Did CIA prompt IB to fabricate the ISRO Spy case?

Former ISRO scientist Nambi Narayanan refers to 11 Intelligence Bureau officers indicted by the CBI and says he believes the CIA fed false information to the IB

Photo by Subrata Biswas/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Photo by Subrata Biswas/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Ashlin Mathew

He is remarkably free of rancour. There is little bitterness as Nambi Narayanan (76), the former ISRO scientist, recalls how his life was destroyed by a fake case of spying cooked up by India’s premier Intelligence agency. In a remarkably candid interview with NH, he elaborates on why he believes the CIA was involved and how every agency had its own interests to serve in fabricating the ‘ISRO Spy Case’.

So, how did it all begin?

I believe it all started with a policeman who wanted sexual favours from Rasheeda. The woman refused and also added that she would complain to the IG of Police. She had meant she would complain to a Brigadier who she knew. These people thought she meant Raman Srivastava. The policeman, one Vijayan filed a complaint stating that she had overstayed. She hadn’t overstayed and in fact, she was prevented from leaving the country.

Whoever else then came into the picture had an axe to grind. Kerala Kaumudi under the helm of MS Mani wanted to settle scores with Raman Srivastava, who was instrumental in evicting him from his own office a few years ago because of a court spat with his brother Madhusudan. Srivastava had done so then because of court orders. So, then Mani started to write that Srivastava is involved. Then they wrote Srivastava is close to Karunakaran, so he also must be involved. Once Karunakaran came into the picture, the dissidents within the party wanted to use it to bring him down; Opposition also wanted to join hands to topple the government.

Sengupta, the Joint Director, ISRO, had been looking for an opportunity to settle scores with ISRO scientist Sasikumaran as he was snubbed by the scientist at a meeting less than two weeks before the case came to the fore.

How did your name crop up in the case?

All those arrested, ISRO scientist D. Sasikumaran and K. Chandrasekhar, liaison man of Glavkosmos etc stated that Nambi Narayanan was the leader of the group dealing with design, so they arrested me. The CBI report states that these people were tortured to name me.

Almost 23 years have passed by. How did the case change your life and what do you feel now?

During the whole episode, I was removed from my post at ISRO and then I was reinstated after 18 months. It was a position that commanded respect, but then there was a discontinuity. It was no longer the same. Many new people had joined and I got fed up and I was mostly fighting these cases. A lot of money has gone into fighting these cases; some of it was borrowed. Even today I owe money to people.

I have paid everyone. I am extremely sensitive in these matters. If you want to do it free of cost, that shows your generosity, but if I accept it, it shows my mental make-up. I feel, as a matter of principle, if anyone does a service, I should pay for it. Don’t rob me, but whatever is the fee, I’ll pay.

How did your family cope during the period?

My wife became mentally unbalanced and she couldn’t withstand the pressure. My children were in a state of shock. There were health problems, financial problems and social problems. We couldn’t get out of the house. I hate to recall these things today.

My wife is starting to get better – around 80/90 per cent. But, even now if she sees a stranger walking into the house, she begins to scream and ask them to get out. We suffered a lot.

But that is what they wanted; they wanted me out of the picture. If they would not have succeeded in this, they would have finished me. They would have killed me. That is the only way to eliminate me from the scene because I brought the PSLV striking engine into the picture – the Vikas engine was my baby. It has a success rate of 35/36 times without a single failure.

Now, if I were allowed to develop the cryogenic engine, then we would become a potential competitor. I will not swear that is the reason, but it is the only logical way to think.

What are your children doing now?

To be honest, I also did not have the time to groom my children – a son and a daughter. They grew up on their own. I was in office all the time; running behind the liquid propulsion system.

My daughter is a Montessori teacher in Bangalore and my son-in-law is the project director for Mangalayan. My son is a businessman. My son wanted to become a doctor, but he was short by 1.2 per cent and I didn’t have the money to pay for a seat, so naturally he had to do Commerce and he did masters in the same subject. Then, he became a businessman.

