ISRO scientist Nambi Narayanan’s false indictment exposes the pitfalls of investigating espionage by Police and Intelligence Agencies
Nambi Narayanan, former in-charge of cryogenics division in ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation), must be a happy man today. He no longer carries the stigma of being an espionage agent. In 2018, Supreme Court exonerated him completely of all charges and has now awarded monetary compensation of fifty lakh rupees, apart from constituting an SIT (Special Investigative Team) to inquire into the role of police officers of Kerala and Intelligence Bureau in maliciously framing him for allegedly selling the technology of cryogenic engine to Pakistan in lieu of huge amount of money. It is some relief for a man whose personal life, career and reputation had been ruined and who remained ostracized for nearly a decade with no relief coming from subordinate courts, media and the civil society.
His case illustrates the systemic infirmities in dealing with an espionage case. Investigative agencies like the Police and the CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation) look for evidence that can conclusively link the suspect with his handler and the organization that he is supposed to be working for. It is not easy to obtain such evidence as they involve finding an operative based out of India and an intelligence service that works behind a cobweb of subterfuge. Since the emphasis of investigators is on procuring evidence that stands the judicial scrutiny, their ‘intent’ and ‘training’ push them to decide which evidence to choose, which to discard and how to handle suspects in the interrogation centre and how far to go to fix the evidences. The ‘intent’ can be both genuine and mischievous. In Nambi Narayanan’s case, the initial intent of IB (Intelligence Bureau) and state CID of Kerala Police may have been to expose an espionage module which threatened to sabotage country’s ambitious cryogenic engine development programme. However, subsequent events clearly demonstrated that the intent was self-serving and at times, diabolic.
Nambi’s tryst with misfortune began in October 1994, when based on an IB input, the police seized a diary from Maldivian women – Mariam Rasheeda and Fauzia Hassan. During their interrogation, Nambi’s name surfaced. Thereafter it was all mayhem. He along with his colleague D. Sasikumaran and five others were arrested and interrogated harshly and charged under the Secrets Act for leaking designs of cryogenic engine in lieu of receiving unaccounted millions from the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan’s espionage agency) and sexual favours from the two women. It is a different matter that the search of his house and a check on his antecedents embarrassed the investigators comprehensively.
The media had a field day, intoxicated by the heady cocktail of information involving women, ISI and ISRO. They continuously ran angry and salacious stories, calling upon the then UDF government to purge ISRO of traitors and expose the US conspiracy of derailing India’s PSLV (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle) programme. Inevitably, the politics got involved. Leftists blamed the government for soft-pedalling the case under American pressure. Even opponents of Chief Minister Karunakaran in the Congress conspired with the opposition to have Karunakaran removed. His ouster was reminiscent of withdrawal of Congress support to Prime Minister Chandrashekhar on the spurious ground that the latter had authorized surveillance around Rajiv Gandhi’s residence.
Finally, CBI entered the scene. They had the benefit of looking at evidence collected by the Kerala Police from a distance and a little more objectively. They encountered no ISI operative, no evidence of Nambi’s sexual escapades, no acquisition of unexplained wealth, no incriminating conversations, calls or communications and no breach of security of his work in ISRO. In 1996, they dismissed all charges against Nambi Narayanan and D. Sasikumar and submitted a closure report which the court promptly accepted. Not happy with the CBI’s course of action, the state government of Kerala issued a notification authorizing the Police to re-investigate the case and even obtained its endorsement from Kerala High Court.
However, it was in 2018 that the Supreme Court exonerated both indicted scientists, with all retrospective service benefits. For Nambi Narayanan, it had been a long journey of pain, humiliation and loss of a promising career as a scientist. But he traveled the distance courageously. The Intelligence Bureau’s role in this case remained highly questionable. There is no denying that intelligence agencies–IB, R&AW and DMI (Directorate of Military Intelligence) face an envious task of uncovering an espionage agent. This is because they obtain information from sources who cannot be produced in courts as witnesses or from technical devises which can neither be shown nor played before judges to avoid compromising their operating tools. At best, they can share information with the Police in confidence which it must get corroborated by prosecutable evidences. The intelligence agencies’ occupation is merely to identify the suspect, understand his motive, his modus operandi and know about his network of contacts.
