The ISRO Spy case: 1994
This is a collection of articles archived for the excellence of their content.
A timeline- 1994-2018
The ISRO Spy case- a timeline, 1994-2018
SC awards ₹50L to scientist for arrest in false spy case
Panel To Probe Kerala Police Officers’ Role
Nearly 24 years after scientist Nambi Narayanan was framed and arrested in the so-called Isro spy case, the Supreme Court created history on Friday by invoking constitutional powers to direct the Kerala government to pay Rs 50 lakh compensation to him for “blatant violation” of his right to life.
The SC held that Narayanan’s right to life was infringed on by wrongful arrest and torture and ruled that the compensation be paid in eight weeks. Narayanan was arrested in 1994 for allegedly leaking defence secrets relating to an Isro project to two Maldivian women — Mariam Rasheeda and Fauzia Hassan. Along with another scientist, D Sasikumaran, he was accused of selling secrets.
Though the concept of compensating a “wrongly arrested” person is absent in the Indian criminal justice system, a bench of CJI Dipak Misra and Justices A M Khanwilkar and D Y Chandrachud not only ordered Kerala to pay the hefty compensation but permitted Narayanan to proceed with his civil suit seeking more damages from the state.
The court also set up an inquiry committee headed by ex-SC judge D K Jain to probe the role of policemen Siby Mathews, K K Joshua and S Vijayan in framing Narayanan.
Nambi may have been framed to stall cryogenic engine project
The bench said this was not a case where Narayanan was acquitted after trial and, hence not entitled to compensation. It said it was a clear instance of Kerala police framing him to inflict humiliation and ignominy when he was involved in an important project of developing cryogenic rocket engines for the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro).
Successive Congress and Left Front governments led by E K Nayanar, A K Antony, Oommen Chandy, V S Achuthanandan, Chandy again and Pinarayi Vijayan stoutly refused to proceed against the cops since 1996, when the CBI closed the case, leading to Narayanan’s discharge. The CBI report had severely indicted the police officers.
Writing the judgment for the bench, CJI Misra said, “There can be no scintilla of doubt that Narayanan, a successful scientist, has been compelled to undergo immense humiliation. The lackadaisical attitude of the state police to arrest anyone and put him in custody has made the appellant suffer ignominy.”
The bench said it was aware that Narayanan had filed a civil suit for damages against the Kerala government. “That will not debar the constitutional court from granting compensation taking recourse to public law. The court cannot lose sight of the wrongful imprisonment, malicious prosecution, the humiliation and the defamation faced by Narayanan,” it said.
Narayanan has been waging a long and bitter legal battle for close to two decades to bring to book erring Kerala police officers, who, in October 1994, cooked up a sex scandal involving two Maldivian women and arrested him to trample his reputation. A CBI probe led to closure of the case and Narayanan’s discharge in 1996 but the Kerala government set up an SIT to probe the matter afresh. In 1998, the SC had quashed the reinvestigation. In 2001, the NHRC asked the state to pay compensation of Rs 10 lakh to Narayanan which was paid in 2012 only after the Kerala HC intervened.
The CBI believed Narayanan was targeted and framed due to a larger conspiracy by other countries to impede India from developing a cryogenic engine that would have put it far ahead in space technology. The Kerala government had consistently defended the three indicted officers, saying they were above board.
However, a single-judge bench of the HC slammed the state for defending the officers despite perceptible omissions and commissions in the Isro spy case resulting in Narayanan’s victimisation. The officers appealed against this before a division bench of the HC, which set aside the order. Narayanan appealed in the SC against the HC judgment.
The framing of Nambi Narayanan may have involved three conspiracies in one
On a cold December night in 1994, muffled voices and thuds rent the air at Latex Guest House in Thiruvananthapuram, where a couple of Intelligence Bureau officials were interrogating a leading Indian space scientist accused of selling India’s rocket secrets to Pakistan through two Maldivian women. The next morning S Nambi Narayanan, the scientist, was found slumped on the floor, cold and unconscious.
When Nambi asked his tormentors why he was being tortured, one of the men said: “You sold our motherland to the enemy. If one day we are proved wrong, you can slap us.” Nambi says he has kept his slippers ready.
Supreme Court order granting Rs 50 lakh compensation to Nambi and constituting a committee headed by Justice DK Jain “to find out ways and means to take appropriate steps against the erring officials” is not the end of a 24-year-old battle that the scientist has been fighting – it must be the beginning of the last round. A quarter century of cases has answered the ‘what’ and, partly, the ‘who’ of the story. What remains to be told is the ‘why’ part of it.
That the Isro spy case was a figment of someone’s imagination has been clear since May 2, 1996 when the chief judicial magistrate, Ernakulam, accepted a CBI report that found the case to be a fabricated one. CBI had sent separate confidential reports, one on the IB investigation to the Union government, and the other on the special investigation team to the Kerala government.
CBI said IB’s interrogation reports were incoherent and full of contradictions, that the IB officers acted in an unprofessional manner. The central agency named then IB joint director Mathew John and deputy director RB Sreekumar for having failed to conduct a fair and objective inquiry. CBI also named Kerala police special branch inspector S Vijayan, crime branch DSP KK Joshwa and DIG Siby Mathews. These men, one presumes, are “the erring officers” the apex court was talking about.
The Justice Jain committee has the mandate to find out if there were more conspirators. The most crucial part, however, remains outside its purview: what was their intention? A discerning reader of the case since its beginning may find not one, but at least three conspiracies behind the fake Isro spy case. And if one were to arrange them chronologically, they get progressively more serious.