What do you see happening in the future?

A movie is being made out of the story; it is being planned. I don’t know if it will materialise. I have written a book and it will be published by Bloomsbury in August/September. It will probably be launched in Delhi or Mumbai. The title is yet to be finalised – that book will tell you the answers to most of the questions you have.

When I joined ISRO, it was then called Thumba Space Centre and there were just 28 employees; today there are about 28,000 employees. In the book, I’m drawing parallels between my growth and the evolution of ISRO.

How did the media behave?

Most of the reporters of that time didn’t understand the case. Some of them even helped twist the realities of the case. Anyone could call them for some ‘chicken and alcohol’ and they would write whatever they wanted. They didn’t understand the difference between a satellite and a rocket. It was just a sensational spy story for them.

In the beginning, they played into the hands of the police and the IB. Later, when the CBI came into the picture, the truth started trickling out, and the media kept quiet. Then when the story emerged in my favour, the media slowly started supporting me.

You have been saying that it is not possible to transfer technology through a few drawings? Could you elaborate?

Basically, it should be understood that no one can transfer or smuggle these rocket drawings and make anything out of it. The so-called engine technology, which is said to have been transferred can be obtained by anyone interested in doing business with us. We release a global tender for the fabrication part of the process and we give one set of drawings to all those interested if they pay ₹5,000 or so at your doorstep. Why should I smuggle it, when the drawings with everything mentioned is given? It is only then that a quotation can be invited.

We bought the technology and the drawings from France. If they can sell to us, then they can sell it to anyone else too. Nobody will smuggle a kathirika (brinjal) when you can get it by paying a price. It is said that Pakistan is involved, but why would Pakistan smuggle anything from India ? They would like to buy from some other friendly country so that they maintain it, understand it, and seek help from them.

It is not easy to transfer technology in this business. If it were that easy, all those fabricators who took the drawings should be able to do so. Why are they not doing so? It is not possible. What is important is not the know-why, but the know-how.

We struggled for 19 years, from 1974 to 1993, with at least 150 well qualified engineers in France, at least 2,000 engineers supporting me in India, about 150-200 industries and it was only then we managed to make this engine. Now, you expect if some drawings are stolen by two uneducated ladies, that this can be made? Some foolish people stated it and some others believed it. The Press didn’t understand it.

Do you think the IB manipulated the Kerala Police into arresting you?

Actually, IB played it cunningly. They don’t have the powers of the police force. They made the Kerala Police as pawns. The Kerala Police thought there is a sensational story and that they would get the credit for busting it;so whatever the IB said, they swallowed it. They wrote it as if they had found it. Then the IB officials extricated themselves out of the case. Finally, they were caught by the CBI.

Eventually, many people added their plots and twists to the story. CBI alone deciphered it after some time. CBI gave a recommendation to take action against Siby Mathew, S Vijayan, Joshua, and G Babu Raj for their lapses in a 15-20-page report in 1996. The report also named 11 IB officials who were involved in the case – Mathew John, RB Shreekumar, CRR Nair, Jaiprakash, Mainy, CM Ravindran, John Punnan, GS Nair and a few others.

Why did the IB create this case then?

If you read Brian Harvey’s book, Russia in Space - The Failed Frontier, it gives reasons as to why IB created the case. They did not want ISRO to take strides into rocket launching sector as then we would become a business competitor to the Western countries. Our cost of launching satellites is cheap so then we can outsmart everybody and some are likely to lose business. The business is worth more that $300-400 billion.

[Brian Harvey’s book and Rajasekhar Nair’s Spies in Space, give details of why they suspect CIA was behind the targeting of ISRO and destroying the lives of some of its best scientists. It is said they planted moles in the IB, who fed ‘information’ to MK Dhar, Joint director, IB]

IB did not fall into any trap. If you pay IB money, they will do anything for you. Once you design a mission, even in any office, if you approach the right people, they will do it for you. It can be an assassination or spreading a rumour.

