Here's what makes ISRO scientist Nambi Narayanan's Padma Bhushan win extra special

24 years after his illegal arrest, he was awarded a Padma Bhushan alongside 111 other Padma winners.

It isn't every month, year, or even every generation that a brilliant scientist gets wrongfully accused of something as huge as spying on his/her own country, then arrested and released, apologised to, and lastly, awarded a Padma Bhushan and Rs 75 lakh in compensation for the trauma to health and reputation.

On India's 70th Republic day last week, Narayanan was among 112 people that were awarded the Padma awards.

"Troubling" the scientist

"It was an honour for his government to confer the Padma Bhushan on Nambi Narayanan...More than two decades ago, a hardworking and patriotic ISRO scientist was implicated in a false case, just because a few United Democratic Front leaders were settling political scores. Imagine, for their own politics, they damaged national interest, troubled a scientist," Prime Minister Narendra Modi is reported to have said at the awards ceremony.

Nambi Narayanan said he was glad his work in the Indian space arena was recognised after long last.

Scientists are rarely controversial, but when they are, things can get very bizarre.

There's no better example in recent times of a massive science goof-up than Chinese researcher Dr He Jiankui's newest experiment: toying with human genes in unborn babies. While Jiankui appears to be convicted rightfully of breaking laws on many different levels, there are others that have been wrongfully accused.

Nambi Narayanan at a signing of his first book 'Ready to Fire'. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Nambi Narayanan at a signing of his first book 'Ready to Fire'. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Few Indian researchers have been caught in controversy, and fewer wrongfully over the years. Some of these cases – like IISc Prof Giridhar Madras's #MeToo allegation – have been career-ending. Others have had their careers and reputations dragged through the dirt in political controversy and he-said-she-said without even being the real guilty party in the crime.

Indian scientist Nambi Narayanan's story was, until recently, an example of just such an injustice.

Crime, punishment and the overdue chappal-slap 

In November 1994, Kerala Police had arrested a Maldivian woman for overstaying well beyond her visa's expiry. She had noted down a contact number for ISRO scientist Sasikumaran, which made the cops suspicious. The cops ultimately arrested Sasikumaran, Rashida, a Maldivian friend of Rashida's and two Bangalorean businessmen. They were all charged with conspiring and selling drawings of ISRO’s Vikas engine and cryogenic technology to Pakistan.

Narayanan, scientist, aerospace engineer and director of ISRO's cryogenic engine project at the time, was also taken in by the cops. He was subjected to a tough interrogation by officers from the Intelligence Bureau.

"Narayanan got agitated, explaining how ludicrous the charge was...He started worrying that he might be killed. The interrogators wouldn’t reveal their identities. They were committing a crime, he told them, and he would make them pay," the Economic Times reported. Over the course of the interrogation, the report claimed that one of the intelligence officers said, “We are doing our duty, Sir. If what you are saying is the truth and you are vindicated, you can slap us with your slippers.”

Book cover of former ISRO scientist S Nambi Narayanan's autobiography 'Ormakalude Bhramanapatham'.

Book cover of former ISRO scientist S Nambi Narayanan's autobiography 'Ormakalude Bhramanapatham'.

Compensation, 25 years later

Well...its been twenty-four years since he heard the words, but Narayanan hasn't forgotten about his punishment, nor the slipper-slap he owes, the report says.

After CBI's investigation, the resulting report declared the case against Narayanan "baseless" and "unfounded". It also listed many lapses committed by Kerala's police officers with some recommendations for action against them.

The Kerala High Court chose not to charge the police officers responsible for the illegal arrest, but Narayanan chose to challenge the issue in the Supreme Court. In 2017, the SC began reviewing his case and said it is considering a Rs 75 lakh-compensation and some additional repairs to his reputation.

Narayanan continues his fight despite many close friends and colleagues (including ISRO colleague and former President APJ Abdul Kalam) advising him to not waste what remains of his life on the case.

In an interview with ET, Narayanan had said"My age is weighing on me now...It’s not easy to keep going to Delhi and is not a pleasant task – being in court. But I know I can't afford to stay silent. I have fought for justice, and I am getting it.”

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