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A Wayward Rocket

BJP digs up the ISRO spy case, a scientist faces a bitter past

A Wayward Rocket
A Wayward Rocket
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The Spy Who Never Was

  • December 1994 ISRO spy scandal hits headlines. Scientists Nambi Narayanan and D. Sasikumaran accused of selling cryogenic technology. Two Maldivian women dragged into the case.
  • 1995 Kerala CM Karunakaran resigns
  • 1996 CBI clears Narayanan’s name, reinstated in ISRO
  • 1998 SC acquits all accused
  • 1999 Narayanan files compensation suit
  • 2001 NHRC orders state govt to pay Rs 1 crore compensation
  • 2012 HC orders immediate payment of interim relief, Rs 10 lakh paid
  • 2013 BJP rakes up issue in its tirade against R.B. Sreekumar

***

Politics has a habit of dredging up old dirt. The scandal that shook the political and scientific establishment in Kerala long ago—the 1994 ISRO spy case—is back in news. The case had not only ruined the careers of senior scientists Nambi Naraya­nan and D. Sasikumaran but also led to the fall of the K. Karu­nakaran-led Con­gress governm­ent and cast aspersions on former DGP Ramon Srivastava. The charges against the scientists were dismissed in ’96 and was thrown out by the Sup­reme Court in ’98. Activist-lawyer A. Jayashankar says, “It was a conspiracy between certain media hou­ses and groups within the Con­gress. The media blew it out of proportion. It was tragic that good scientists like Nara­yanan and Sasi­kumaran were dragged into this.”

A decade and a half later, it’s the BJP’s turn to use the story. Sore at former Gujarat DGP R.B. Sreekumar testifying against the Modi government in the fake encounter cases—potential dynamite it wants badly to defuse—it has stumbled on his controversial role (as an IB official) while investigating the ISRO case. Sree­kumar has been charged by many—including by the CBI—of not conducting a fair probe; some even accuse him of cooking up charges against the scientists. The BJP alleges that Sreekumar’s role as an upright cop speaking the truth is just payback to the UPA for helping hush up his culpability in the ISRO case.

Amidst this political wrangle, Nambi Narayanan finds himself caught in the spotlight again. Speaking from Thiruvan­anthapuram, Narayanan says, “My career and life was ruined because of a concocted story by Sibi Mathews (present chief information commissioner) and Sreekumar. Even though my name was cleared by the courts, not a single Kerala CM wanted to hear my version.” Then he makes an interesting revelation: one morning in September, a BJP aide called up Narayanan to tell him that Narendra Modi, who was in Ker­ala, wanted to talk to him. “The meeting barely lasted 10 minutes,” says Naraya­nan. “Modi wanted to know more about my case. He hugged me and said it was the most unfortunate thing that could happen to anyone. I am a scientist and not bothered about  politics, but I want justice and compensation for the years I have lost.”

In December 1994, Nambi Nar­ayanan, a cryogenic scientist at ISRO and a leading expert of indigenous rocket technology, was charged with selling cryog­enic technology to foreign operatives. Narayanan was thrown into prison for 50 days (and tor­tured, he alleges, by Sreekumar’s men) and his reputation des­t­r­oyed. And true to any spy thriller, an essential ingredient, women, was added to sex it up. The case spelt doom for ISRO’s cryogenic programme too. The GSLV rocket based on cryogenic technology has still not been launched.

Narayanan, who took his master’s in chemical rocket propulsion from Princeton University in 1969, and worked under Vikram Sara­bhai, Satish Dhawan and U.R. Rao at ISRO, was a broken man by the end of the ordeal. His relatives speak of his deep dejection after being falsely implicated, and how he lost all interest in the space programme that had once circumscribed his life.

After the CBI cleared his name and the Supreme Court too acquitted all the accused in the spy case, Narayanan was reinstated in ISRO. In 1999, he filed a compensation suit; the respondents included the state and Union government and IB officials, one of them being Sreekumar. In 2001, the National Human Rights Commission headed by retired SC judge J.S. Verma ordered the Kerala government to pay Rs 10 lakh as interim immediate relief. In 2012, the Kerala government dropped charges against the police officers for ‘unprofessional conduct’ in the ISRO case, something a CBI probe had recommended.

The BJP’s raking up the ISRO spy case will not return one of India’s top rocket scientists the best years of his career. What it can do is prompt the state government to overlook the bitterness of a long-settled legal tangle and settle the issue in a humane manner with him. The politics is another matter.

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