National Interest: The ISRO Spy Case Test

Truth must be the first imperative no matter what the herd says

This week saw the return of a voice, and face, from a distant past in our headlines: former Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) scientist S. Nambi Narayanan. A brilliant rocket scientist, he not only lost his career, but also a decade of his life, his meagre savings, honour, academic work and self-esteem, through a witch-hunt in which his fellow ISRO scientist D. Sasikumaran, senior IPS officer Raman Srivastava, two Maldivian women, Mariam Rasheeda and Fauzia Hassan, and many others were also similarly trapped in 1994. This was called the ISRO spy case. The Kerala press picked it up first, the opposition Left Front made it a cause celebre, using it to target the then incumbent chief minister, UDF's K. Karunakaran. He had to resign under pressure. Then it caught the imagination of the national media, and also some but truth to tell, only some of the chronic conspiracy theorists in the RSS-BJP. The larger narrative was expanded to take in, predictably for those days, Prabhakara Rao, Prime Minister Narasimha Rao's son. For details of the story, you have to do some archival reading. But the story, basically, was that these two Maldivian women were some kind of a Mata Hari duo, renegades from their country's secret service, who were ultimately working for the Pakistani ISI, Russian scientific smuggling syndicates, international armament mafias, and probably every villain in the world including Mogambo and Shakal or any other avatar of Amrish Puri and Ajit. Through a complex web of subterfuge, accomplices, bribery, sexual favours and cash, they built a network of "traitors" that included scientists, top policemen, businessmen and even Rao's son to steal the most sensitive secrets from ISRO, particularly its cryogenic engine plans and the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) projects.

While the CBI concluded and ultimately reported to a special court in Kochi as early as 1996 that the entire case was a fabrication, it took the legal system nearly a decade to give the scientists their honour back as the Supreme Court, finally, set the record straight in a stinging judgment that devastated the entire case. Raman Srivastava was able to resurrect his career and retired as DG, BSF. And Nambi Narayanan has finally won his case for a small compensation of Rs 10 lakh from the National Human Rights Commission (contested by the Kerala government, but now restored by the Kerala High Court). The money will not bring back his lost years or honour. Nor will it make up for the torture and humiliation he had to suffer. It may give him some sense of closure. But, a shattered man of 71 now, he still wants to fight on.

But why am I telling you this story now?

It is because, probably driven by reporter's luck, I did get caught up in this story through an unusual set of circumstances. It brought me lessons that I shall cherish for ever professionally. I call it, in fact, the ISRO Spy Case Test. But we will come back to it later.

It was towards the end of 1994, when Rao's minority government was tottering in its third year that the story broke. It was then hailed as the biggest spy story, the most damaging security breach ever in India's history and it looked as if the entire Indian space and missile programme had been exposed, and destroyed from within, for just a little bit of free sex and quite a bit of money. I wasn't directly covering or handling the story yet, but was as outraged as any fellow Indian would have been. It was in that period that on one of my frequent visits to Chennai (then Madras) I found myself sitting next to a prominent scientist of ISRO pedigree (let's not name him just now). In-flight conversation veered inevitably to the ISRO spy case. He did not engage, and was careful not to say yes or no to anything. His reserve broke only once, when I said, how could such senior scientists be keeping thousands of such classified documents (the police case said 75 kg) in their homes and be selling them to India's enemies?

He looked into my eyes, and said, deadpan: "ISRO is an open organisation, my friend. At ISRO, we do not classify anything."

Then what is this case all about, I asked.

"You go and find out," he said, "You used to be an investigative reporter, I believe," he said.

I still haven't figured whether he was deliberately mocking or needling me. But he did get me interested in the case. I checked it out with my old friends in the intelligence and security agencies. They all said how shocked they were by such senior scientists' and a top police officer's betrayal. But one, just one, whose identity I still cannot reveal, came down the North Block staircase to see me off and said, with some pain, that what we are looking at is a replay of the sham Samba Spy Case. In fact, he said, it is an even more horrible frame-up, and that nobody in the system was willing to raise any questions yet, given the politics behind it.

