Slap a Case, Ruin a Life

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After 18 years of humiliation, Dr Nambi Narayanan, an ISRO scientist falsely implicated in an espionage case, has finally been vindicated

On 30 November 1994, a team of policemen barged into the house of Dr Nambi Narayanan, a senior scientist with Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), and said they were taking him into custody. As he got into the police van, Narayanan looked back and saw his wife collapsing on the floor. He couldn’t check on her because he was forced into the vehicle. He thought he was being taken to a police station, but it was to a government guesthouse. There, in a dark room, surrounded by four or five policemen, the interrogation began. For every answer he gave, he was beaten up. Badly. “It continued for three days,” he says.

He was told that he was part of an espionage ring, someone who had sold India’s rocket technology to enemies for profit. Altogether, Narayanan spent 50 days in jail and acquired the will to survive from a serial killer. Ripper, who had killed 14 people, had been brought to Viyyur Central Jail in Thrissur after a failed escape attempt at another jail. Narayanan was in the adjacent cell. “He did not call me a ‘traitor’. He was talking as if he trusted me and knew that I had been framed in a fabricated case. In that moment I realised that nobody can bury the truth forever,” he says.

Eighteen years later, it is now a season of confession in Kerala, sparked by a Kerala High Court judgment that upheld a 2001 National Human Rights Commission verdict to give Dr Narayanan Rs 10 lakh as compensation. For someone stamped a traitor, arrested, tortured, humiliated and erased from public memory, the money means nothing. But the same newspapers and magazines responsible for his ordeal are now awash with stories on how Narayanan lost his life, his career and reputation, courtesy an ugly nexus of politicians, police and the media.

“Many journalists, who had contributed to that conspiracy [theory], later came to me and apologised. One reporter even cried and told me that he stopped trusting police sources forever. I have no problem with any of them. They were news hungry and used whatever information they got. I can understand,” he says. The wounds, however, have not healed. “Who will give my life back? The most productive years in the career of a scientist lost for absolutely no reason. Who will compensate?”

Narayanan started his career at ISRO in 1966 when Vikram Sarabhai was heading the organisation. He had just got a degree in mechanical engineering. “Dr Vikram was very fond of me. He took the initiative to send me to Princeton University in America for a PhD. It was a great opportunity to meet and learn from the most talented scientists across the world. I had attractive offers from reputed institutions including NASA soon after my PhD, but I came back to ISRO,” he says.

Once back, he had some innovative ideas for ISRO. “I was dreaming of developing a liquid fuel rocket. That time, Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, my colleague, was working on solid fuel rockets. The liquid one was a rather challenging idea. We all worked hard for the project to materialise. I had been to France to develop the technology and slowly the dream was accomplished. We called it the Vikas engine, which later became the foundation of PSLV,” he says.

The ISRO espionage ‘case’ surfaced on 20 November 1994 when a Maldivian woman, Mariam Rasheeda, was arrested from a hotel in Thiruvananthapuram on charges of overstaying after the expiry of her visa. In the days that followed, the story took a startling turn. The police said she was a spy, and not just for one country—she was said to be an intelligence agent for Russia, the ISI and the international rocket technology mafia across the world. Based on her alleged confessions, Narayanan was arrested from his Thiruvananthapuram residence on 30 November.

The police fed the media conspiracy theories about India’s space technology being smuggled out by a network of scientists like Narayanan and spies like Mariam Rasheeda and another Maldivian woman, Fauzia Hassan. No one bothered to verify the handouts, and every morning, Kerala’s newspaper readers woke up to new spicy bits on the two women and the lifestyle of Narayanan and others.

The main charge was that Narayanan had sold the technology for cryogenic engines to an agency in Russia through the Maldivian women. He says it was an absurd allegation because even now India has not got the technology. “No mediaperson asked the police how it was possible to sell something we never had,” says Narayanan.

