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What was the ISRO spy case, involving scientist Nambi Narayanan?

The Supreme Court on December 2 set aside the Kerala HC order granting anticipatory bail to former police personnel and Intelligence Bureau officials accused of conspiracy to frame Narayanan.

Former ISRO Scientist Nambi Narayanan (File)

The Supreme Court on Friday set aside the Kerala High Court’s order granting anticipatory bail to former officials of the Intelligence Bureau and state police facing charges of conspiracy to frame ISRO scientist Nambi Narayanan in an espionage case.

The espionage case, which involved multiple conspiracies, centered around seven people, who were accused of leaking out vital defense secrets. Broadly speaking, this was not a single case, but a series of cases that involved new characters as it unfolded over time. But, what is the case about, who is Nambi Narayanan, and why is it being talked about today? We explain.

What is the ISRO spy case and how did it begin?

The ISRO spy case dates back to October 20, 1994, when the Kerala police registered a case against Mariam Rasheeda, a Maldivian national, under Section 14 of the Foreigners Act 1946 and Section 7 of the Foreigners Order, 1948. The initial charges were of overstaying in India following the cancellation of her flight to Maldives. Following interrogation, the police said that Rasheeda contacted ISRO space scientists who were suspected of having transferred cryogenic engine technology to Pakistan through her. The following month, police registered another case against ISRO scientists D Sasikumaran and Nambi Narayanan, Russian Space Agency Glavkosmos’s India representative Chandrasekhar, Maldivian national Fauzia Hassan, and Bangalore-based labour contractor S K Sharma.

The case was initially probed by Inspector S Vijayan. A special team headed by DIG Siby Mathew arrested Narayanan and other accused. The case was that Narayanan and Sasikumaran had passed on secret documents to other countries, especially Pakistan. They accused Chandrasekhar, Sharma, and inspector-general of Kerala police Raman Srivastava of passing on secrets of the Aeronautical Defence Establishment, Bangalore. They alleged that Chandrasekhar, Sasikumaran, and the two Maldivian women had met secretly to exchange papers and money. The arrested scientists were grilled by Intelligence Bureau sleuths, including Gujarat-cadre IPS officer R B Sreekumar, who was then IB additional director in Kerala.

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Who is Nambi Narayanan?

Working as the in-charge of the cryogenics division at ISRO, Nambi Narayanan is claimed to have foreseen the need for liquid fuelled engines for ISRO’s future civilian space programs and introducing the technology in India as early as the 1970s — the same technology which later he was accused of selling.

Though he was later acquitted by a CBI court and the Supreme Court in 1998, he spent a total of 50 days in jail along with fellow scientist D Sasikumar and four others.

The rocket scientist has been fighting legal battles since 1994, first to clear his name in the case and then for compensation and now for action against the police officers who had implicated him.

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Narayanan in his book Ready to fire: How India and I survived the ISRO spy case, claimed that when the investigation of the case passed on to the hands of the Intelligence Bureau (IB), they were acting in collaboration with the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Their real target was ISRO and its efforts at building efficient rocket technology in India. In order to meet with their objective, they decided to fabricate a story of espionage in which Narayanan was a chief character, who was charged with giving out “drawings and documents” to Pakistan.

What did the CBI say in its report in 1996?

Within 20 days of the case being registered, the probe was handed over to the CBI in 1996. In its report to the Chief Judicial Magistrate, in Ernakulum, the CBI stated that “the evidence collected indicated that the allegations of espionage against the scientists at ISRO, including the appellant herein, were not proved and were found to be false”. This report was accepted by the court and all accused were discharged on May 2, 1996.

The CBI submitted that Siby Mathew (who was part of the investigation) had “indiscriminately” ordered the arrest of the scientists and others without conducting a thorough interrogation or adequately verifying disclosures. The agency said it had not recovered any evidence from the ISRO or the money allegedly paid to the accused by their foreign contacts.

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The CBI report also blamed the Intelligence Bureau for conducting the probe in an unprofessional manner. The IB did not verify the statements of the accused, which the CBI said could have saved the reputation of the scientists. The IB did not share with the Kerala police the basis of their allegations against Srivastava, the CBI said.

But wait… the battle did not finish there

The CPM-led government, which assumed office in May 1996, ordered a reinvestigation of the case. Narayanan and others challenged this in Kerala High Court, which refused to stay the government order for reinvestigation. Narayanan then appealed to the Supreme Court, which quashed the state government order in 1998.

After this, Narayanan moved the National Human Rights Commission seeking compensation of Rs 1 crore from the Kerala police officials who implicated him. In 2001, the NHRC had ordered an interim relief of Rs 10 lakh. In 2006, the state government challenged it in the high court, which in 2012 upheld Narayanan’s contention and ordered the government to give him interim relief of Rs 10 lakh. In October 2013, the then Congress-led government decided to give the compensation.

Then in 2015, the scientist approached the Supreme Court seeking criminal and disciplinary action against Kerala police officials led by Siby Mathew. Mathew had taken voluntary retirement in 2011 and gone on to become the state’s chief information commissioner.

And in September 2018, the Supreme Court, while awarding compensation of Rs 50 lakh to Nambi Narayanan, set up a committee headed by its former judge Justice D K Jain to “find out ways and means to take appropriate steps against the erring” police personnel who allegedly framed Narayanan.

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In April 2021, the SC had asked the CBI to probe the matter after the Centre pointed out that the Jain Commission report stated that “it’s a serious matter which needs deeper investigation”. The CBI subsequently registered cases against the accused, one of whom was RG Sreekumar.

What did the Supreme Court say in its order today?

The Supreme Court’s order came on a plea by the CBI challenging the Kerala HC order granting pre-arrest bail to former Kerala Director General of Police Siby Mathews, former Gujarat ADGP RB Sreekumar, PS Jayaprakash, S Vijayan and Thampi S Durgadutt. A bench of Justices M R Shah and C T Ravikumar asked the High Court to consider their pleas afresh and decide the matter preferably within 4 weeks from the date of receipt of its order.

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The apex court also directed that the accused shall not be arrested for 5 weeks subject to them cooperating with the investigation so that the HC can finally decide their anticipatory bail petitions. “As an interim arrangement….it is directed that for a period of five weeks from today, i.e till the bail applications are finally decided by the High Court upon remand, the respondent accused shall not be arrested subject to their cooperation with the investigation,” the bench said.

First published on: 03-12-2022 at 09:04 IST
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