The basic story sounded like a spy thriller. But most real-life espionage stories are not as straightforward as that and this, particularly, seemed to have a few holes, beginning with that one factoid that ISRO did not classify its documents. Where did the Official Secrets Act come in then? The result of that long journalistic investigation, ultimately, was a six-page investigation published in the January 31, 1995 issue of India Today, headlined, 'The Great Espionage Mess'. Three brilliant colleagues worked with me on that investigation, Jacob George in Cochin, M.G. Radhakrishnan in Trivandrum and Saritha Rai in Bangalore (she now writes The Fifth Metro column on the Indian Express Op-Ed page). Our conclusion was that what was hailed as a great espionage story was in fact a shocking frame-up. It was full of fabrications and inconsistencies. Some so bad you wonder what quality of homework, and creative writing, goes into the thousands of chargesheets filed against poor illiterate people all over the country if this could happen to well-educated, reputed, and at least decently salaried, government officers and scientists.

You will find some basic facts and turning points in the story, as also some of the more glaring inconsistencies, or rather, fantasies employed to build the case (see 'How it unfolded' and 'Holes in IB's spy ring case'). But a CBI inquiry at the topmost level, then director Vijay Rama Rao himself visited Kerala to check things out threw out the case as fabricated; the UDF, even after Antony replaced Karunakaran, lost the election in 1996; the LDF tried to reopen the case, but was ultimately thwarted by the Supreme Court.

The editor and publisher of India Today, and I, as the reporter, had to deal with a few libel cases filed by some Kerala police officers aggrieved by the story. But I realised, on one of those appearances in a Trivandrum court, that it was a minor inconvenience for me, flying in comfortably and staying at the Kovalam Beach Resort while the two poor Maldivian women, still detained in the faraway Thrissur prison, were brought for each hearing in a rattle-trap police bus on a notoriously bad road.

So the legal challenge wasn't the main problem. The real issue was the general opprobrium among sections of the intelligentsia, and certainly within the journalistic community who had spent months building the fiction of this allegedly greatest spy story ever. It was suggested that we were in the pay of Narasimha Rao and foreign agencies, needed to get our heads examined and so on. We can only be grateful there was no internet or Twitter then.

But this also underlines to us the fact that in the maaro-maaro, chor-chor environment, if you question conventional wisdom, if you say the emperor has no clothes, you must be nuts, or corrupt, or both. Particularly if the "emperor" in this case happens to be the media and the "conventional" wisdom the commonly shared belief within the herd. We had faced a similar storm after I had done a story in the same magazine in early 1984, reporting that Indian intelligence agencies were running training camps for Sri Lankan Tamil separatists and thereby feeding a Frankenstein. To come to more recent times, we had to deal with something similar with our story ('The January night Raisina Hill was spooked: Two key Army units moved towards Delhi without notifying Govt', IE, April 4, http://goo.gl/XBziI) on the army movements on the nights of January 16-17 towards Delhi.

Similar challenges arise all the time: the alleged ISRO-Devas deal, for example, which was initially hailed as a Rs 2-lakh-crore scam, even by respectable media organisations, and ended up as not more than an administrative irregularity, if at all. It was no scandal, certainly no financial scam.

How do you deal with this? The only way is to look for facts, more facts, check them and then go with the first principle in our business: truth doesn't hurt anyone. Nor does the fact of telling it, and if it unleashes a storm, you have to have it in you to deal with it. That is journalism of courage, this great newspaper's hallmark. Because truth, ultimately, has to come out.

Nobody who abused you early on sends you a note of apology later though I did get one from J.N. Dixit, one of the architects of our Sri Lanka policy and finally national security advisor. But you seek satisfaction in seeing a Nambi Narayanan fight on so inspirationally and successfully.

Or, in a second chance encounter with the prominent defence scientist with ISRO pedigree we had talked about earlier. One who had said on that flight to Madras that ISRO was an open organisation that did not classify its documents and had set us on this story. It was a couple of years after the story was published. On January 15, at the Army Day reception, the same distinguished scientist walked up to me. I folded my hands in polite namaste, but he surprised me by poking my chest to the left with his forefinger. And then he said: "What you did on the ISRO story was like applying balm to our wounded hearts. We had built that organisation and that rocket project with our blood and sweat. You people helped save it from being destroyed."

That scientist, if you haven't guessed already, was A.P.J. Abdul Kalam.

