With the Padma Bhushan conferred on him, former ISRO scientist Nambi Narayanan has reasons to feel vindicated. Twenty-four years after he was accused of leaking vital defence secrets, Narayanan saw a measure of justice when the Supreme Court, in September last year, held that he had been framed. Excerpts from an interview with Pooja Pillai, after the Padma award’s announcement on Friday and at the Tata Literature Festival last year:
Does the Padma Bhushan feel like vindication?
After the Supreme Court’s judgment, the state (Kerala) government executed its job in a grand manner. And now the Central government has done this, and yes, I do feel vindicated in some way. Basically, I was fighting for justice, and it would be good if a lesson was learned from this. Six of us who were targeted by certain individuals within the system were helpless, and the nation also lost out on good work. Most of us lost our dignity. What needs to be done now is that (action of) those individuals should be curbed. That is what I am hoping for.
What did it cost you to fight to clear your name?
A lot of will power and a lot of effort. For me, it was a necessity (to fight). I had no choice – I was not sure whether I would be alive to see the result, but here it is now. The Supreme Court has said that it was “malicious persecution”.
I am reminded of the case of Dr Mohammed Haneef, who was from Bangalore, and who was wrongfully accused of spying by Australia. When their government realised they had made a mistake, besides compensating him, they apologised to him. So what Australia showed to a foreigner, we are not showing to an Indian citizen, who has contributed to the country. That is what we should be comparing.
A 24-year fight for justice and Rs 50 lakh at the end of it as compensation from Kerala government. Is that enough?
What can you do? You can’t do anything. But my main aim was not compensation; it was to punish them (those who targetted him). Now at least I have hope that the Jain committee will do justice.
Do you feel relieved now?
What I would have wanted was an immediate action of arresting those responsible and putting them behind bars. But what you want is immaterial – if you want the sky, and you get something, be happy with that something.
What did India’s space programme lose because of the spy scandal?
I feel India fell behind by something to the tune of 12 to 14 years. But if you talk about this, nobody will react. Nobody is accepting or reacting to this. In fact, you should look into it yourself and check whether what I am saying is true. I am saying that development of cryogenic technology got delayed by 12-14 years. It could be true, or could be a false claim, but you have an easy way of checking it.
Just look at the annual reports of ISRO from 1994 to 2014 or 2015. When you check 1994, it will say that cryogenic system will be launched by 1998 or 1999; then in the annual report of 1999, it will say 2001. In 2001 report, it will be 2014. What does this mean? There was slippage.
Do you think you got enough support from your employer, the ISRO?
They did support me later, but what I had expected was for them to support me right from the beginning. On day one, they didn’t do it. But later they came in support of me, and very vehemently at that. That was useful. But why did they not do it earlier? The case was lodged in 1994, and they only came out in my support in 1997. Why did they keep quiet for three year?
Did you ask them that?
Do you expect me to keep quiet? I went and talked to them, but they had no words in which to tell me why.
Space is the final frontier and countries such as China have trained their sights on it. What should India keep in mind for the future?
The present thinking is that you have become an expert in the geosynchronous launch vehicle. Now you are capable of launching four tonnes into orbit…we targeted 14 years back. Now you are looking at outer space. My own feeling is that you take the US, which has NASA, and in Europe you have ESA. Similarly, we should have ASA. Neither NASA nor ESA is going to achieve what mankind wants because it’s expensive. For this, all three agencies should come together.
Whether there is a political solution to how this can be achieved, I don’t know, but that is the ideal thing to do.
What do you believe is the legacy of this case?
If the police want to arrest someone without evidence, and they say they have done it “in good faith”, that can’t stand. The Law Commission’s 277th amendment is exactly bringing in this point, using my case. So they (police) will now be accountable. I think that is an important milestone. In fact, as Arun Ram (co-writer, Ready to Fire) has put it, the Nambi Narayanan case will be referred to in many future judgements, for the next 100 years.
Your story will soon be on the big screen, with Anant Mahadevan and R Madhavan making ‘Rocketry: The Nambi Effect’.
My daughter will not read the book when it comes to a description of my torture. She just turns the page. She told me to tell Madhavan that he cannot show my torture in the movie. I said they will show whatever happened. There are so many things happening in the story, it’s very thrilling.