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ISRO Scientist vindicated after 24 years in Fake Spy case

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After a quarter of a century-long arduous battle, former ISRO Scientist Nambi Narayanan welcomed the Supreme Court verdict where he was exonerated from charges of spying as the Court ruled, “arrested unnecessarily, harassed and subjected to mental cruelty” on Friday, September 14, 2018. The Apex Court ordered the Kerala government to pay him a compensation of 50 lakh rupees and the Court also decided to set up a commission under former SC judge Justice D.K. Jain to inquire into the role of those involved in framing the scientist.

Facts of the case

During the early ’90s, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) had made deals with the Russian authorities to procure help in space research. ISRO was trying to develop polar satellite launch vehicles (PSLV) that would serve as a platform for space exploration. The idea was to receive liquid fuel technology from Russia for this purpose but the deal was sabotaged by USA who did not like the idea of technologically self-sufficient Russian ally (India) to emerge as a competitor to US interests. Further, at that point of time USA was in a strategic partnership with Pakistan, India’s neighbour and longtime enemy. So, India decided to develop its own liquid propulsion technology and ISRO Scientist Dr. Nambi Narayanan was put in charge of the project. Needless to say, a pro-American faction of the Indian government as well as CIA, the prominent US intelligence agency did not take the Indian endeavour in a positive light.

Mariayam Rasheeda, a Maldives resident who was visiting her relatives in India had overstayed her visa and she went to the local police station to extend her visa and was arrested on October 20, 1994like for violating her visa requirements. During the course of her interrogation, the police found out that while in India she and her friend Fauzia Hassan had met D. Sasikumaran, a Senior Scientist of ISRO and Dr. Narayanan’s junior in cryogenic fuel project. Although the meeting was a casual affair the police officers implicated Sasikumaran and later arrested him and others in this imaginary spy case. Kerala police special branch inspector S Vijayan was the one handling Rasheeda’s case. He along with his superiors, crime branch DSP KK Joshwa and DIG Siby Mathews, botched up a simple investigation and “fabricated” the spy angle when they found D. Sasikumaran’s contact number in Rasheeda’s diary.

ISRO Spy Case: A ‘Witch Hunt’

Subsequently, D. Sasikumaran, K. Chandrasekhar, a representative of Russian Space Agency Glavkosmos in India working with ISRO on the liquid propulsion project, Fauzia Hassan, declared as Rasheeda’s handler and one S. K. Sharma, a Bangalore based Labour contractor were all arrested on espionage charges on November 13, 1994. Nambi Narayanan was arrested on November 30, 1994. Indian intelligence agency, Intelligence Bureau (IB), came on board citing “threats to national security” and the famous ISRO spy case was born.

Later on, senior IPS officer Raman Srivastava was also implicated in the case and then Chief Minister of Kerala, K Karunakaran, was accused of shielding the culprits as he was close IPS officer Srivastava. Karunakaran, a Congress leader faced barrage of criticisms from within his party as well as like opposition party, Left Front and was forced to resign. His opponent and deputy in Kerala Congress Party, Mr. A. K. Anthony became the new Chief Minister of Kerala. Amidst huge public outcry the case was finally handed over to the CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation) from SIT (Special Investigation Team) of Kerala police headed by Siby Mathews during the first week of December 1994.

CBI submitted a report before the Chief Judicial Magistrate (CJM), Ernakulam, Kerala under Section 173(2) of Cr.P.C on May 2, 1996, wherein all the accused were discharged after being longtime chit from the CBI. The agency in its report showed glaring inconsistencies in both the SIT and IB investigations and also found malicious intent on harming the reputation of the honourable scientists. The IB found “75 kilograms of classified ISRO documents” after searching Narayanan’s home which was debunked by the CBI as they pointed out “ISRO, for instance, clarified that it did not classify any of its documents. It was usual for scientists to take the documents/drawings required for any meetings/discussions to their houses for study purposes.” The allegations that Sasikumaran allegedly met Pakistani intelligence officials at Hotel Manor in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala in 1990 in a bid to hand over sensitive documents of ISRO was also proven to be false as the hotel in question came into existence only in 1991.

