In late 1994, two Isro scientists in Thiruvananthapuram, including Nambi Narayanan (in pic), two Maldivian women and two businessmen from Bengaluru were arrested by Kerala Police on charges of spying. They were accused of having sold drawings of Isro rocket engines, and of passing on technology, to Pakistan. The Intelligence Bureau (IB) stepped in and began interrogation in the high-profile case. The IB had spoken of a grand design of espionage, but the CBI found no evidence in any of the charges. The courts accepted the CBI report and discharged the accused.
Offer of vengence
As the tough interrogation by the officers of the Intelligence Bureau wore on, Narayanan got agitated, explaining how ludicrous the charge was. He started worrying that he might be killed. The interrogators wouldn’t reveal their identities. They were committing a crime, he told them, and he would make them pay.
That's when one of the Intelligence Bureau officers piped up. "Sir, we are doing our duty. If what you are saying is the truth and you are vindicated, you can slap us with your slippers."
Two decades on, Narayanan has not forgotten the offer.
Finally, some respite
In 1998, the apex court granted him compensation of Rs 1 lakh, following which he had approached the National Human Rights Commission, which ordered the state to pay Rs 10 lakh in 2001, though it was another decade before the state complied with the order. The Supreme Court appeal is the last leg of the former ISRO scientist’s quest to hold those who arrested him accountable.
Finally on September 14, the Supreme Court ruled that Nambi Narayanan was "arrested unnecessarily, harassed and subjected to mental cruelty" and awarded Rs 50 lakh compensation to the 76-year-old scientist.
A dreadful day
The day was November 30, 1994. The previous month, the Kerala Police had arrested a Maldivian woman, Mariam Rashida for overstaying without a visa. Later, they charged her with espionage. When they found the number of ISRO scientist D Sasikumaran in her diary, the cops got suspicious. They went on to arrest Sasikumaran, Rashida’s friend and Maldivian national Fouziyya Hassan, and two Bangalore-based businessmen. They were charged with conspiring and selling drawings of ISRO’s Vikas engine and cryogenic technology to Pakistan. On November 30, Nambi Narayanan, then the director of the cryogenic engine project at ISRO, was also taken away.
The scars remain
During the interrogation Narayanan was told what the charges were, and he could not get over the ludicrousness of it all. For one, he was being accused of selling a technology (the cryogenic engine), which India did not possess at that point. Secondly, as he tried to explain to his interrogators, merely by giving drawings, as he was being accused of doing, an engine could not be made without long years of development. "We were getting the Vikas engine fabricated by outsiders. When we floated the tender, over 200 people asked for the drawings and we sent it to all of them. Now, why should I sell the same drawings?”
There were no takers for his arguments. The questioning was interspersed with physical violence, he says, including blows on his neck, head and torso. After being made to stand for over 30 hours, he finally collapsed.
Narayanan, then a senior scientist who had worked under the likes of the legendary Vikram Sarabhai, sounds matter-of-fact now. "People would come to our house and burn my effigy, call me names, shout slogans... My family suffered a lot. My children were agitated and would fight back. But my wife slipped into depression and stopped talking," he said.
As an India Today story of that time points out, sentiment was running so high that children of ISRO scientists were mocked in schools. Narayanan says stones were thrown at ISRO buses and morale at the institute had dipped. His wife, Meena, was once forced to get out of an autorickshaw she was travelling in when the driver realised who she was. "The most cruel part was that it was raining at the time," he said.
CBI takes over the case
He felt the tide finally turning in his favour when the Central Bureau of Investigation took charge of the case, following a request by state DIG Siby Mathews. Narayanan was taken into custody the very day Mathews sent the request for the CBI to take over the investigation, which has made the scientist and his family repeatedly question the urgency for the arrest.
Unlike the IB officers, the CBI seemed willing to listen to what the scientist was saying and treated him courteously. Importantly, though there were repeated rounds of questioning, there was no violence, and at the end of it, the officers apologised to him for charging him with espionage. When the CBI filed its closure report in April 1996, it stated that the espionage case was false and that they found no evidence to back the charges of the IB and the Kerala Police.
Release from jail
Narayanan and Sasikumaran were released on bail a year before, having spent some 50 days in prison. But for a year from then, till the CBI filed its closure report, life was hell, with the world seeing him as a spy who betrayed his country.
Hurt is not so easily erased
That's when Narayanan contemplated taking his life. "I had never seen him like that. Even now, I can't talk about it without crying. It's very difficult," says Geetha, her voice breaking as she recounts how she and her brother, Shankar, had to step in. They told him that if he did not fight the accusations, they would go down in history as the children of spies, a label that would stick for generations. "We knew that only my dad could fight this out. And it's only because of Nambi Narayanan that this case has seen the light of day."
Faith in the system
Despite his travails, the scientist is categorical about his faith in the system. "I was not let down even in one court of law. That shows the system is working," he says. His daughter, Geetha, is more circumspect. "I don't know. I do care a lot about my country but the system has let us down," she says. "Justice delayed is justice denied."