IN THE SPARTAN living room of his home not far from the West Fort area of Thiruvananthapuram, cobwebs hang from the walls and ceiling with benign indifference. Inside the tall cupboard that partitions the room midway are pictures of a young man with his wife in Paris and at Princeton, where he had spent his formative years as a space scientist. In those photos, the young S Nambi Narayanan could be mistaken for a foreigner. “But that is me. My hair has always been grey,” says the 75-year-old. He is widely credited with setting up the liquid fuel rocket technology and cryogenics divisions at the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) before his stellar career was cut short in 1994 by false accusations of selling secrets of the Indian space programme to enemies of the nation. Ironically, the unscrupulous policemen, intelligence officers and wily politicians who made those allegations walked away with impunity and lack of remorse as the dust of the scandal settled, even though it took a few years for Narayanan to be reinstated at ISRO.
Perhaps symbolic of how his life has changed since that distant morning when the police barged into his Perunthani home in Kerala’s capital to arrest him, so much dust has gathered on his living room coffee table that it appears impossible to get rid of. “My life has only gone from bad to worse,” declares Narayanan matter-of-factly, emphasising that India’s cryogenics project was delayed by nearly two decades as a result of the fabricated case that sapped the morale of senior scientists. In a hard-hitting report on the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and the Kerala Police, the CBI had dismissed charges against him in 1996, two years after he faced public humiliation and the brutish onslaught of mob patriotism. The same year he was reinstated in his position as a senior scientist at ISRO, but said he wouldn’t be the same person again. He also argued that because a lot of changes had taken place at the Organisation since he had been away, he wouldn’t be able to work with the same level of passion as he used to.
Two years later, the Supreme Court also exonerated him of all charges and asked the state government to pay him Rs 1 lakh for expenses incurred to fight the case. In 1999, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) asked the Kerala government to pay Rs 10 lakh immediately as interim compensation to Narayanan for the mental and physical torture he and his family had been put through between 1994 and 1996. He did receive the payout of Rs 10 lakh, but only in 2012, eleven years after he retired from ISRO.
To say this is a case of overly delayed justice that is typical of 19th century classics and Bollywood movies is not an understatement, a senior bureaucrat familiar with the case tells Open, referring to Narayanan’s plight. “I am appalled by the silence of the leader writers and also the politicians who presided over this farce of a case to gain a political edge in the 1990s,” he says, adding that wrongdoers should be exposed and punished.
Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy is suspected to have used the fictitious ISRO spy case to the hilt as a political ploy to force his rival, the state’s then Chief Minister K Karunakaran, to resign
He is right. But then Narayanan is not cast in the mould of a Count of Monte Cristo or a Bollywood hero out to avenge injustice. He is a man of a different world, a nonpareil space scientist with an intellect beyond most of us. At times one gets the feeling that he doesn’t hold much of a grudge against even those who have caused him such trauma. His current pursuit seems to be to get the truth out and put his life back on track, financially. After 20 years of court battle, Rs 11 lakh is all that Narayanan has got of the Rs 1 crore he had demanded from the state government for framing him in a fictitious spy case and for allowing his family and friends to be persecuted, thanks to the whimsical ways of its officers and those of the IB.
At the height of what became popular in Kerala as the ‘chara (espionage) case’—which would later be mockingly referred to as a ‘charam’ (ash) case— Narayanan’s wife was once asked to get out of an auto-rickshaw by a driver when he realised her identity, saying he didn’t want to ply the relative of an ‘anti-national’. Fed misinformation by the police and the IB, local dailies had sensationalised the story of ISRO scientists Narayanan and D Sasikumaran, Russian space firm Glavkosmos’ representative K Chandra Shekhar and businessman SK Sharma as having sold the nation’s secrets to Maldivian citizens Mariam Rasheeda and Fouzia Hassan in exchange for money and sexual favours. One of the women was described by a daily as a nymph who ‘writhed like tuna’ in bed and as a man-eater who drove around the streets of Thiruvananthapuram at dusk in a Ferrari hunting for men.
A FEW MONTHS AGO, frustrated with inordinate delays and mounting debt, the ageing Narayanan had shot off a letter to Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh to help in the case. “Though my case is against the state government, the Centre can also settle the case because the IB, which framed me in the case, is also involved in it. It is such a small figure for any government to pay. But for me, it would be a huge help to get compensation of that amount,” reasons Narayanan, who doesn’t wish to disclose details of the loans he has had to take over the decades to fight for justice. At one point, expensive lawyers like Harish Salve had appeared for him in the Supreme Court. Narayanan had earlier met Prime Minister Narendra Modi and had also written a letter to him requesting his attention to the issue of his long-pending plea for compensation.
