February 21, 2020
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Spies In The Sky

The CBI comes under a cloud as the ISRO case is reopened

Spies In The Sky

THE CBI which investigated the espionage scandal in the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) did not probe to the logical end the movements of Kerala inspector general of police Ramon Srivastava despite a clear lead from a senior Bangalore police official. The CBI questioned A.R. Infant, an IPS officer, soon after it took over the case from the Kerala Police and the Intelligence Bureau (IB) in December '94. He confirmed Srivastava had visited Bangalore, where ISRO is headquartered, on September 11, 1994.

Infant told the CBI that Srivastava had phoned him from Thiruvananthapuram and requested for a car. The request was met with. Two drivers, Prakash and Krishnaiah, from the motor transport section of the Bangalore City Armed Reserve took the Kerala IGP around in a white Ambassador (CAG 250). Independent investigations by Outlook reveal that during the day-long trip, the IGP visited a state-owned guesthouse. Srivastava later sent a letter thanking Infant for his hospitality. But....

The CBI didn't proceed further. It didn't record Infant's statement or convey it to the Kerala High Court. It didn't make public the statements of the two chauffeurs. It didn't tell the court where the IGP had gone in ISRO-city, whom he met, and what he did. And it didn't present the sheets of the police log book, containing details of Srivastava's movements, which were taken away after interrogating the two drivers.

Infant's on-record admission lends a fresh dimension to the ISRO scandal, which was declared closed two months ago after the CBI presented a 104-page report stating that the charges of spying had been found fabricated. Its attempt to keep the court in the dark about the IGP's trip calls its sincerity into question. In its report, the CBI merely said Srivastava had stayed at the house of P.N. Srivastava, an air force officer-friend, and gone shopping.

This fortnight, the E.K. Nayanar Government rescinded the authorisation given by the Karunakaran regime to the CBI to probe the scandal. As per the CPI(M)'s poll promise, a special team of Kerala Police officials was asked to reinvestigate the case with the help of the IB and RAW. Nayanar said the CBI inquiry had failed to accomplish its objective, and a second look was called for.

The scam broke in November 1994 with the arrest of a Maldivian woman, Mariam Rasheeda, for allegedly overstaying in India. Leads obtained from Rasheeda's interrogation led the IB to Fauzia Hassan, another Maldivian. Fauzia allegedly got drawings of the Viking-Vikas and cryogenic engines being developed by ISRO, and flight data and records of ISRO's Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle from Bangalore-based Glavkosmos agent K. Chandrashekharan and his accomplice S.K. Sharma in a Madras hotel on January 23-24, 1994. The documents had allegedly been given by two ISRO scientists: S. Nambinarayanan and P. Sasikumaran of the Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre, Thiruvananthapuram. Fauzia said the papers were exchanged for dollars in thepresence of S.K. Sharma, an entrepreneur, and Srivastava. Mariam and Fauzia were jailed. Nambinarayanan and Sasikumaran faced ignominy. IGP Srivastava was suspended from service by Karunakaran after the High Court found prima facie grounds.

Initial inquiries by the Kerala Police and the IB revealed sensational details. According to a public interest litigation filed before the court by a retired IB officer, Chandrashekharan had told interrogators that Mechanical Tool Aid and Reconditioning (MTAR), a Hyderabad-based company awarded the contract by ISRO for manufacturing the Viking-Vikas engine, had sold information about the engine and cryogenic technology to foreign countries.

Sources in the Nayanar cabinet say the decision to reopen the case was prompted by what IB officials found about MTAR managing partner Raveendra Reddy's links. He reportedly had business dealings with P.V. Prabhakar Rao, son of P.V. Narasimha Rao. But, after a mysterious, one-day trip to Thiruvananthapuram by the then prime minister, coupled with a visit by CBI chief K. Vijaya Rama Rao, the Kerala Police and the IB were taken off the job. The CBI was told to take over through a fax communication, though any case to be probed by the agency has to be notified in the state gazette. The CBI's brief: to establish the nature of secret documents missing from ISRO; to ascertain if military secrets had been smuggled out; to find out how the accused got these papers; to probe IGP Srivastava's involvement.

After a 17-month investigation, the CBI informed the High Court in April-end that there was no case. But IGP Srivastava's name evoked more than passing interest, and the reopening of the case brings him back into focus. The CPI and CPI(M) had accused Karunakaran of shielding his protege. The Congress charged the Opposition with pronouncing the IGP guilty sans trial. The High Court was told that most interrogations had revealed that Srivastava was involved. But the CBI zealously established his innocence, though reliable sources say the scam was hushed up not so much because of Srivastava's links with Karunakaran, but because all roads were leading to Hyderabad.

The CBI donned the velvet gloves and went out of its way to tell the press that there was nothing in the scam. Editors laid off the story, and wrote of the "half-truths and falsehoods" that the Kerala Police and the IB had spread. A pro-establishment southern newspaper asked its Kerala correspondent to go slow after the Hyderabad angle surfaced. But newspapers in Kerala,especially the communist mouthpiece Deshabhimani, kept the heat on.

The move to reopen the case means it is open season now, though Nayanar says his Government won't suspend anyone coming within the ambit of the new probe till a preliminary report is submitted by the Special Investigation Team. Says former IB assistant central intelligence officer Vishwambaram: "The Kerala Police had collected enough evidence to prove espionage. The CBI changed the script when the links of Narasimha Rao's son came to the fore."

The scientists have been reinstated as expected. The fresh probe will try to restore the credibility of Kerala Police which had taken a severe knocking although the initial investigations were supervised by the state director-general of police. In dismissing the case, the CBI hinted the scam had more to do with group rivlary in the police ranks than espionage. In other words, some officers were jealous of IGP Srivastava's rise.

The CBI said Srivastava was in Thiruvananthapuram attending to his injured foster-father when Fauzia had said the cryogenic engine drawings were sold. The hotel booking in Madras in the name of Srivastava on January 23-24, '94 was not that of the IGP but a Bombay insurance official. There was a "Brigadier" Srivastava who is being confused for IGP Srivastava, it said.

"Persons whose names might sound similar to the names of the accused had stayed in the (Madras) hotel," the agency said in its closure report before the court. The alleged spies, it said, were shown Srivastava's photograph for identification even while senior Kerala Police officers were disagreeing about the IGP's links in the scandal.

The CBI said even first accused Fauzia was not sure whether it was Ramon or Anil Srivastava who had come to her hotel room. Mariam identified IGP Srivastava only after she was tortured. "The accused took the stand that the statements made before the Kerala Police and the IB were made under duress," the CBI said in its report.

But Infant's admission that Srivastava visited Bangalore leaves a big hole. The IGP was chauffeured around in the forenoon by Prakash and in the afternoon by Krishnaiah. Says Infant: "It's all recorded in the City Armed Reserve (CAR) log book." The log book says the car was driven around for 22 km in the morning, and 42 km in the evening. Independent investigations reveal that Srivastava, after being picked up from the airport, visited a house in the posh Koramangala locality, the city railway station, and—yes—a central guest house.

It's possible that Srivastava's trip had nothing to do with the spying scam. Sources say he mentioned calling on his brother-in-law during the day. Says one: "If he wanted the trip to be kept under wraps, he could have easily gone on his own. Why should he have shot his foot by phoning a colleague and using a state vehicle?"

That seems logical, but the CBI's eagerness to pretend he never visited Bangalore is a giveaway. Says a CPI leader: "The CBI stand carried no conviction. Its whole effort was to protect the bigwigs. Its attitude all through was to wind up the case."

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