It all began on October 20, 1994, when Maldivian national Mariam Rasheeda was booked under Section 14 of the Foreigner’s Act and Section 7 of the Foreigners order for overstaying in India after the expiry of her visa. The arrest of Rasheeda sparked off a chain of events in the next few days and months that resulted in the destruction of the careers of two brilliant ISRO scientists, and the disruption of the personal lives of four others. The fake ISRO spy case that had shaken the science community in India and the political administration in Kerala in the 1990s, finally came to an end on Friday when the Supreme Court granted a compensation of Rs 50 lakh to acquitted scientist Nambi Narayanan for being falsely arrested and tortured by the Kerala Police 24 years back.
The case that involved multiple conspiracies with variegated objectives, was directed towards these seven people, who were accused of leaking out vital defence secrets to Pakistan. Broadly speaking, this was not a single case, but a series of cases that involved new characters as it unfolded over time. Here is a look at the seven accused in the case and how the ISRO spy case developed in their presence.
The case not just ruined the careers and reputation of the seven accused, but is also believed to have set ISRO back several years, slowing down its efforts and programmes in mastering cryogenic technology that is currently being used in GSLV rockets.
Mariam Rasheeda was a Maldivian national who was booked by the Kerala Police for a rather routine crime of overstaying in India after the expiry of her visa. Rasheeda had contacted the city police commissioner’s office for an extension of her visa. When he she went to the office for a follow-up meeting on the issue, she came in contact with S Vijayan, the inspector dealing with foreigners. Reportedly, Vijayan made sexual overtures to Rasheeda which the latter turned down and threatened to report him to a senior police official, Raman Srivastava, whom she had met in her previous meeting at the office.
Raman Srivastava was the senior police official with whom Rasheeda met when she went to the office the first time for the extension of her visa. Srivastava was later accused as the mastermind behind the espionage charges. Incidentally, Srivastava was also detested by the then DIG, Siby Mathews, who considered him to be an obstacle in his way to a promotion. Faced with the threat held out by Rasheeda, Mathews and Vijayan decided to frame together the Maldivian national and Srivastava in a concocted case. It is to be noted that Srivastava was also a close aide of then chief minister K. Karunakaran, who was disliked by a certain section of the Congress party in Kerala. His involvement in the case had served as cause for putting pressure of Karunakaran, who was finally forced to quit in March 1995.
Fauzia Hassan was the other Maldivian national who was accused in the case. She along with Rasheeda were fabricated to be the links that would pass on the defence information to Pakistan. They were also shown to be funded by Maldivian banker. In an interview with the Malayalam daily Malayala Manorama, Hassan claimed that she was forced to accept all the allegations against her when the investigators brought her 14-year old daughter before her and threatened to rape her.
The main accused in the case was Nambi Narayanan who was then head of the cryogenics division in ISRO. In the 1970s, Narayanan had introduced liquid fuel rocket technology to India, which he believed was a necessity in furthering ISRO’s future civilian space programmes. Two years before the case was concocted against him, ISRO had signed an agreement with Russia for the transfer of technology for developing cryogenic-based fuel. However, the agreement was severely opposed by America because it was clashing with their trade interests.
Narayanan in his recent 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.
He is noted to have been tortured by the IB officials and he refused to comply till he ultimately collapsed and was hospitalised. However, in 1996 the charges against him and the others were dismissed by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). After the dismissal of the charges though, he and his colleague Sasikumar, who was also arrested in the case, were transferred out of Thiruvananthapuram and given desk jobs. In the subsequent years he has continued to fight a legal battle for compensation for the mental and physical torture he had to undergo, and has also been seeking the arrest of officers who tortured him.
D Sasikumaran was the deputy director of the cryogenic technology division of ISRO and was arrested along with Narayanan in the fake case. He was in charge of the transfer of cryogenic technology transfer from Russia. Sasikumaran has been living in Thiruvananthapuram since his retirement in 1999. Unlike Narayanan though, he has not been seeking for a compensation. However, he has opened up about the fact that he would lay bare the truth about the fake case before a committee set up by the Supreme Court to investigate the matter.
Chandrasekhar was the Russian Space Agency Glavkosmos’ India representative and had been working there since 1992. He too was arrested in the false spy case along with Narayanan and Sasikumaran. He passed away just hours before the Supreme Court announced the Rs. 50 lakh compensation to Narayanan. The last two decades of his life, Chandrasekhar had been Vidyaranyapura in north Bengaluru as a recluse after the torture he underwent under trial by the Kerala Police and the IB. Reportedly, though the case had completely ruined his career and reputation, he did not pursue and investigation into it since his wife was working in central government establishment and after the case their family income was dependent on her job.
S K Sharma was a labour contractor who was the seventh accused in the false spy case. Currently, he stays in Bangalore and is in a terminally ill condition.