WAS the role of the Intelligence Bureau (IB) in the ISRO spy scandal motivated? Even as the Kerala government has been directed by the Supreme Court to pay Rs 1 lakh each to the six accused, a hard-hitting CBI report submitted two years ago to the Centre recommending "necessary action" against senior IB officials responsible for "lapses" in the case has been put under wraps. The report severely indicts D.C. Pathak, the then IB director, and nine other senior officers for mishandling the investigation and sending unverified reports to the prime minister and home minister. This is perhaps the first time that an IB chief has been indicted.
But why did the IB act in such a manner?Was it a mistake on the part of senior IB officials or was it a deliberate attempt to frame the top ISRO scientists? The CBI report does not touch upon this angle, but one theory emanating from the IB itself is that Mariam Rasheeda, a Maldivian accused in the case, was set up by some foreign agency in order to humiliate two key ISRO scientists, D. Sasikumaran and S. Nambi Narayan, demoralise their colleagues and thereby slow down the indigenous cryogenic engines project.
The CBI report claims the IB was the main organisation responsible for creating an imaginary spy-ring and falsely implicating the two Indian space scientists. In the process, the CBI brief might give the acquitted persons a handle to file defamation cases against the IB officials.
The report points out how Pathak issued unofficial notes based on unconfirmed information, implicating innocent people like Kerala IGP Ramon Srivastava. "The Director IB (DIB) sent several notes referred to above to important functionaries, little realising that those notes from the DIB would be treated as authentic and having been sent after careful verification and consequences of report being false or untrue would be serious," it says.
The ISRO probe was handed over to the CBI after the IB opined that the case had "international ramifications". On initiating investigations, the CBI found that the information collected by the IB and the Kerala police was not only false but was forcefully extracted from the six accused—Mariam Rasheeda, Fouzia Hassan (both Maldivian citizens), Nambi Narayan, Sasikumaran, Glavkosmos representative K. Chandra-shekhar and businessman S.K. Sharma. It filed its closure report on April 30, 1996, recommending that the accused be discharged.
Soon after coming to power in Kerala, the LDF government ordered further investigations. This was successfully challenged by the CBI in the Supreme Court, which passed strictures against the state government.
Even though the CBI's brief did not include an investigation into the real 'motive' of the IB officials for creating a false case, it has indicted the IB in unequivocal terms. The 32-page report—marked "confidential", details of which are available with Outlook—shows the country's premier counter-intelligence agency in a poor light. The contents, so far unreported, also throw light on the "unprofessional" and shoddy manner in which investigations were carried out by the IB.
The CBI report was sent by DIG Sharad Kumar to the home secretary on June 3, 1996. It notes: "During the course of investigation of RC 11(S)/94 (ISRO case), certain lapses on the part of some officers of the Central Intelligence Bureau came to light. A self-contained note in this regard is enclosed herewith for necessary action as deemed fit." After questioning several IB officials associated with the probe, the CBI has named, apart from Pathak, at least nine IB officers: deputy director R. B. Srikumar; joint director Mathew John; assistant director C.R.R. Nair; DCIO G.S. Nair; DCIO K.V. Thomas; DCIO M.J. Punen; ACIO (Kochi) P.S Jaiprakash; DD-SIB (Mumbai) C.M. Ravindran; and DCIO (Delhi) V.K. Maini.
The report observes: "The aforesaid IB officials comprising the team enquiring into ISRO case acted in an unprofessional manner and were privy to the arrest of six innocent persons, thereby causing them immense mental and physical agony." It categorically indicts Mathew John and Srikumar for "failing in their duty to conduct the inquiry in an objective and fair manner".
Sources in ISRO say the conspiracy theory needs to be investigated. They feel the need to check India's advances in rocket propulsion was an economic necessity for others. Giant corporations in the US and France were providing launch rockets for Indian satellites for $50-60 million. Their business interests were bound to have been severely affected if ISRO developed its own propulsion technology. Moreover, ISRO also had a long-term plan to enter the launch technology market and provide services cheaper than the western corporations.
Interestingly, a year before the scandal broke the then ISRO chairman, U.R. Rao, had accused commercial powers like the US of obstructing India's attempt at self-reliance in space technology. Earlier, the US had clamped a two-year embargo on the sale and transfer of space technology to India for alleged violation of the MTCR (missile technology control regime) rules. ISRO was also deprived of Russian support in the development of cryogenic technology at the instance of the US.
Nambi Narayan and Sasikumaran had visited Glavkosmos, the Russian space agency, to facilitate the transfer of cryogenic technology. The spy scandal, according to Sasikumaran, effectively broke the chain of scientists working on the project.