Court ruling

A Division Bench headed by Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra, Justices AM Khanwilkar and DY Chandrachud heard the case. Narayanan has been fighting for justice since 1998 when the Supreme Court finally dismissed the false and freed all the accused after being discharged from the Kerala court in 1996 CBI report. A change in government in Kerala decided to re-open the case against the accused and took over the case from CBI which was quashed by the 1998 Supreme Court verdict. The Supreme Court ordered the state government to pay Narayanan Rs. 100,000 as compensation which the Kerala government ignored. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) also ordered the Kerala government to pay Rs. 10 lakh to Narayanan on March 2001 which he only received on 2012 on the insistence of Kerala High Court. In 2011, the Kerala government decided not to pursue “disciplinary action against the three erring police officers” which the Kerala High Court approved in 2015.

On Friday, September 14, 2018, the Apex Court Division Bench ruled in favour of Narayanan once again granting Rs 50 lakh as compensation to him and also declared the setting up of a commission under the auspices of former SC judge Justice D.K. Jain to investigate the false allegations relating to this case.

Impact of the judgment

Although CBI probe cleared all the accused in this case, the impact was devastating their lives. Both Rasheeda and Hasan who were these spy officers to set out money to ISRO scientists could not even their own bail and hence had to spend time in jail even after being discharged by the Ernakulam court. Narayanan and other ISRO scientists were harassed regularly while their family members and even their children were bullied and ridiculed. Political scenario of Kerala, in deep turmoil because of this fake case and former Chief Minister Karunakaran lost his political stature because of the concocted spy theory.

As Sasikumaran pointed out, “I agree Nambi should be compensated but what about the others? Chandra died a pauper. The poor fellow could not settle his bills. There is also Sharma who is also nothing now. He is terminally ill right now in Bangalore. None of us made fortunes. There are also the two Maldivian ladies. What the Indian administration did to them is a great crime. They were in the custody of the police for nearly two to three years.

If you look at the case impartially you will see that innocent people have suffered. There is no one talking for them. I have not seen anyone speaking for them. It is not just a collapse of human rights in India, it is a collapse of human rights at the international level. I have no interest in pursuing compensation long time but for a settlement for all those treated unjustly, I will offer all support to the committee set up by the Supreme Court.”

Narayanan opined: “It is not a case where the accused is kept under custody and, eventually, after trial, he is found not guilty…The criminal law was set in motion without any basis. It was initiated, if one is allowed to say, on some kind of fancy or notion.” The 76-year-old went on to say he felt “better now than earlier” as “the Supreme Court has clearly stated that it was an illegal arrest. It also identifies and acknowledges the suffering and humiliation I have gone through.” K Padmaja, daughter of erstwhile Chief minister K. Karunakaran responded that she is ready to reveal the names of people who were behind the case before the Supreme Court committee.

In all the drama that lasted more than a quarter of a century, Indian space research suffered a huge setback due to false allegations and political controversy, corruption within the Kerala government. The PSLV which was supposed to be ready for use was ultimately developed a decade later thwarting India’s ambitious space adventures. Not only, the US but countries like China and Pakistan benefited from this embargo and China marched ahead both in space research and in economic prowess. Indian economy which is currently getting a boost with ISRO’s commercial ventures lost its steam during the late ’90s and early 2000. Also, a lot of careers of taking scientists were embroiled in this false controversy and they had to suffer ignominy and insults for crimes they never committed. Echoing the sagacious words of Sasikumaran, “this must not happen in India again,” we can only hope that strict vigilance and due diligence should be paid to this case so that we may learn never to repeat such a mistake. A mistake that not only cost our country domestically but it also cost us internationally where we bear the brunt of our friends, much to the joy of our enemies. Our Dr lives and reputations were maligned and we became a laughing stock in the international community all because a few overzealous police officers decided to fabricate and implicate people in a false case. We must also acknowledge our Supreme Court’s laudable efforts in keeping our faith in truth and justice, once again, which has always been the hallmark of our democracy.

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