Scientist Nambi Narayanan on his work at ISRO, the 'spy' case and the battle to clear his name
Nambi Narayanan, who is best known for fathering the liquid propulsion technology for ISRO, speaks about the espionage case that changed his life, and why he advocates for the sale of technology to other countries
Nambi Narayanan’s face is characterised by a serene expression and a sagely white beard. He speaks short sentences but with much clarity – the kind of speech that will remind you of a professor from college. These days, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) scientist spends time with his grandchildren. But up until a few months ago, his life looked drastically different.
In mid-September this year, the Supreme Court awarded him a compensation of Rs 50 lakh for a wrongful arrest in 1994. Narayanan, who was in ISRO at that time, was accused of espionage – specifically of passing on drawings and flight details of a cryogenic rocket engine and a launch vehicle. It was alleged that he passed on this information to Maldivian women touted to be spies, working for Pakistan, as well as other contacts in Colombo.
The battle to clear his name and be compensated for the subsequent damage to his life has been going on for over 20 years. After being registered, the case involving him was transferred to the CBI, who cleared the scientist of all charges. The agency’s report was accepted by a Kochi court, but the Kerala government ordered a re-investigation two years later, which was quashed by the Supreme Court in 1996. Attempts to seek action against the officials who falsely implicated him have also been part of the ongoing battle. In the past, the Kerala High Court has turned down his plea seeking action against the errant officers. But as of September 2018, the Supreme Court has directed that a committee be constituted to investigate the role of Kerala police officers.
Narayanan has documented what his life was like during this period in a book titled Ready to Fire, co-written with Arun Ram. In this conversation with Firstpost, he speaks about how he became a scientist, his work at ISRO, and why he was determined to clear his name.
Ready to fire
Narayanan says that he was a bright student, and that his favourite subject was mathematics. He liked associated subjects like physics and chemistry too, but had no interest in Botany at all. This meant that engineering was the choice for him. He took up mechanical engineering, and the project he pursued was related to aerospace. “I was always curious about flying objects. So I did a project singlehandedly – at the time it was very unusual for someone to do one alone – on an action-flow compressor. I designed, assembled, and tested it. It was deemed the number one project for over 20 years. That was the starting point,” said Narayanan.
His role model was Vikram Sarabhai. So enamoured was Narayanan by Sarabhai that he would be glad to have opportunities to speak to him. “He helped other people to grow. When I came back from Princeton, he called me his ‘Princetonian’ – almost like I was his child. When I was offered a job opportunity in the US (I was also being offered citizenship), I called Dr Sarabhai and asked him. He asked me to promptly return, and called up a senior NASA officials, demanding to know why I was asked to join them!”
Narayanan says he learnt a great deal from Sarabhai. He is of the opinion that people did not understand Sarabhai’s intentions. “He wanted to make this country very powerful. We term many people 'missile man', but he was the real person worthy of the name,” he says.
The scientist is best known for fathering the liquid propulsion technology for ISRO. “It has been serving the organisation ever since, whether it is for the Chandrayaan or Mangalyaan. I began my career with cryogenics, and it didn't materialise because of this case. I was forced to discontinue it,” he explains.
An life altered – twice over
For Narayanan, clearing his name was a matter deeply rooted to how his family would be viewed. “A nation rebounds faster than a family,” he writes in his book. He feared that his children would be known as a spy’s children, and that the name-calling would not stop there. “Everyone in the family would go on to be known as the relatives of a spy. My daughter told me that I was the only person who could rectify the situation. It was necessary to do this – it became like a goal.”
Over the years, he realised that he had spent a lot of time not taking care of his family, so he decided to alter that. “What I could not do with my children, I am now doing with my grandchildren,” he says with a smile.
Narayanan says that it was a fabricated case from the very start – “unimaginably so” – and this is evident from several details. “The people who did it weren't in the know of things. For example, the engineering drawings that we sent to people free of cost, they didn't know about. So they said that we had smuggled the drawings. They didn't know that the technology in question didn't exist. They never knew that cryogenics could not be used for missiles,” he explains.
He is of the opinion that the case, which could have otherwise been brought to a conclusion with a one-day hearing, was dragged one, resulting in about 19 court visits. In retrospect, he says that this is perhaps what helped the court to come to a conclusion in the case.
Narayanan says that he is alive only because the projects he was responsible for, the kind that would ensure India was a force to reckon with, were successful. “They allowed me to live because it [the projects] achieved success. Why would bother, otherwise? This country is so large.”
Financial autonomy for ISRO
Narayanan wanted to generate the funds to run ISRO by selling technology, by launching satellites for other countries. “With each launch, we would make money. That money would be sufficient for us to run operations. I wanted to pay money back to the government, not take money from it,” he explains.
He expands on this idea, by saying that technology should be sold such that India’s contemporaries are as equipped as she is, following which we should call these countries our partners. “If you ask me, I'd sell technology even to Pakistan. Because I would be aware of what I have given, so I know what it is worth,” he says.
As a country, we cannot afford to spend large sums of money on space research, he says. “And we should not, either. Never ask the government for money. Take a leaf out of NASA and SpaceX's books. Russia is doing the same thing, too,” he explains.
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