According to IB sources, senior Bureau officials may have knowingly or unwittingly played into the hands of an international lobby. And it was the IB in Delhi which monitored the case and provided the state police with "vital" clues.
The entire episode has once again brought into sharp focus the issue of transparency and accountability of the country's intelligence agencies. Certain important questions regarding the IB's style of functioning and the conduct of some of its officials still remain unanswered. And, experts say, only a thorough probe can provide satisfactory answers.
The ISRO case has become the burning example of the manner in which Indian intelligence agencies function. The CBI report indicates how an innocuous-looking case of a foreign national extending a visit can be blown out of proportion by torturing the accused physically and mentally to extract "confessions". The case began on October 20, 1994, with the arrest of Rasheeda, a Maldivian citizen who had overstayed in India without a valid visa. Incidentally, Rasheeda happened to be a former agent of the Maldivian intelligence agency, the National Security Service, and had jotted down some information about the activities of a group opposed to the Maldivian president Ghayoom in her personal diary.
Believing that they had tumbled across a major spy-ring around India's space programme, the IB officials jumped the gun. A special emissary was sent to "inform" Ghayoom about the plot being hatched to overthrow him. "The authorities in Male laughed at this information because the person who was said to be one of the conspirators was present in the meeting," says a former IB Joint Director. But IB decided to go ahead with its operation anyway.
The questions which have now come to the fore are: was IB playing into the hands of an outside agency? Was it used by certain outside agency/corporation to deflate India's space programme by discrediting India's top-notch space scientists like Nambi Narayan and Sasikumaran? "It is rather impossible to buy over the entire organisation, but one or two core people can always be influenced," says a senior CBI official associated with the probe. He also points out that projects in space research are carried out by a team of experts from different disciplines. "You pull out one or two of them and the chain is broken, destroying the entire project," he explains.
THAT the IB sleuths conducted the investigation in a shoddy manner without checking the veracity of the information gathered is evident from the interrogation reports submitted by the IB. The report of one of the accused K. Chandrashekhar gives information about "the suspected KGB men" who operated in India. It reads: "In respect of Indian contacts, Lalit Suri of Holiday Inn, Delhi, having rice deal with USSR and Saurab Chaudhary (of Power Tools) s/o Indrajit Gupta, MP, are the prominent ones." The reports are not signed, a typical IB methodology to shirk accountability.
In fact, nothing significant came out of Rasheeda's interrogation till the Kerala police seized her personal diary which contained notes on the activities of the anti-Ghayoom faction. From then on, the IB's role became prominent. The CBI report notes that after the IB came into the scene, it took Rasheeda from the Kerala police and kept her separately in a CRPF guest house. According to Inspector K. Vijayan of the Kerala police, who first arrested Rasheeda: "The IB wanted the local police to be kept out of all activities, including interrogation."
And how did the IB force Rasheeda to speak? The CBI report says: "The IB officials told Rasheeda...if she did not tell the truth, she would be stripped naked and would be made to lie on ice and insects would be thrown on her body."
After thorough investigation the CBI arrived at the following conclusions:
Significantly, Pathak's role has come under heavy criticism. He drew sweeping conclusions about certain people without confirming the information sent to him from his subordinates based in Thiruvananthapuram. Pathak sent an unofficial (UO) note (No. 303/DIB/DESP/94) on November 21, 1994, saying that a Hyderabad-based businessman, M.T.A.R. Ravindra Reddy, an important person in the spy-ring, had "business dealings" with Prabhakar Rao, son of the then prime minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao, but later contradicted it. IB sources said Nara-simha Rao was peeved at Pathak's letter but did not shunt him out to avoid yet another controversy involving his son.
Not only this, Pathak advised that Ramon Srivastava, IG Police, Kerala, be brought into the ambit of the case without spelling out the evidence on record against him. The CBI report notes that "the DIB first issued UO notes to highest functionaries in the government of India indicating involvement of Ramon Srivastava, M.T.A.R. Ravindra Reddy and others and subsequently negated his own version given in the earlier notes". Insiders say normally a deputy director is allowed to sign a report unless it is of a highly sensitive nature but Pathak clearly went overboard.
The ISRO case has brought the old question of accountability of the intelligence agencies to the fore. In fact, a move initiated by BJP leader Jaswant Singh in 1989 as chairman of the Parliament Estimates Committee to bring RAW, IB and CBI under the ambit of parliamentary scrutiny was resisted tooth and nail by intelligence mandarins. The Supreme Court's observation and the CBI report on the 'lapses' by the IB provide a good opportunity to the Atal Behari Vajpayee government to pick up the lead and set the country's intelligence system in order.