A SENIOR systems engineer with BrahMos Aerospace was arrested on Monday on espionage charges in a joint operation carried out by the Uttar Pradesh Anti Terrorism Squad (ATS) and Military Intelligence (MI). The agencies are probing if Nishant Aggarwal (27) leaked sensitive data pertaining to the supersonic cruise missile, Brahmos, to his ‘handler’, who is suspected to be from Pakistan.
BrahMos Aerospace is a joint venture between India’s Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO) and Russia’s Military Industrial Consortium, NPO Mashinostroyenia. According to its website, “the company is responsible for designing, developing, producing and marketing BrahMos with active participation of a consortium of Indian and Russian industries”.
Aggarwal’s Facebook profile states that he studied at the National Institute of Technology, Kurukshetra, and also worked as a research intern at IIT Roorkee. At BrahMos Aerospace, he worked as head of the hydraulics-pneumatics and warhead integration (production department), and headed a 40-member team including personnel from systems, engineers, technical and technology R&D group. Last month, he was awarded the ‘young scientist award’ by DRDO.
According to police, Aggarwal’s name cropped up during the interrogation of BSF jawan Achutanand Mishra, who was arrested last month for allegedly spying for Pakistan’s ISI. Mishra, according to sources, was honey-trapped by a woman who claimed to be a defence correspondent from Pakistan. The two were in touch since 2016. During the course of this probe, the ATS came across two more Facebook accounts which had women on their profile pictures and were seen to be in touch with Aggarwal.
“He was contacted through Facebook by two women who offered him a job. We are probing if he was honey-trapped. He was chatting with these two for the last two years, and, so far, we have found that the IP addresses of these accounts are Pakistan-based,” said Inspector General, UP ATS, Aseem Arun. “We were investigating three FB accounts… We found two more people from Kanpur were approached in the same manner, but we have not found anything solid on which we can make any arrests. We are still digging,” said Arun.
According to sources, a team of UP ATS and the Maharashtra ATS had been camping since Sunday in Sonegaon, in Nagpur, where Aggarwal stayed in a rented accommodation.
“During the searches, a lot of material was seized and these are being studied. The police have also seized his laptop. Aggarwal has been confronted with the leads received so far from technical surveillance and a search of his house,” said a senior official. The raids began in the early hours of Monday and continued till late afternoon, the official added.
“We found confidential information pertaining to defence and security on Aggarwal’s personal laptop, which is a crime under the Official Secrets Act. When Aggarwal was confronted on why such sensitive data was on his laptop, he was unable to give a satisfactory response. We suspect that he had procured this information to pass it on to his handlers who identified themselves as females… He was in touch with them for the last two years and we have managed to get the history of their conversations,” said the official.
A team was also sent to Aggarwal’s house in Roorkee, from where a computer was seized.
“He was supervising the new projects at BrahMos’s Nagpur and Pilani facilities and was privy to a lot of sensitive information. The handlers seem to be interested in getting information on the new technology that was being developed jointly by India and Russia. We suspect it is related to the seekers, but we are still probing. Our probe will also concentrate on whether Aggarwal was lured by only Pakistani’s ISI or any other foreign intelligence agency which is interested in technology developed by Russia,” said the official.
The seeker technology determines the accuracy of a missile. In March this year, BrahMos successfully flight-tested with an indigenous seeker.
Aggarwal, who was interrogated at an undisclosed location in Nagpur, will be produced before a local court for his transit remand, and will be taken to Uttar Pradesh. He has been booked under sections of the OSA and Information Technology Act, 2000.
— With ENS, Lucknow