Conspiracy one was personal, a misadventure of a Kerala police officer called Vijayan, who arrested a Maldivian woman called Mariam Rasheeda from a lodge in Thiruvananthapuram on October 20 on charges of overstaying. Later it turned out to be false; she had gone to Vijayan to report that she may not be able to fly out despite having a ticket since there was a bandh on that day. Mariam later said the officer had sought sexual favours, and after her arrest she was tortured physically.
The first link to Isro was a telephone number Vijayan found in Mariam’s diary, that of D Sasikumaran, an Isro scientist who worked under Nambi. Mariam later said she had consulted Sasikumaran’s wife, a physician. By the end of November 1994 Vijayan and Siby Mathews had “netted” seven people, including Nambi, Sasikumaran, Fauziyya Hassan (another Maldivian woman), K Chandrasekhar (a representative of Russian space agency Glavkosmos) and SK Sharma, a labour contractor.
Conspiracy two was political. As the spy case got bigger with some Malayalam newspapers falling for the salacious details the Kerala police supplied, the AK Antony faction of Congress, which was trying to bring down the K Karunakaran government in Kerala, found an opportunity. Then Youth Congress leader Cherian Philip is on record that he was among the conspirators led by Oommen Chandy who dragged in the name of IG Raman Srivastava, who was Karunakaran’s favourite police officer, into the spy case. Finally, Karunakaran had to resign.
The third conspiracy – the one yet to be proved – may be international, and details of this episode could bring out some very dirty liaisons between some IB officers and foreign intelligence agencies. Pertinent to note is the timing of the spy case. India had just launched its first PSLV, for which Nambi was the project director for two of the four stages of the rocket. He was also heading the cryogenic engine project which was to fuel India’s future projects including interplanetary and manned missions.
It is well known that India can launch satellites at a fraction of the cost of what the US and the European Space Agency charge. India mastering satellite launches, especially with the cryogenic engine that can power bigger rockets, would mean a lot of money flow into the country that would otherwise have gone West. And someone was clearly not happy with that. They partly won, as the spy case slowed down India’s cryogenic project by at least a decade.
In his book ‘Russia in Space: The Failed Frontier’, prolific space writer Brian Harvey details how when Russia was about to hand over cryogenic technology to India, the US clamped sanctions on the two countries. It is also little known history that India had, through a smart circumvention of sanctions, flown crucial parts of the cryogenic engine from Russia in the underbelly of three Ural Airways flights less than a year before the spy case broke out.
And the man India entrusted with the operation answers to the name Nambi Narayanan.
Mariam Rasheeda’s version
Ex-Guj DGP Trashes Rasheeda’s Claim, Calls It Political Plot
Mariam Rasheeda, the Maldivian woman whose arrest triggered the infamous Isro spy case, has named former Gujarat DGP R B Sreekumar, then a joint director of the Intelligence Bureau, as one of the officers who physically tortured her in custody in 1994. The Supreme Court had, on September 14, ordered a committee headed by a retired judge to look at “appropriate steps against erring officials” who handled the case.
“The interrogators showed me photographs of two men and asked me if I knew them. When I said ‘no’, they asked me to identify them as Isro scientist Nambi Narayanan and inspector general Raman Srivastava. When I refused to identify these men who I didn’t know, one officer lifted a chair and hit me on my left leg. Twenty-four years later, a few days ago, I saw the same officer on television, participating in a 2013 debate on the Isro spy case and I identified him as Sreekumar,” Mariam told TOI over phone from an undisclosed location.
Sreekumar said he did interrogate Mariam, but did not use any third-degree measure. He said BJP was behind the allegation as the party has scores to settle with him for acting against Narendra Modi, then Gujarat chief minister, in the 2002 Gujarat riots. “Totally false,” Sreekumar said about Mariam’s charge. “If I tortured her, why didn’t she tell the court that?”
Mariam said the courts did not ask her any question. She was merely produced in various courts and she didn’t understand what was happening. “I was always surrounded by policemen. Even when I had a lawyer I couldn’t talk to him. Also, I didn’t know the identity of the officers who tortured me. Now I know, after watching the re-telecast of that recorded programme, that the officer who hit me with a chair is Sreekumar.”
Sreekumar said he was only one of the several officers who interrogated Mariam. “I was with officer C M Ravindran (who later became the Sikkim DGP) and I have no reason to hide anything … The BJP leadership is targeting me for bringing out the complicity of Narendra Modi in the Gujarat riots,” he said, adding that he will provide all details of the interrogation to the SC-appointed committee if he is asked to.
Mariam said she was in touch with Fauziyya Hassan, another Maldivian woman who was a co-accused in the spy case, and that the two will move SC and international forums of human rights, naming Sreekumar and then Kerala police officers Siby Mathews, S Vijayan and Thambi Durgadutt.
“For close to a month I was tortured in custody; I spent four years in jail,” she said. “I will not let these officers go without being punished. Nobody else should suffer like me.”
Mariam was among the six accused, including Isro scientists S Nambi Narayanan and D Sasikumaran, charged with passing on Indian rocket secrets to Pakistan. Following an investigation and a closure report by the CBI, the SC in 1998 found the case to be false and exonerated all the accused in the case.
On September 14, 2018, the apex court ordered a compensation of Rs50 lakh to Nambi Narayanan.
Mariam Rasheeda (in pic), the Maldivian woman was among the six accused, including Isro scientists S Nambi Narayanan and D Sasikumaran, who were charged with passing on rocket secrets to Pakistan
The ISRO Spy case: 1994