Narayanan says he has managed pay off part of his loans. “I paid off loans with interest first, and I would want to pay off loans given by friends without interest very soon,” says the man who as a young scientist had introduced liquid propulsion systems in India back in the early 1970s. Narayanan had famously backed the idea of using liquid fuels instead of solid ones—which former president and space scientist Abdul Kalam had favoured—at ISRO, and went on to create the Vikas liquid fuelled rocket engine used in the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) and the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) series of launch vehicles. Narayanan is proud that Vikas has proved to be a highly reliable engine, especially in carrying heavy satellites into space. The PSLV has successfully carried 35 satellites into space, including those in the historic missions like Chandrayaan-1, Mars Orbiter Mission and so on.
Narayanan would have loved to launch both the liquid fuels division and the cryogenics division together. Former Chief Election Commissioner TN Seshan, who at the time was director, administration, at ISRO, had backed Narayanan, but the then ISRO Chairman, Satish Dhawan, one of Narayanan’s well-wishers, had opined, “Let’s learn to stand and walk before running [with liquid propulsion].” The start of the cryogenic engine projects was thus delayed for more than 15 years.
“It is an irony that a person who has contributed heavily for all of this with undisputed patriotism was a victim of a conspiracy and nationalistic outcries,” Narayanan rues. He is, however, happy that top investigating agencies in the country and the court have trashed the ISRO spy case as a false one, besides identifying officers and others behind such a cooked-up case. But he is upset that no inquiry has been constituted to prove their motive. “I am glad that excellent officers such as DR Karthikeyan, Arun Bhagat, Ashok Kumar, ML Sharma, PM Nair, PC Sharma and others had a uniform opinion of the spy case: that it was a false one. The CBI themselves have found that the case was fabricated. They also found out those who were behind it, including police officers like Sibi Mathews, KK Joshwa and S Vijayan who probed the case, besides IB officers who include RB Sreekumar, Mathew John, GS Nair and six others.”
An otherwise composed Narayanan has some angry questions to ask: who is the real anti-national here? The person who worked hard to develop his country’s space programme or the ones who fabricated charges of a case that never existed? Clearly, the case has demoralised senior scientists of the Government-run premier space research organisation. According to Narayanan, the so-called ISRO spy case has delayed crucial advances in the country’s space programme by 10-15 years. Which is why it is imperative that the government finds out the motive of the people behind the case, he avers.
Motives that are routinely churned out by political analysts include the sexual interest of police officer Vijayan; political manoeuvring by Congress dissidents led by current Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy who wanted to unseat the then Chief Minister K Karunakaran by dragging him into the case; the designs of the opposition Left, and so on. “It is no secret that Vijayan, then a sub-inspector of police, had a thing for Mariam Rasheeda and had got her arrested for overstaying in India by purposely confiscating her passport and disallowing her to leave before her visa expired,” says a senior Thiruvananthapuram-based police officer. “Oommen Chandy and others who wanted to anoint AK Antony Chief Minister launched a campaign saying Karunakaran was a spy and an anti-national. [Karunakaran] was deeply hurt, and I don’t think he ever recovered from the shock after people hurled abuses at him at a public function, calling him a ‘charan’ (spy),” says a senior Congress leader who was close to the politician.
RB Sreekumar, who was deputy director of the Intelligence Bureau at the time the ISRO spy scandal surfaced, has come under sharp attack for lack of proper supervision, integrity and devotion to duty
A senior CPM leader charges the current Chief Minister with being unkind to Narayanan. Chandy was at the forefront of the ‘patriotic’ campaign unleashed over the phony espionage case to score a political edge over a Congress leader who was considered invincible, but could be hobbled thanks to a vitriolic campaign that tapped patriotic sentiments. The Marxists were equally to blame. Till date, none of them has bothered to apologise to Narayanan and other victims of the bogus case. Rumours were rife some months ago that the Congress government had pressured a renowned actor to give up an offer to play the role of Narayanan in a Bollywood movie.
