ISRO spy case: Was Indian scientist spying for Pakistan?
NEW DELHI - Indian ISRO scientist Nambi Narayanan has been fighting legal battles since 1994, first to clear his name in an espionage case, then for compensation and now for action against the police officers who had implicated him. Having had his name cleared after the CBI closure report in 1996 declared the spy case false, and his compensation upheld by the Kerala High Court in 2012, the former ISRO scientist is waiting for the Supreme Court to rule on action he has demanded against the police officers. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court reserved its judgment on his plea. ADVERTISEMENT
*How it began* The “ISRO spy case” dates back to October 20, 1994, when Kerala police in Thiruvananthapuram registered a case against Mariam Rasheeda, a Maldivian national, under Section 14 of the Foreigners Act 1946 and Section 7 of the Foreigners Order, 1948.
The initial charges were of overstaying in India following the cancellation of her flight to Maldives. Following her interrogation, police made out a case that she had contacted ISRO space scientists who were suspected of having transferred cryogenic engine technology to Pakistan through her. The following month, police registered another case against ISRO scientists D Sasikumaran and Narayanan, Russian Space Agency Glavkosmos’s India representative Chandrasekhar, Maldivian national Fauzia Hassan, and Bangalore-based labour contractor S K Sharma.
The case was initially probed by Inspector S Vijayan. A special team headed by DIG Siby Mathew arrested Narayanan and others. The police case was that Narayanan and Sasikumaran had passed on secret documents to other countries, especially Pakistan.
They accused Chandrasekhar, Sharma, and inspector-general of Kerala police Raman Srivastava of passing on secrets of the Aeronautical Defence Establishment, Bangalore. They alleged that Chandrasekhar, Sasikumaran and the two Maldivian women had met secretly to exchange papers and money. The arrested scientists were grilled by Intelligence Bureau sleuths, including Gujarat-cadre IPS officer R B Sreekumar, who was then IB additional director in Kerala. ADVERTISEMENT
Srivastava’s name created a political flutter as the IPS officer was known to be close to then Congress chief minister K Karunakaran. Under pressure from within the party led by rival A K Antony and Congress coalition partners Muslim League and Kerala Congress(M), Karunakaran was forced to step down in March 1995.
*Probe & closure* Within 20 days of the case being registered, the probe was handed over to the CBI. In 1996, it submitted its closure report in the chief judicial magistrate’s court in Kochi, saying that the allegations of espionage were unproved and false. The court admitted the closure report, leading to the discharge of all those who had been implicated.
The CBI submitted that Mathew had indiscriminately ordered the arrest of the scientists and others without conducting a thorough interrogation or adequately verifying disclosures. The agency said it had not recovered any evidence from the ISRO or the money allegedly paid to the accused by their foreign contacts.
The CBI report also blamed the Intelligence Bureau for conducting the probe in an unprofessional manner. The IB did not verify the statements of the accused, which the CBI said could have saved the reputation of the scientists. The IB did not share with the Kerala police the basis of their allegations against Srivastava, the CBI said.
*Continuing battle* The CPM-led government, which assumed office in May 1996, ordered a reinvestigation. Narayanan and others challenged this in Kerala High Court, which refused to stay the government order for reinvestigation. Narayanan then appealed in the Supreme Court, which quashed the state government order in 1998.
Subsequently, Narayanan moved the National Human Rights Commission seeking compensation of Rs 1 crore from the Kerala police officials who had implicated him. In 2001, the NHRC ordered interim relief of Rs 10 lakh. In 2006, the state government challenged it in in the high court, which in 2012 upheld Narayanan’s contention and ordered the government to give him interim relief of Rs 10 lakh. In October 2013, the then Congress-led government decided to give the compensation.
*The scientist* In 2015, Narayanan approached the Supreme Court seeking criminal and disciplinary action against Kerala police officials led by Siby Mathew. A former DGP, Mathew had taken voluntary retirement in 2011 and gone on to become the state’s chief information commissioner.
This is the ruling Narayanan is waiting for. His career cut short on account of the case, Narayanan describes what he went through in his autobiography, Orbit of Memories. He suggests a motive for why he was framed, writing that he suspects the CIA was behind the false case. He suspects a conspiracy to sabotage India’s progress in making a cryogenic rocket, and notes that the spy case put India behind by 15 years in cryogenic technology. The beneficiaries of the delay were the US and France, he writes, demanding a probe into the alleged conspiracy.