ISRO spy case: How espionage mixed with vested interests ruined a scientist's career and halted India's space project

Friday's Supreme Court verdict in the 'ISRO spy case' is just another victory for former Indian scientist Nambi Narayanan who had been fighting a 24-year-long battle for justice after he was falsely charged with espionage.

Narayanan, who was cleared of all charges by the CBI and the Supreme Court earlier, had sought action against senior police officials for framing him and his colleague in the infamous ISRO spy scandal. The court held that the scientist's arrest was needless and unnecessary while acknowledging that he was subjected to immense mental and physical torture. It ordered the setting up three-member panel headed by former Supreme Court judge DK Jain to probe the framing of Narayanan in the spy case, and also granted him a compensation of Rs 50 lakh.

The scandal not only halted the careers of two brilliant scientists — Narayanan and D Sasi Kumar  — but also set behind by years, the progress made in the cryogenic engine development programme, which was meant to power the heavy lift Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) for deploying heavy communication satellites.

File image of former ISRO scientist Nambi Narayanan. News18

File image of former ISRO scientist Nambi Narayanan. News18

The ISRO spy case first surfaced in 1994 when Narayanan and Sasi were arrested on charges of handing over India's indigenous space technology to Pakistan with the help of two Maldivian women who overstayed their visas in India. However, the CBI cleared them in 1995 and since then Narayanan has been fighting legal battles, first to clear his name, then for compensation, and finally against three police officials who destroyed his reputation, career, and subjected him to torture.

The three police officials in question are then top police officer Siby Mathews, KK Joshua and S Vijayan, who are all now retired.

As Narayanan's fight comes to an end, here is a look at how the case developed:

How the case began

The seeds of the case, which is still unfortunately known as the ISRO spy scandal, were sown on 20 October, 1994, when the Kerala Police in Thiruvananthapuram filed a case against a Maldivian citizen Mariam Rasheeda, under Section 14 of the Foreigners Act, 1946 and Section 7 of the Foreigners Order, 1948 — the charges a foreign national attracts for overstaying in India despite the expiry of their visa, according to The Indian Express

However, the police later concocted a theory that Rasheeda was in contact with Narayanan and Sasi with the help of a businessman and the two scientists had agreed to transfer technological secrets with Pakistan. The police later also named the ISRO scientists, Russian Space Agency Glavkosmos’s India representative Chandrasekhar, another Maldivian national Fauzia Hassan, and Bengaluru-based labour contractor SK Sharma.

But according to a report in The Pioneer, the real motives behind the case spawned back to the tussles in the power corridors of Kerala. The newspaper alleged that the Kerala Police was on the lookout for foreign nationals overstaying in Kerala on home ministry's orders, when they came across Rasheeda. Rasheeda had contacted the city police commissioners office and came in contact with another senior police official, Raman Shrivastava, at the time to get her visa extended. It was at a follow-up meeting on the issue when Vijayan came in contact with Rasheeda and promised to help her. Vijayan, reportedly, made overtures to the Maldivian woman, who in turn insulted him and threatened to report him to Shrivastava.

Siby Mathews who was a DIG at the time wanted Shrivastava out of his way, reportedly, to gain an out-of-turn promotion. The newspaper alleges that the duo conspired to take revenge and frame Rashida and Shrivastava. The case, however, eventually became a tool for multiple agencies and players to extract different gains.

Shrivastava's name cropping up in the concocted conspiracy had another political effect. He was known to be close to the then chief minister K Karunakaran, who shared a bitter relationship with AK Antony (also of the Congress) as the latter lost the chief minister's berth to the former. One of the reasons perhaps that nobody encouraged the police to drop a concocted case was that Shrivastava's conviction cast aspersions on Karunakaran, who was eventually forced to quit in March 1995, under pressure from Antony, and Congress coalition partners Muslim League and Kerala Congress (M).

The foreign sabotage angle

After the whole spy angle came into play, the scientist's questioning was taken over by the Intelligence Bureau. Narayanan, in his autobiography, has alleged that the IB's real target was the ISRO.  He claims that the Indian intelligence officers were acting in connivance with the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

"My investigation showed that the spy case was the illegitimate child of the US-French agencies with the intention of burying me and the ISRO in the cemetery," The Indian Express quoted from his book.

He claims that at the time the US was dead against India developing an indigenous rocket launch technology as it would have harmed its commercial interests in space research. The US not only denied India the technological know-how but also pressured Glavkosmos, an official space affairs entity of the former Soviet Union, to abandon the deal relating to the exchange of technology. The Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) led by the US contended that the cryogenic engines could be used by used by India to power its military. However, as a report in The Wire points out, that a cryogenic engine was especially unequipped to deal with military situations as it takes days to fuel the engine whereas military equipment usually needs to be ready to use on short notice.

The report stated that had the deal gone through in the 1980s, it would have cost India only Rs 230 crore.

However, after the technology was denied, a group of scientists led by Narayanan started working to perfect an indigenous cryogenic engine when the CIA moved in sabotaged the project.

"Actually their target was ISRO and they succeeded in preventing the country from developing the cryogenic engine," Narayanan, who was Project Director of Cryogenic Engine when he was implicated in the case, said.

"If ISRO had achieved cryogenic engine technology, the organisation would by now have been in a position to return to government billions of dollars," he said referring to the commercial aspect of the technology. The main objective of those behind the case was clear and it was to 'demoralise' Indian scientists, he pointed out.


Updated Date: Sep 14, 2018 11:36 AM

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