium” totalling Rs 1.3 crore from the Kerala government by the former Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) scientist, Nambi Narayanan, for being wrongly accused as a spy, may appear to many to have brought down the curtain in the infamous espionage case of 1990s. But not really.

The amount paid was in addition to a compensation of Rs 50 lakh he had received in 2018 from the Kerala government as ordered by the Supreme Court for the “physical” and “mental” agony he underwent, and the Rs 10 lakh he had received as “interim relief” as per an order of the National Human Rights Commission.

Setting the context

Briefly, the story begins with the arrest of a Maldivian national, Mariam Rasheeda, in October 1994 for allegedly obtaining secret drawings of ISRO rocket engines to sell to Pakistan. This led to the arrest of Narayanan, then director of a cryogenic project at ISRO, along with his deputy, D. Sasikumaran, and Indian representative of a Russian space agency, K. Chandrasekhar, S.K. Sharma, a labour contractor, and Fousiya Hasan, a Maldivian friend of Rasheeda, were also arrested. In January 1995, the ISRO scientists and businessmen were released on bail, while the Maldivian nationals continued to be in custody. In April 1996, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) filed a report before a Kerala court saying the espionage case was false, and there was no evidence to back the charges. The court accepted the CBI’s closure report, and discharged all accused.

Classified: Hidden Truths in the ISRO Spy Story,
J. Rajasekharan Nair,
Srishti Publishers & Distributors, January 2022

In June 1996, the Kerala government decided to re-investigate the case by the state police. In May 1998, the Supreme Court awarded compensation of Rs 1 lakh to Narayanan and others, who were discharged in the case, and directed the state government to pay the compensation. In April 2017, the Supreme Court began to hear Narayanan’s plea seeking action against former Kerala Director General of Police, Siby Mathews and others who had probed the matter. On May 9, 2018, the Supreme Court held that Narayanan suffered a dent in his reputation due to mala fide prosecution and that the Kerala government cannot evade “vicarious liability” to grant him compensation. On September 14, 2018, the Supreme Court awarded Rs  50 lakh compensation to Narayanan for being subjected to mental cruelty in the ISRO spy case.

Much has been written about the ISRO spy scandal, and how the Supreme Court found Narayanan innocent of the charges, after the completion of the CBI probe. His autobiography in Malayalam was released in 2017, followed by the English version in 2018.

A new book by journalist J. Rajasekharan Nair, Classified: Hidden Truths in the ISRO Spy Story, claims to unravel certain unanswered questions about the scandal. But Nair’s effort remains only partly successful, even as he tries to tarnish the reputation of Narayanan in the process.

The spy story remains incomplete because the Supreme Court had in 2018 agreed with his submission that grant of compensation was not the solution in a case of this nature, and that those responsible for his harrowing experience should face legal consequences. Following the submission of a report by a committee appointed by the court itself, CBI began its probe against 18 cops involved in the arrest of Narayanan and others. With some of the accused seeking anticipatory bail, the CBI is under pressure to investigate the larger conspiracy angle, involving the former Intelligence Bureau officials.

Paradox in CBI investigation

Nair’s book is interesting because it reveals the paradox in the ongoing investigation by the CBI. In 1994, the Intelligence Bureau and the Kerala Police had represented that ISRO was a defence organisation and the espionage case was about selling India’s cryogenic missile technology to Pakistan, and painted two former ISRO-technocrats as spies who sold the nation’s pride to Pakistan. ISRO is not a defence organisation and there is no cryogenic missile technology anywhere in use in the world, and ISRO didn’t have that technology in 1994.

Twenty-seven years later, the CBI, which didn’t find anybody’s hand, including that of Pakistan earlier, is now saying – according to Nair – that R.B. Sreekumar, one of the accused cops, is an Inter-Services Intelligence man. And the arrest of ISRO-technocrats, according to the CBI, was to sabotage ISRO’s programme to develop the cryogenic engine, as desired by Pakistan, even as an investigation under a new first information report, registered on May 1, 2021, is in infancy and the CBI sleuths are yet to interrogate any of the accused, says Nair.

The Kerala High Court, while granting bail to four of the accused, including Sreekumar, recorded on August 13, 2021:

“There is not even a scintilla of evidence regarding the petitioners being influenced by any foreign power to induce them to hatch a conspiracy to falsely implicate the scientists of the ISRO to stall the activities of the ISRO concerning the development of Cryogenic Engine.”

CIA involvement?