IB’s role should have ended once Nambi Narayanan was taken for questioning, waiting for him to reveal ISI’s collaborators in the ISRO and the role of Maldivian intelligence agencies in subverting Indian nationals at Pakistan’s behest. Instead, they acted as investigators and manufactured information to fill the gaps in the evidence. They sold to Kerala Police a calamitous picture of what Nambi was up to. The IB officer who was supervising the case from Delhi was known for his obsession with the ISI. He apparently convinced himself that Maldivian girls were ISI agents and they had honey-trapped Nambi Narayanan and Sasi Kumaran to steal the cryogenic technology to benefit Pakistan. Late President APJ Abdul Kalam who headed the solid propulsion system in ISRO at the time of this incident, chose the IB’s centenary endowment lecture to mention in his inimitable style that sometimes in the intelligence game, innocents were unfortunately picked and framed. He hoped that IB would draw right lessons from the indignities heaped on his friend Nambi Narayanan and Sasi Kumaran and avoid inflicting similar tragedies. The sting in his simple words was for everyone in the auditorium to feel.
IB made the same mistake when it hounded Ratan Sehgal, one of its brightest officers and forced him to retire. Sehgal’s frequent meetings with a US diplomat was cited as evidence to condemn him as an espionage agent for the US. It was never proved what secrets he shipped. Actually, he was far too smart to be subverted but was felled by departmental pettiness. Like him, Nambi Narayanan was far too wiser to sell liquid engine technology to the enemy. It had been his life-long passion and he had worked very hard to develop it, certainly not to share with Maldivian women. But then, he did not reckon the destructive power of the Police and IB.
The accused of Samba spy scandal fared worse than Nambi Narayanan and their sufferance was more gruesome. It happened in 1976 when based on IB’s intercepts, gunner Sarwan Das and his colleague Aya Singh were arrested in 1976 by the Army’s Military Intelligence (MI) for carrying out trans-border smuggling and peddling tactical information pertaining to troops’ location in the Samba sector in Jammu to the Pak Military Intelligence. Facing heat from ruthless interrogators, Das named Capt. Rathore and Capt. AK Rana as their accomplices who in turn implicated others to escape torture. Between 1978-79, 157 active duty Army officers including Brigadiers, Lt. Cols, Majors, Captains, JCOs, NCOs of 168 infantry Brigade and its subordinate units and 11 civilians were arrested on charges of spying for Pakistan. Their merciless questioning produced volumes of doctored confessions. Later, in a farcical Court Martial trial, 19 officers were sacked, 14 including Rana and Rathore were sentenced to life imprisonment and others were departmentally punished. Twenty-two years later, the Delhi High Court termed their trial a monumental miscarriage of justice and exonerated all of them. However, the Supreme Court set aside the High Court’s judgement under an erroneous belief that the clock could not be turned back after so many years, when all accused had long completed their punishment. It was a unique case of espionage in which droves of officers and men were punished based on confessions, extracted in interrogation centres. There were no independent evidences, no verifiable technical inputs and no witnesses that could conclusively link the indicted officers with the Pak Military Intelligence.
R&AW faced its Nambi Narayanan moment in 2004 when Rabinder Singh, a joint Secretary, was suspected for working for the CIA. He was promptly placed under video and audio surveillance, which produced huge data, clearly hinting that he was passing classified papers to the CIA. But neither his handler nor footprints of his operating agency ever blipped on surveillance radar. He was also never seen handing over any classified document to any unauthorized person. There was enormous pressure from all quarters on the chief investigator to arrest Singh on suspicion, interrogate him and extract a confession. And if the espionage case did not stick, then the suggestion was to plant drugs, weapons and secret documents on his person and frame him in a different case to punish him. The investigator argued that fearing torture, Singh would surely spin a story like Samba officers and Maldivian girls and falsely implicate former chiefs, politicians, retired defence officers, RAW officers etc. He therefore refused to arrest Singh in the absence of conclusive evidences. The suspect meanwhile escaped from India and landed in the US with the CIA’s help.
The media, security experts and misinformed people pilloried this RAW investigator for letting Singh go unpunished but the latter did not relent. Unlike in the case of Nambi Narayanan and Samba spy scandal, he refused to let doctored confessions be the basis for prosecuting Singh. It was a very difficult decision to take but he took it nevertheless, for it was legally justifiable and morally sustainable. If Kerala police and the IB had restrained themselves from concocting evidences with dubious intent, ISRO would have launched PSLV with liquid cryogenic engine of Nambi Narayanan and his team, a decade earlier