There could still be more to the case than meets the eye. Narayanan and team had just begun working on cryogenic engine development in early 1990s and had signed a deal with Russia’s Glavkosmos for this purpose. The ties between New Delhi and Moscow were very good, but the Soviet Union had crumbled and American influence on the Russian state was rising rapidly. Soon, the Russians invoked the ‘force majeure’ option to exit the contract, ostensibly under pressure from the Americans, who allegedly didn’t want India to become a commercial competitor. Strangely, the US is said to have objected to the deal citing Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) norms. Interestingly, cryogenic engines are never used in missiles, and are a godsend for space programmes thanks to their capacity to carry heavy satellites. Besides, cryogenic engines cannot be used to launch missiles because they cannot be launched in a short time. Notably, the US itself had competed for ISRO’s cryogenics engine bid alongside Russia and European Space Agency (ESA). India found the Russian KVD-1 engine superior.
ISRO overcame the crisis by modifying the contract in 1993—by advancing payments to advance supplies. The shipments were made from Moscow to Delhi on covert flights by Ural Airlines. It was after this, considered a great accomplishment for ISRO, that Narayanan and D Sasikumaran were arrested. Doubts over the motives of the arrests were raised in a book by Brian Harvey, titled Russia in Space: The Failed Frontier?
Narayanan remembers that Air India had refused to carry the shipments from Moscow, arguing that the airline may be blacklisted by the US for doing so. Which is why he had to hire Ural Airlines to carry “what was a legal cargo supplied by Russians under the contract”, he points out. As someone who had built the architecture of the liquid engine systems (in earth-storable as well as in cryogenic engines) from scratch, Narayanan feels that there could have been a mole within ISRO who acted at the behest of others who didn’t want India to make such strides in cryogenic engines. In fact, Narayanan was surprised when he was asked by an IB official why he used Ural Airlines to get Russian cargo to India via Karachi. “It was known only to a handful of people, so how did the interrogator know the name of the flight and the route? It was a surprise to me,” explains Narayanan. Perhaps someone else didn’t want India to be a commercial competitor. “See, it was the cryogenic engine division executives who were targeted. Narayanan, project director, cryogenic division, ISRO was targeted, Sasikumaran, deputy director of the same division, was targeted. The Russian company representative who was helping with the buy was targeted. Why so?” asks Narayanan.
Narayanan’s home was not raided before the arrest to look for evidence of his ‘selling secrets to foreigners’, perhaps purposely so. “The state police had mala fide intentions and perhaps knew very well that there would be no evidence against him. The way IB officers such as RB Sreekumar behaved goes beyond any logic,” says a senior police officer based in Thiruvananthapuram. Open also reviewed a 13 December 2004 Ministry of Home Affairs order proposing an inquiry into the activities of Sreekumar in the ISRO case. It is no secret that not much came out of the inquiry, prompting many insiders to suggest that it was a sloppy affair. The order had stated that ‘the action of Shri RB Sreekumar, while working as a supervisory member of the team reflects lacks of proper supervision, integrity and devotion to duty on his part which is an act unbecoming of the service under Rule 3(1) and rule 3(2) of All India Services (Conduct) Rules, 1968’. His tenure as DGP Gujarat has also stirred a controversy with the then opposition BJP suggesting that there was a quid pro quo deal between him and the UPA to target Modi, who was then Gujarat Chief Minister. Incidentally, Rattan Sehgal, a counter intelligence chief of the IB who was associated with the ISRO case probe, had been accused of having worked for the CIA, resulting in his exit from the IB in late 1996.
Narayanan, a Princeton alumnus who had declined lucrative jobs at NASA and other space research organisations to work in India, says he wants the Centre to offer him his compensation while the state government procrastinates. He has also appealed to the Centre to create a pool of experts—from agencies such as CBI, NIA, IB and so on—to review cases that could thwart the country’s development in key sectors like space if dealt with unjustly. Having seen ISRO grow from a 26-member unit to a 25,000-plus entity at close quarters, he is writing a book on it.
As he walks me to the door, Narayanan tells me that despite setbacks he is ready to stick it out till the bitter end. He also recalls that in a similar case, the Australian government had paid an undisclosed sum as damages to an Indian-origin doctor, Mohamed Haneef, who was wrongly charged with a failed bomb plot in 2007 in the UK. But he hasn’t been that lucky. The determination of this septuagenarian to fight on is awe-inspiring, as is his ability to conquer hatred for those who wronged him. They killed his career, but they could not kill his spirit.