These are the people who committed a crime and not those who have been named in the chargesheet.

What has the government reaction been to the case?

Once the CBI report was filed, the government of Kerala issued a show cause notice to the officers and they said they had done it in good faith. They denied having committed a crime or even having made a mistake. Based on their response the Chief Secretary recommended that no action needed to be taken against them. It then went to the Chief Minister of Kerala, EK Nayanar, who didn’t agree with the recommendations suggested by the Chief Secretary.

By that time, the Kerala Government withdrew the consent given to CBI to investigate the case. Initially, they had said that they didn’t have the infrastructure to investigate the case. When the CBI investigation didn’t come in their favour, they decided to request their own investigation. I challenged that request in 1997 in the Kerala High Court.

The Kerala High Court gave an ambiguous judgement. They didn’t want to quash the government order. The HC said the government has the power to issue such an order but they also stated that the Kerala Government has no jurisdiction to file a charge sheet in the case because it comes under the Official Secrets Act and the matter fell under the jurisdiction of the Centre. The Official Secret Act states that a case can be filed only with the permission of the appropriate government and in this case, it is the Centre; in some cases it could be the state as well.

So, the natural question is, if one does not have the jurisdiction, then what is the point in investigating it because they can’t file a chargesheet.

What happened after the High Court refused to quash the order?

Since the Kerala High Court didn’t quash the order, the state government misinterpreted or interpreted the order to state that that the Kerala High Court has approved the government’s request for further investigation. They said they would complete the investigation, though they didn’t have the jurisdiction and submit the findings to the Central government.

That was funny because the earlier investigation was done by the Central Government’s agency. I wasn’t sure whether there would be any investigation at all. But, they went ahead and got the permission of the magistrate. TP Senkumar, who was to head the investigation, got the permission. He keeps mentioning that he had nothing to do with the spy case but he was appointed by the Kerala government for the investigation. He went ahead and asked for the permission.

I challenged the High Court order itself through an SLP in the Supreme Court in 1997. They judged in my favour. They not only quashed the order but also passed heavy strictures against the Kerala government. It was when the SLP was still pending at the SC, the recommendation by the chief secretary for not taking action went from the Chief Secretary to EK Nayanar. Nayanar wanted to wait until the SC judgement as he wanted to see if the SC would approve the investigation or not. He wasn’t sure if the verdict would be in the Kerala Government’s favour or not.

What happened after the Supreme Court passed the order in your favour?

As soon as the Supreme Court verdict came in my favour, the file went missing. It is anybody’s guess how the file went missing. But, by the time the order came, Oommen Chandy government had come to power. They said the file was in ‘cold storage’ and that it was not fair to take action against those involved after so many years. One Chief Minister (EK Nayanar) wanted to take action – he didn’t close the file; another Chief Minister wanted to dismiss it when the verdict was not in their favour.

When the Kerala government decided to close the file, what did you do?

I challenged this decision in 2014 and a single bench gave a favourable verdict in the High Court of Kerala. It stated that action must be taken and it shouldn’t be a ‘namesake’ verdict. The bench stated that it wasn’t a departmental action that is required but punishment for a crime which they have committed.

Government of Kerala accepted the judgement and they formed a committee, which included the DGP, Chief Secretary and Home Secretary to suggest what kind of action was possible. Siby Mathew and Joshua appealed against the judgement. The division bench gave a verdict in their favour. Then I filed an SLP in the Supreme Court in 2015 and it has been dragging on for the last 18 months.

In the beginning of April there was a hearing, they moved it to the last week of April and now it has been moved to August. The adjournment is only to enable the state government to give an affidavit, which the Opposition has been demanding. But, the affidavit by the state government has no meaning because they have already accepted the single bench judgement.

This is the second part on the ISRO spy case. The first can be read here.

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Published: 30 Jul 2017, 11:11 AM