In 1998, immediately after the Supreme Court quashed the Kerala government notification to further investigate the sensational Isro espionage case, I wrote a book called Spies from Space: The Isro Frame-up. In the espionage case, the allegation was that two senior scientists in Isro—S Nambi Narayanan and D Sasi Kumaran—had sold documents and drawings relating to cryogenic missile technology to Mohammed Aslam, a Pakistani nuclear scientist. They had used as conduits two Maldivian women—Mariam Rasheeda and Fauziya Hassan—and Aleksey V Vasin of the Russian space agency Glavkosmos.
After 15 days of investigation by a Special Investigation Team (SIT) of the Kerala Police, the case was transferred to the CBI, which after 18 months of investigation concluded it was ‘false’. The agency submitted two confidential reports to the Union and Kerala governments listing respectively serious lapses by IB officials and SIT members. Action was recommended against them but both governments swept the reports under the carpet, afraid of opening a can of worms.
The Kerala government, in fact, issued a notification to further investigate the case, ostensibly to pre-empt the prosecution of police officers. The notification was challenged by the accused, the CBI and the Union government. The Supreme Court, on 29 April 1998, quashed the notification for being ‘patently invalid… issued with malafide intention…’ Even after the final word on the espionage case was pronounced by the court, I felt that something crucial remained unexplored. If the espionage case was false, who planted it? What were the motives?
In 1997, a written statement issued jointly by five scientists—Sathish Dhawan, UR Rao, Yashpal, Rodham Narasimha and K Chandrasekhar—and TN Seshan gave me the first hint of ‘outside interference’ in the case. Dhawan and Rao were former Isro chairmen and sitting members of the Space Commission. Projected against the historicity of India’s hunt for acquiring cryogenic technology and the hurdles posed by America to block the transfer of technology, the statement implied that this ‘outside interference’ was from the US.
My book, published by Konark Publishers, Delhi, was the second phase of my coverage of the Isro espionage case; the first was as the Kerala correspondent of the Magna group of magazines when I had filed over half a dozen reports based on court records, tell-tale documents, confidential police reports and direct interviews with the alleged ‘spies’.
The book reveals that the espionage case, contrary to general perception, was made of different layers of conspiracies hatched by different agencies and people at different points of time, aiming at different targets. The nucleus, I argue, was hatched by the CIA to safeguard US commercial interests, and planted through its moles in the IB, using the Kerala police as a conduit.
The book quotes confidential letters sent by the Commissioner of Police, Thiruvananthapuram City, to the DGP of Kerala, which explain the role of DC Pathak, then Director, IB, in getting the espionage case registered under the Indian Official Secrets Act 1923, even though the Act makes it clear that the Kerala Police have no legal right to do so. (The Kerala High Court and Supreme Court have underlined this critically relevant point.) The book also questions the motive of Pathak in advising the Kerala DGP to constitute an SIT, even when many of the individuals and institutions allegedly involved in the espionage were in foreign countries.
On 27 September 1998, The Indian Express carried a two-page extract from my book. The Hindustan Times had equally good coverage on 4 October 1998. KPR Nair, proprietor of Konark, told me over the phone that he was excited about the pre-launch publicity, and expected sales of over 100,000 copies. Over a dozen newspapers and magazines, including The Times of India, Frontline, Outlook and Society, reviewed my book. The pre-launch publicity and reviews—some really rave—made me proud. In the first week of its release, the book figured on India Today’s bestseller list in Delhi in the non-fiction section. And then mysteriously, the book disappeared from stores across India.
When I checked with the publisher, he told me that the book was not in demand. Given the publicity, this answer sounded illogical. One year later, he gave me a statement of sales of copies. The number of copies sold was less than 100. My friends and sources in the CBI told me that IB men bought the first batch of printed copies and warned the publisher against a reprint. That, on the other hand, was logical. My book strips the IB naked, and even names some of it high-profile officials. They obviously didn’t want it to be read even though technically the book is in the public domain. I, however, have no proof of this.
[When Open contacted KPR Nair of Konark, he stated that the IB’s involvement in suppressing sales of the book is mere speculation on the author’s part and “not a single soul called me” about it. He says that he clarified to the author in a letter that of the 1,103 copies printed in 1998, there were domestic sales of 407 books in that financial year, for which the author was paid a royalty of Rs 10,717. The unsold copies were returned to Konark by bookstores. “Why should I listen to any government? I put in my money and took the responsibility and risk to publish the book. Why would I publish something to lose money?” asks Nair.]
