‘I was hounded for no fault of mine’: Ex-ISRO scientist
For him, it is not a sweet revenge but a long drawn-battle for justice and truth. Sitting on the verandah of his house in Palkulangara in the heart of the state capital, former scientist of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) Nambi Narayanan is not elated over the media crowd around him yet again. On Thursday, the Supreme Court had ordered a probe led by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) into the wrongful arrest of the 80-year-old in an espionage case 27 years ago that blew up his career and reportedly delayed the country’s cryogenic rocket engine programme.
“Let the truth come out. I was hounded for no fault of mine. The country’s rocket programme suffered badly. Who plotted the entire drama? Let the conspiracy come out,” he said, adding on a lighter note that most of the media men in the capital knew more about the case than him.
But as he got into details, indignation and anger writ large on his bearded face. He remembered the day three policemen descended on his house on November 30, 1994, with a request that their boss, a deputy inspector general of police (DIG), wanted to talk to him. He followed them in their jeep quietly.
At the police station, he was asked to sit on a bench. The DIG did not turn up and he fell asleep on that bench that night. On the following morning, he was informed that he was arrested for espionage among other charges.
It was the beginning of a long ordeal for Narayanan. (Then) DIG Sibi Mathews, who later became the state police chief, is one of the three police officers facing the CBI probe now. Narayanan was in judicial custody for 51 days and allegedly tortured by police officials and later by the sleuths of the Intelligence Bureau (IB). He was forced to stand for long hours without food or water and was even put through a lie detection test.
“I told them bluntly that rocket technology cannot be transferred on a piece of paper. But junior level officers and others kept asking me how I sold secrets. They were eager to frame me. They had no idea about either cryogenic technology or the space programme and they treated me like any other criminal in their custody,” he recalled.
When the espionage case came to light, Narayanan, who was 55 years then, was in charge of the cryogenic division of ISRO. He was the first to introduce liquid prolusion fuel technology. The country’s space technology suffered badly due to the case.
“The technology should have been in use by 1999 but it was delayed for 15 years and finally came in 2014,” he said.
Lodged in the high-security Poojapura central jail, one of the former ISRO scientist’s cell mate was a serial killer. “They were all kind to me and consoled me saying I was framed for some other motive,” he said.
When Narayanan was taken to the court, people mocked him. He was also hounded by the media. The case was later handed over to the CBI and he got bail on January 19, 1995.
The ordeal was far from over. When he returned home, he found his wife Meenakshi Amma had slipped into depression and his two children were also disturbed. “Everything turned upside down for me. Hated by all, I thought of committing suicide on several occasions. But I never wanted to die as a traitor. I lived all these years only to tell my bitter story,” he said.
The sensational case, which later became a plot for several books and movies, surfaced in 1994 when during a beat patrol, two policemen found two Maldivian semi-literate women Mariyam Rasheeda and Fouzia Hassan staying in one of the rented houses in the state capital despite visa expiry. A diary was seized from them which reportedly carried several names, including two senior ISRO scientists -- Nambi Narayanan and D Sasikumaran.
Narayanan, Sasikumaran, a contractor and the two women were charged with offences such as espionage, cheating and hatching conspiracy under various sections, including the Official Secrets Act. They were accused of selling the country’s top rocket secrets to an enemy country for sexual favours and money. Later, the inspector general of police (IG) Ramon Srivastav’s name cropped up in the case.
The case also witnessed a political fallout. Then chief minister K Karunakaran was forced to quit in 1995 when a section of party men led by Congress leaders A K Antony and Oommen Chandy revolted and accused him of protecting Ramon Srivastav. Later, Antony flew down in a chartered flight from Delhi to become the chief minister. Two powerful groups soon emerged in the state Congress and Karunakaran used all his opportunities to corner his rivals in the party.
“My father was hounded badly, citing trumped up charges. More than his opponents, some in the party did more damage to him. He did not get justice. It remained an unhealed wound till his last breath,” K Karunakaran’s son K Muraleedharan said, while welcoming the latest CBI probe into the case.
Srivastav also lauded the order for the CBI inquiry. It is a different story though that the CPI(M) had held a series of agitations against him at the height of the spy scandal. Srivastava, who is now settled in Kerala, is one of the top advisors of present chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan.
Narayanan got relief when the CBI took over the case and exonerated him finally in 1996. The state government moved the Supreme Court with an appeal that was dismissed in 1998.
“Though I was exonerated and taken back into service, the stigma still remained. For the next two decades, I fought many legal battles for my honour and I wanted to make sure it did not happen with any other official in the country,” he said.
The latest CBI probe came after he moved the apex court challenging the High Court order absolving three senior police officers (former DGP Sibi Mathew, former SPs K K Joshua and S Vijayan) in the case. But all the three retired officers later claimed that the Jain Commission never heard them before recommending the CBI probe.
The state government was forced to loosen its wallet and pay a compensation of ₹1.80 crore to Narayanan in three installments. And the country bestowed him the third highest civilian honour Padma Bushan in 2019.
“My age is really weighing on me. Thank God, the SC has set a three-month time frame for the CBI inquiry. I hope I can see the end result of who cooked up the case,” he said.