With the grant of compensation of Rs 50 lakh to Nambi Narayanan, accompanied by the observation that the proceedings against him were actuated by whims and fancies rather than evidence, the case concerning the Isro scandal, which had rocked India at a very delicate juncture in the 1990s, has finally been laid to rest. The former Isro scientist’s case demanding compensation of Rs 1 crore for wrongful arrest and custodial torture will continue separately, but it is now established that there was no spy scandal at all. A figment of the imagination of policemen, politicians and the local press in Kerala had created a public uproar which ruined lives and careers, and, by Narayanan’s own estimation, had set India’s cryogenic engine programme back by two decades. National security and the reputation of Indian space science were compromised by a case which was completely concocted out of found objects, like an art installation — a leading scientist, a couple of foreign women and some imaginative policemen and intelligence officers in search of career advancement.
Narayanan was the country’s leading authority in liquid fuel rocketry, which would supersede solid fuel engines in use at the time, in order to propel heavier payloads into geostationary orbit. Indeed, liquid fuel stages and cryogenic engines have elevated Isro to the status of a leading provider in the satellite launch vehicle market — two foreign payloads were delivered into orbit just this week. But at the time when Narayanan was developing the technology, in the face of a concerted effort by the US to deny India access to cryogenic technology — a deal with Russia was scrapped — the cooked-up spy scandal had enormous repercussions, and added to the uncertainty prevailing at the time.
The Supreme Court’s exoneration of Narayanan also makes two great strides forward, which will aid future victims of an arbitrary police and security system. Traditionally, justice has been seen to be done when a person unjustly accused is exonerated. The victim is rarely restituted the value of the years spent in court or in custody, or for agony suffered, or a career destroyed. However, the court has awarded a substantial compensation to Narayanan, which would at least defray the cost of his defence. Even more important is the constitution of a committee headed by a retired judge of the Supreme Court to probe the role of the Kerala police officials who were responsible for Narayanan’s arrest without just cause. Fixing personal responsibility is the only effective deterrent against such misuse of official power. Apart from the agony that these officials have visited upon Narayanan and others arrested in the case, they have caused incalculable damage to the national interest, and must be made to pay for it.