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Whodunnit?

TV Jayan | Updated on September 21, 2018

Not guilty as charged: Nambi Narayanan recalls how his children told him that if his innocence was not proved, they would always be known as a spy’s offspring.   -  PTI

A former ISRO scientist accused of spying for Pakistan is still waiting for some answers. The Supreme Court has asked the Kerala government to pay him ₹50 lakh, but S Nambi Narayanan wants to know why he was framed

S Nambi Narayanan can now breathe easy — but he is not going to. There is still work to be done. The Supreme Court (SC) has spoken out in his favour, and the man who had been accused of selling space secrets to Pakistan wants to know why he was framed.

For almost 25 years, the former scientist at the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) fought a legal battle that finally came to an end last week. On September 14, the highest court in the country ruled in favour of the purported villain in the spy racket who was accused of passing Indian space technology secrets to the neighbour. It turned out that there was no such racket. And Narayanan was no spy.

“The judgement makes me quite relieved. I had asked for two things. I wanted to prove my innocence beyond doubt. And I wanted to know the motive behind it (the plot). Both my pleas have been granted. In addition, the honourable court has directed the state government to pay for the mental agony I went through,” Narayanan told BLink from his home in Perunthani, Thiruvanthapuram city.

The SC directed the Kerala government to pay ₹50 lakh to Narayanan for the mental and physical torture he had undergone on account of the fabricated charges, and ordered the constitution of a committee headed by retired judge DK Jain, to probe why such a conspiracy was hatched in the first place.

“We know now how it was done. But we still don’t know why it was done,” says Narayanan.

Now 77, Narayanan, with his flowing white beard and hair, may look like a sage who has attained nirvana. But it is not going to be easy for the former government scientist to forget all that he went through.

He remembers the time his wife was made to step out of an autorickshaw after the driver realised she was Nambi Narayanan’s wife. He also recalls how his children told him that if his innocence was not proved, they would always be known as a spy’s offspring.

Narayanan joined ISRO in 1966 and was instrumental in developing the liquid propulsion technology that was key to the success of the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) — India’s flagship rocket that fired the Chandrayaan and Mangalyaan, and hundreds of satellites. But the accomplished scientist who had contributed immensely to the success of India’s space programme was humiliated by investigating officers while a crusading media branded him a “traitor”.

In late 1994, Narayanan, then working on developing the crucial cryogenic technology, was pulled into the fabricated espionage case. It all started with the arrest of a Maldivian woman, Mariam Rasheeda, on the charge that she had overstayed in India. Soon, she was being projected as a spy, along with a few Indian scientists working for ISRO. The police held that the scientists were trying to sell India’s liquid propulsion and cryogenic technologies to Pakistan through Rasheeda and another Maldivian woman.

What is not clear still is why the plot was hatched. There are many theories, and a great many players. The then chief minister had his share of enemies, and some said the conspiracy sought to bring him down. Some believed that an IPS officer wanted to trip up a senior officer. Others held that the entire plot was hatched by a police officer who had been snubbed by a woman, a foreigner.

Some pointed out that the US then had been trying to stop Russia from selling cryogenic technology to India. A senior Indian intelligence official, who had shown undue interest in the case, was later found to have had unscheduled meetings with his American counterparts, leading to his removal from the post.

But in no time, almost everybody in Kerala was talking about how Rasheeda had worked as a conduit for Pakistan and linking her with D Sasikumaran, Narayanan’s deputy in the cryogenics division at the Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre in Valiamala, near Thiruvananthapuram. Sasikumaran, under pressure from the Intelligence Bureau, said Narayanan was involved in the racket.

The case was handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation, which realised soon enough that it had been cooked up. But it still carried out an investigation over 18 months. In 1998, the SC dismissed the case, but the state government, ruled by successive UDF and LDF fronts, refused to take disciplinary action against its police officials.

Narayanan, who had spent all his savings and borrowed heavily to fight his case, got back only a fraction of what he had spent on litigation despite the state being asked to compensate him. All he got was the ₹10 lakh that the National Human Rights Commission had ordered the government to pay and ₹1 lakh as litigation fee.

The SC verdict came on an appeal by Narayanan, challenging a 2015 judgement of the Kerala High Court refusing to order disciplinary action against the police officers who had falsely implicated him. The apex court also clarified the ₹50 lakh compensation it had ordered would be separate from the ₹1 crore defamation suit that Narayanan had filed in a civil court.

The SC said there was no doubt that a successful scientist had been compelled to undergo “immense” humiliation.

“A human being cries for justice when he feels that the insensible act has crucified his self-respect,” it said.

Published on September 21, 2018

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