Both Nair and Narayanan agree on the role of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The CIA, according to them, wanted to make sure that India did not get cryogenic rocket technology from Russia. The US administration feared it would capacitate ISRO to launch satellites into the geostationary orbit and seize a sizeable portion of the global space market.

What could have prompted the CIA to plant an absurd spy case, 16 months after the US administration had succeeded in stopping the transfer of Russian cryogenic technology to India, and ambushed India’s space dreams?

The US administration arm-twisted Russia and got the agreement to transfer cryogenic technology to ISRO cancelled in July 1993, says Nair.

The agenda of the US to thwart the possible development of cryogenic engine by India was accomplished by that country’s CIA in connivance with the investigators of the ISRO espionage case, Narayanan told the Kerala High Court in August last year. Narayanan added that if India had developed the technology, most countries would have approached India for launching satellites as there was a huge difference between the cost of their launch in India and the US.

The spy case was fabricated by the CIA to bring to sub-zero ISRO’s partially succeeded reverse espionage – an illegal act done clandestinely, to transfer the cryogenic rocket technology from Glavkosmos (the Russian space agency) to ISRO, hoodwinking the hawkish eyes of the US, after the agreement for the transfer of technology was cancelled, says Nair.

The reverse espionage was attempted with the connivance of the ISRO management and a powerful group in Glavkosmos that acted against the will of the Russian government, with Narayanan and Sasikumaran as the lead players in it, alleges Nair, relying on circumstantial evidence, which is not coherent enough.

But Narayanan has a different take on this. In 1992, the US had threatened India and Russia not to facilitate a transfer of cryogenic engine technology from Russia to India, he told the High Court last August. In 1994, India renegotiated with Russia and inked an agreement to purchase cryogenic engines, without any associated technology transfer; the plan of the ISRO was to develop cryogenic technology indigenously after procuring cryogenic engines from Russia, Narayanan has said. The US was under the impression that Russia had transferred production technology too to India along with the cryogenic engine sale. Hence, the US was waiting for an opportunity to thwart the possible development of cryogenic engines by India, according to Narayanan’s theory.

Inadequacy of justice, and unfairness of Nair’s claims about Narayanan

A comprehensive picture of the ISRO espionage case right from its genesis would have emerged had the Supreme Court ordered for a judicial enquiry covering the entire gamut of the issue and its complexities, claims Nair. But can one expect the Supreme Court-directed probe against the police officials involved in the fake espionage case to achieve the same purpose? Unlikely, as the CBI’s mandate is very limited.

According to R. Krishnakumar of Frontline magazine, the ISRO spy case, in which at least one victim has now got some justice after 25 years by the effective intervention of the highest court, however, leaves a crucial question: who all were responsible for weaving such a fantastic false tale and why? And who would compensate for the untold suffering that the other accused too went through? The answer to this question, which Nair also raises, is that the accused, other than Narayanan, didn’t take the trouble of approaching the Supreme Court seeking compensation.

It may be far-fetched to expect that the CBI’s ongoing probe would help to unravel the larger conspiracy. But is it fair to accuse Narayanan, as Nair does, of stating lies and contrived truths before the Supreme Court?

According to Nair, Narayanan’s statement that the spy case had affected his life and “consequently resulting in total devastation of the peace of his entire family which is an ineffaceable individual loss” is a painful truth.

But Narayanan’s claim that the case had a “catastrophic effect on his service career” is, according to Nair, a blatant lie. It is because, Nair argues, Narayanan had applied for retirement under the Voluntary Retirement Scheme (VRS) 29 days before he was arrested on November 30, 1994. He wanted to be relieved with effect from November 11, 1994, waiving the required notice of three months. His decision to quit ISRO was personal and professional.

That the espionage case had a catastrophic effect on his service career as a leading and renowned scientist at ISRO since he had put in his papers for VRS 29 days before he was arrested, and had made up his mind to quit ISRO seven months before he was arrested, are incontrovertible facts which could not have been hidden from the Supreme Court.

What Nair perhaps misses here is the damage that the case caused to Narayanan’s reputation as a scientist. He might have voluntarily resigned before the allegations. Even if his career had effectively ended at that point of time, he had a right to reputation, which he had earned during his unblemished career, spanning several years.

Is it a clear case of perjury, as Nair alleges in his book? Narayanan himself does not consider this worthy of response, when this writer asked him over phone.

V.Venkatesan is the editor, The Leaflet. The views expressed here are personal.

This article was first published by The Leaflet and has been republished here with permission.

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