How it unfolded

1994: On October 20, Mariam Rasheeda was arrested by the Kerala police. On October 22, K. Chandrasekharan, an agent for the Russian space agency Glavkosmos in India, was arrested based on Rasheeda's "confessions". On October 30, ISRO scientist S. Nambi Narayanan was arrested. On November 13, a Maldivian, Fauzia Hassan, known as Rasheeda's handler, was arrested from Bangalore where her daughter was a school student. On November 15, the Congress government in Kerala formed a special probe team headed by DIG Siby Mathews. On November 22, another ISRO scientist D. Sasikumaran was arrested from Ahmedabad, where he was then posted. On December 1, Bangalore-based labour contractor S.K. Sharma was arrested. On December 2, the case was handed over to the CBI. On December 7, CBI questioned IG Raman Srivastava.

1995: On January 23, Rasheeda and Hassan were given bail, but continued to stay in jail as there was no one to stand surety for them. The issue had become a political controversy within the Congress, targeting then Kerala CM K. Karunakaran. Leading the attack against Karunakaran was his rival A.K. Antony. Karunakaran was accused of protecting Srivastava. Sections of the local media unleashed a smear campaign against the scientists and the women, besides gunning for Karunakaran. In March, Karunakaran was forced to quit over his refusal to suspend Srivastava and Antony took over as CM. On May 1, CBI submitted a closure report in a special court in Kochi. In June, the new CPM-led LDF government withdrew the consent given to the CBI to probe the case and decided on a re-investigation by the state police. On December 14, the Kerala High Court allowed reinvestigation.

1996: On January 13, the CBI moved the Supreme Court against the state government's decision to reinvestigate. Nambi Narayanan challenged the re-investigation order in the high court, which upheld the government decision.

1997: On December 12, Hassan was released.

1998: The Supreme Court, which quashed the Kerala government order to re-investigate on April 29, said the move was against good governance. All accused were freed of the charges. On April 30, Rasheeda was released.

2001: The National Human Rights Commission ordered an interim compensation of Rs 10 lakh for Nambi Narayanan, who sought Rs 1 crore as damages. The Kerala government got a stay on the NHRC order. Nambi Narayanan moved a division bench of the high court.

2012: On September 7, the division bench of the high court vacated the stay and asked the government to pay interim relief to Nambi Narayanan within three weeks. The bench said the NHRC could continue the proceedings for the final hearing.

Holes in IB's spy ring case

It was alleged that five conspirators Mariam, Fauzia, Sasikumaran, Nambi Narayanan, Chandrasekharan met in Hotel Madras International between January 24 and 26, 1994, where they passed documents and took cash from "ISI's Colombo-based Maldivian agent" Zuheira. CBI investigators traced five persons called Chandrasekharan who had stayed in the hotel on those three days. None of them was the person the IB claimed was involved in the case.

The hotel register had the names of R.S. Srivastava and Sasi Kapur. They turned out to be people not connected to the case. On those three days, Raman Srivastava was supervising the Republic Day parade rehearsal in Trivandrum.

According to the CBI, Mariam and Fauzia failed to identify Raman Srivastava in pictures or during an identification parade. They identified a retired IAF Squadron Leader, R.K. Bhasin, as Srivastava, the man they used to call the "Brigadier".

It was alleged that Nambi Narayanan was a key member of the spy ring. The CBI said he had never met Mariam or Fauzia.

The CBI found Nambi Narayanan's standard of living much lower than even that expected of a government employee with a basic pay of Rs 7,300. The panchnama of recoveries from his house listed six cane chairs, two tables, a couple of lamps, etc. He had recently sold his car and refrigerator.

It was alleged that Mariam and Fauzia were handing out lakhs for information. But it turned out both were hard up for cash. Fauzia borrowed Rs 10,000 for her daughter's capitation fee from Sara Palani with whom she stayed as a paying guest in Bangalore. Mariam sold a gold chain for Rs 4,000 in Trivandrum to pay for her extended stay.

The IB said Sasikumaran met Zuheira in Hotel Fort Manor, Trivandrum, between March and June, 1990. The hotel started functioning only in December, 1991.

It was alleged that a 40-kg consignment of secret documents was booked on a flight of the Russian cargo company Ural Aviation in Trivandrum. Customs records showed no such entry.

sg@expressindia.com

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