The move to sabotage Isro’s cryogenic programme began on 18 January 1991, the date on which Isro signed the agreement, 800-1/50, with Glavkosmos, the Russian space agency. The agreement went against US business interests in two ways.
The price quoted by Glavkosmos for the transfer of technology and supply of three cryogenic engines was Rs 235 crore, nearly 400 per cent less than what America’s General Dynamics had quoted. The undercutting caused serious concern over sales of American rocket technology elsewhere. Secondly, the price-per-kg–payload fixed for the GSLV to launch satellites into geosynchronous orbit, 36,000 km from Earth, was less than half the price quoted by US vehicles. This, too, meant a market hit for America.
In May 1992, the US imposed sanctions on Glavkosmos and Isro for two years, stating that the agreement violated provisions of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). The agreement did not violate the MTCR because the purpose of the GSLV is to launch communication satellites. The then US State Secretary also sent a letter, through a diplomatic channel, to Boris Yeltsin, expressing America’s displeasure over the agreement. On 16 July 1993, the Russian government cancelled the agreement, invoking ‘force majeure’.
A new agreement was signed between Isro and Glavkosmos in 1993 after deleting the technology transfer clause. This time, America had no objections and the engines reached Isro on time. The message was clear: America did not want India to acquire Russian cryogenic rocket technology and become a potential competitor in the space business.
On the other hand, as soon as the first agreement was signed, Glavkosmos and Isro had anticipated American interference and already moved to pre-empt it. They started working on a joint plan to fabricate cryogenic engines in India. The idea was to entrust the work to an external agency as job work, for which transfer of technology was necessary. Such a transfer, as part of the work order, would not attract MTCR provisions. If the technology reached Isro through that agency, technically, neither Glavkosmos nor Isro could be blamed. Aleksey V Vasin, officer-in-charge of cryogenic technology in Glavkosmos, took the initiative on the Russian side. Indian reciprocity had the approval of UR Rao, then Isro chairman. The firm both parties zeroed in on to get cryogenic engines fabricated was Kerala Hi-tech Industries Limited (KELTEC) in Thiruvananthapuram, the present BrahMos Aerospace. It was also expected that Rao, after his retirement, would man KELTEC.
Documents published in my book show that initiatives to get cryogenic engines fabricated at KELTEC began on 4 March 1992, two months before America imposed sanctions on Isro and Glavkosmos, and 14 months before Russia had to cancel the 1991 agreement. Glavkosmos and Isro had agreed on a Rs 100 crore joint venture. At that last meeting, held in the second week of November 1994, the Russian team, led by Alexander I Dunaev, Chairman, Glavkosmos, had agreed to invest in the joint venture from an Escrow Account in India.
Besides, efforts were made to advance the supply of raw materials and spare parts from Glavkosmos to Isro since Glavkosmos foresaw the possibility of the agreement being cancelled under US pressure. Though Isro contacted Air India, it was not ready to carry the cargo without proper Customs clearance. And, that was not possible without the American lobby in Russia coming to know about it. So Isro entered an agreement with Ural Airlines, which was ready to take the risk for a little extra money.
America knew what was happening between Glavkosmos and Isro. It also knew that further arm-twisting at the diplomatic level would not be productive. So the CIA was entrusted with the job of aborting the circumlocutory transfer of cryogenic rocket technology through KELTEC, and of stalling or discrediting the transportation of raw materials and spare parts to Isro.
It was when the CIA was waiting for an opportune moment that a Malayalam eveninger reported the arrest of a Maldivian woman, Mariam Rasheeda, for overstaying in India.
The woman, the police found, had contact with D Sasi Kumaran, deputy director in the cryogenic project. In that single-column news report, the CIA saw its entry point, and its moles in the IB sprung into action. As per the advice of the Director, IB, the Kerala Police registered the espionage case under the Official Secrets Act. The IB gave illegal orders, and the SIT obeyed, in full knowledge that this was an act equally illegal. The IB tortured Nambi Narayanan, the key negotiator with Glavkosmos, for acquiring the cryogenic technology and then project director of Cryogenic Systems, to get him to name Dr AE Muthunayakam, director, Liquid Propulsion System Centre, and UR Rao as members of the ‘spy ring’. But the interrogators failed before the bold stand of the scientist. The IB officials questioned V Sudhakar, MD of KELTEC; got Aleksey Vasin grilled at Moscow; and even made an attempt to implicate him in the espionage case. The Glavkosmos-KELTEC joint venture was nipped in the bud. The IB implicated Ural after airing the lie that Ural had, as part of the espionage activities, transported documents from Isro to Glavkosmos. (Ural had made three flights to India with materials from Glavkosmos, the fourth didn’t come. By this time, the IB had implicated Ural Airlines). There is one common factor that links these institutions and individuals. It is that they were all connected to India’s cryogenic programme in one way or the other.
