SPACE SCIENTIST Nambi Narayanan is waiting for the compensation that the Supreme Court recently ordered that he be paid for having been framed in a false espionage case. He needs the money to service his debts. “I am looking forward to the day the Kerala government hands me over a cheque of Rs 50 lakh very soon,” he says. While with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), Narayanan introduced liquid fuel rocket technology in India as early as the 1970s. His career was cut short and the cryogenics project delayed by a fictitious scandal 24 years ago when police and intelligence officers arrested him on charges of selling secrets of space technology to alleged Maldivian women spies. The web of lies spun around the ISRO scientist turned out to be a case of espionage that never was. The Supreme Court bench, in its recent verdict, also called for a committee, headed by retired judge DK Jain, to look into the harassment of Narayanan.
“I hope they speed up the process of inquiry into why they did what they did to me. And culprits have to be brought to book as soon as possible,” says Narayanan, now 77. The conspiracy had a cocktail of vested interests behind it: politicians, bureaucrats, international groups and so on. For years after the case surfaced, he was humiliated and ostracised as an anti-national, his wife refused provisions by grocers and his children were spat at on their way to school in Kerala’s capital Thiruvananthapuram, where he still lives.
Though the announcement compensation came decades later, his innocence was proved much earlier. In a hard-hitting report on the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and the Kerala Police, the CBI had dismissed charges against him in 1996, two years after he faced public humiliation and the onslaught of mob patriotism. That year he was reinstated as a senior scientist at ISRO, but said he wouldn’t be the same person again. He also argued that because a lot of changes had taken place at the organisation since he had been away, he wouldn’t be able to work with the passion he used to. And two years later, the Supreme Court exonerated him of all charges and asked the state government to pay him Rs 1 lakh for expenses incurred to fight the case. In 1999, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) asked the Kerala government to pay Rs 10 lakh immediately as interim compensation to Narayanan for the mental and physical torture he and his family had been put through between 1994 and 1996. He did receive the payout of Rs 10 lakh, but only in 2012, eleven years after he retired from ISRO.
Open had reported on his misery in early 2016 on a visit to his home in the West Fort area of Thiruvananthapuram (‘Nambi Narayanan: Still Waiting for Justice’, March 21st, 2016). At the height of what became popular in Kerala as the ‘chara (espionage) case’—later to be mockingly referred to as a ‘charam’ (ash) case—Narayanan’s wife was once asked to get out of an autorickshaw by a driver when he realised her identity, saying he didn’t want to ply the relative of an ‘anti-national’. Fed misinformation by the police and the IB, local dailies had sensationalised the story of Narayanan and D Sasikumaran, Russian space firm Glavkosmos’ representative K Chandra Shekhar and businessman SK Sharma as having sold the nation’s secrets to Maldivian citizens Mariam Rasheeda and Fouzia Hassan in exchange for money and sexual favours. One of the women was described by a daily as a nymph who ‘writhed like tuna’ in bed and as a man-eater who drove around the streets of Thiruvananthapuram at dusk in a Ferrari hunting for men. He rued back then that the motive of the witch-hunt against him hasn’t come to light yet: “I am glad that excellent officers such as DR Karthikeyan, Arun Bhagat, Ashok Kumar, ML Sharma, PM Nair, PC Sharma and others had a uniform opinion of the spy case: that it was a false one. The CBI themselves have found that the case was fabricated. They also found out those who were behind it, including police officers like Sibi Mathews, KK Joshwa and S Vijayan who probed the case, besides IB officers who include RB Sreekumar, Mathew John, GS Nair and six others.” Nothing has changed since then.
Narayanan, a Princeton alumnus who had declined lucrative jobs at NASA and other space research organisations to work in India, was the one who played a pivotal role in creating the most-reliable Vikas liquid fuelled rocket engine used in the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) and the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) series of launch vehicles. And then the ISRO spy case happened and delayed crucial advances in the country’s space programme by 10-15 years. “Which is why it is imperative that the government finds out the motive of the people behind the case,” he says, emphasising that if he has another life on earth, he would never want to be a scientist, but a better father and husband.