The state government turned the case over to the CBI, which later found that the whole story had been cooked up by the Kerala police. It filed a closure report in a special court in Ernakulam along with a recommendation for action against the police officers who had fabricated the story. By then, the case had taken on political overtones. The then IG, Raman Srivastava, was one of the suspects, and there was enormous pressure on (the late) K Karunakaran, Chief Minister at the time, to take action against the officer. He refused and had to resign after a media campaign alleged he was protecting the accused. It was suspected that rivals in Karunakaran’s own party were behind it. It marked his downfall and he never became Chief Minister again. When the CPM-led LDF government came to power, it withdrew the go-ahead given to the CBI and ordered a reinvestigation. It had made it an issue against the Congress government while in opposition, and once in power couldn’t be seen backtracking. The reinvestigation was approved by the High Court in December 1995. The CBI went to the Supreme Court against it, and in 1998, the apex court quashed the reinvestigation. All the accused were acquitted. In a subsequent order by the National Human Rights Commission, the Government was asked to release Rs 10 lakh to Nambi Narayanan as interim compensation. The Kerala government meanwhile continued the witch-hunt and sought a stay on the NHRC order from the High Court. On 7 September this year, the High Court vacated the stay.

Narayanan is now 71 years old. After 18 years, when he narrates the whole story again, his voice is impersonal but sharp. It still has vigour. During the three days of interrogation, he was not even given a chair to sit. On the second day, he did ask for one. “You don’t deserve a chair in this country, because you are a spy, a traitor to the nation,” an officer told him, he says. “Nothing was more wounding than that,” he recalls. After that, he asked for nothing, not even water to drink. On the third day, he dropped unconscious. The frightened policemen brought a doctor who warned them that Narayanan’s condition was so critical that he could die. “If the interrogation had continued for one more day, I wouldn’t have survived,” he says. After his eventual release, one of the first things he did was go to that doctor and ask him to be a witness on his case of torture. “He said nothing but took a piece of paper and wrote in detail what my condition was when he met me. He put his signature, gave me the paper and said that was all he could do for me. But he said he would not change his statement even if he was intimidated,” says Narayanan.

His experience with the CBI team was entirely different from the state police. “Throughout three days of interrogation by the Kerala police, I was treated like a criminal and subjected to brutal torture. The investigating officer, Siby Mathews, was not present. He turned up another day on my request and spent a few minutes. He did not ask me anything and only said that he had not expected me to commit such a crime,” he says. The CBI officers, on the other hand, were courteous and professional. “They asked me to take my seat and introduced themselves, displaying their identification cards. They also informed me in advance that they were recording the whole process. The interrogation went on for eight hours and they listened to me carefully. By the end, an officer asked me to relax and sleep. He told me to ask if I needed anything, like water or food.” 

Life was difficult for him after his release from jail. It was difficult to face people. The family—wife, daughter, son and Narayanan—spent most of their time at home in “dreadful silence”. “We rarely talked. It was like an uncertain wait for the burial of a body kept at home,” he says.

Who and what exactly was behind the espionage story is still something of a mystery. The conspiracy took shape at different levels and Narayanan believes he got caught in the crossfire of people settling scores with one another. At the police station level, it was said that the sub-inspector responsible for arresting Mariam Rasheeda allegedly wanted to hush up some sexual advances he had made when she came to extend her visa. At the political level, the opposition and rival Congress factions made it an issue as a means to target Karunakaran, whose political career was hurt by the case.

The recent High Court verdict is only a partial victory. “The real masterminds behind the whole fabrication should be punished.” Even the questions raised by Narayanan remain unaddressed. What prompted the CPM government to order a reinvestigation in the case? The CBI had recommended action against the policemen responsible for this frame-up. So far no action has been taken against any of them. The then investigating officer, Siby Mathews, retired as DGP last year and is now serving as the state’s Chief Information Commissioner. “Can anybody explain what this alleged cryogenic technology is and how I turned it over to a woman who had studied up to the tenth standard? Is technology something you hand over in a carrybag? If it were a genuine case, they would have looked into my assets. I didn’t even own a car at the time. No raid was conducted at my home and they could furnish no evidence of any illegal income. What was the reason for not conducting an investigation into allegations that there had been an international conspiracy to damage ISRO? A recently published book, Russia in Space, The Failed Frontier, by Brian Harvey, discloses that the CIA was involved in fabricating the case. Why is the Government not looking into such a serious allegation?” he asks.

Narayanan now lives in Thiruvananthapuram with his wife. He is working on a book about the case and how it affected ISRO’s growth. Before his life was uprooted, Narayanan had dedicated 28 years of his life to ISRO. “I was not a good family man. I spent very little time with them. I lived only to develop new ideas in our rocket science. The time I spent, the hard work I did, the passion and dreams I cherished—everything came to a sudden end.”