My book quotes a ‘top secret’ note sent by DC Pathak to the Cabinet Secretary, Home Minister, and Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, wherein he has stated that the DGP, Kerala ‘had been requested to enlarge the structure of the case… u/s 3 and 4 of the Indian Official Secrets Act’. It was by invoking the Official Secrets Act, unlawfully, that the moles in the IB could give the fabricated case a trans-national dimension, implicate Aleksy Vasin and Ural Airlines, besides the Indian scientists and institutions, and shatter Isro’s cryogenic programme.
When the CBI took over the case, the SIT gave an unsigned note to the CBI’s investigating officer. It had a list of individuals to be arrested, immediately, by the CBI. The first two names were: Rao and Muthunayakam. (G Madhavan Nair, former Chairman, Isro, at a public meeting in Thiruvananthapuram on 10 December 2012, said: “But for the timely transfer of the case to CBI, more than 100 Isro scientists would have been behind bars.”)
What about the charge that the cryogenic missile technology was transferred from Isro to enemy countries? To begin with, India does not have cryogenic technology even today. How could then, in 1994, ‘spies’ transfer this non-existent technology? The term ‘missile technology’ implies that Isro is manufacturing war weapons. With both the IB and Kerala Police putting it on record that cryogenic missile technology had been sneaked out from Isro, they were, in fact, endorsing the allegation of Pakistan and the US that Isro is making war weapons.
A statement of facts by the Isro chairman or Space Commission could have prevented the spy case from snowballing. But they feared that they too would be branded as spies. For, DC Pathak had informed K Kasthurirangan, then Chairman, Isro, that incriminating documents had been seized from the scientists. The technocrats were forced to believe the scientifically absurd espionage theory.
That there are moles of the CIA in the IB may be difficult to believe. But it is a fact. Certain incidents happened in the IB, parallel to the build-up of the Isro espionage case, which have not been explained by the Government or explored by the media. Though the IB, RAW and Kerala Police had grilled Mariam Rasheeda and Fauzia Hassan, twice, before Mariam was arrested, all the three agencies recorded that there was nothing worth probing in the activities of the Maldivian women. The issue took a dramatic turn and developed into a major spy scandal following the visit of MK Dhar, joint director, IB, to Thiruvananthapuram a few days after Mariam’s arrest was reported by the media. DC Pathak, director, IB, was unceremoniously shown the door, even before the CBI had concluded that the spy case was false. No reason has been cited for his sudden removal. Rattan Sehgal, chief of the crack counter-intelligence unit, was forced to resign on 17 November 1996, for having a secret rendezvous with two undercover CIA agents. It could be sheer coincidence that the Isro spy case hit headlines within five months of Sehgal joining the IB as its additional director. My book raises these disturbing facts. If my book is false and baseless, I should have been prosecuted long back.
Three years after my book was published, Brian Harvey, a former BBC correspondent, described how the CIA sabotaged India’s cryogenic dreams in his book, Russia in Space: The Failed Frontier? More importantly, the joint statement by five top scientists in India and TN Seshan reads: ‘The espionage case reveals that the country’s space programme, or for that matter other strategic programmes, may no longer be immune to outside interference.’ For any responsible government, all this is more than sufficient material to order a comprehensive probe. But none of the seven governments that came to power in India after the Chief Judicial Magistrate, Kochi, dismissed the Isro espionage case as ‘false’ took any effective step to identify who all were instrumental in fabricating it.
It leads to a very disturbing question: who are the traitors? Those who had ‘spied’ and given cryogenic rocket technology to Pakistan even though we don’t have that technology? Or, as I have shown in my book, the IB, which planted the Isro espionage story, through the Kerala Police, to promote American business interests? Or the successive governments, since 1995, that have been trying their best not to allow into the public domain any discussion on who fabricated the Isro espionage case and why?