Nambi Narayanan: The Scientist Who Wasn’t a Spy

After working for nearly two decades, Nambi Narayanan’s team developed the Vikas engine used by many ISRO rockets.

5 min read
Actor R Madhavan’s biographical drama movie, <i>Rocketry: The Nambi Effect </i>is based on the life of the scientist Nambi Narayanan.

Nambi Narayanan, the former ISRO scientist, is making headlines once again. The reason being the release of the trailer of actor R Madhavan’s biographical drama movie, Rocketry: The Nambi Effect, based on the life of the scientist. The film, which also marks Madhavan’s debut as a director, was shot in more than six countries and was slated to release last year, but got postponed due to COVID-19.

Recently, on 5 April, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) sought an urgent hearing in the 1994 espionage case against Nambi Narayanan as he was charged with leaking confidential information pertaining to India’s space development to foreign agents. The MHA has now moved a plea 'seeking necessary directions in the interest of justice'.

Actor Madhavan as Nambi Narayanan in the movie <i>Rocketry</i>.
Actor Madhavan as Nambi Narayanan in the movie Rocketry.
(Photo: Still from the movie)

Here’s all you want to know about the Padma Bhushan awardee who was instrumental in developing the Vikas engine that was used for the first PSLV that India launched.

Early Life and Education

S Nambi Narayanan was born into a middle-class family, after five girls on 12 December 1941 in Tamil Nadu’s Nagercoil. His father was a businessman, trading in coconut kernel and fibre and his mother a homemaker.

Nambi Narayanan with his wife and daughter.
Nambi Narayanan with his wife and daughter.
(Photo Courtesy: Facebook/ Nambi Narayanan)

He enrolled at the College of Engineering in Thiruvananthapuram for his MTech degree. Subsequently, Narayanan earned a NASA fellowship and was accepted into Princeton University in 1969. He completed his master's program there in chemical rocket propulsion in a record ten months.

Maker of the Vikas Engine

He then returned to India with expertise in liquid propulsion at a time when the late President and scientist APJ Abdul Kalam's team was working on solid motors.

As a senior official at the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), he was in-charge of the cryogenics division. He developed liquid propellant motors, first building a successful 600 kilograms (1,300 lb) thrust engine in the mid-1970s and thereafter moving on to bigger engines.

After working for nearly two decades, Narayanan’s team developed the Vikas engine used by several ISRO rockets.
After working for nearly two decades, Narayanan’s team developed the Vikas engine used by several ISRO rockets.
(Photo Courtesy: Facebook/ Nambi Narayanan)
After two decades, Narayanan’s team developed the Vikas engine used by several ISRO rockets including the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) that took Chandrayaan-1 to the moon in 2008.

The Vikas engine is used in the second stage of PSLV and as the second and the four strap-on stages of Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV).

The False Spy Case

In 1994, a false case turned his life around. Narayanan and another scientist, D Sasikumaran, were charged with leaking vital defence secrets to two alleged Maldivian intelligence officers, Mariam Rasheeda and Fauzia Hassan who had alleged links with Pakistan. Defence officials said the secrets pertained to highly confidential "flight test data" from experiments with rocket and satellite launches.

Narayanan was arrested and spent 50 days in jail. He had claimed that he was asked to make false accusations against the top brass of ISRO and when he refused to comply, he was tortured until he collapsed and had to be hospitalised. He had also alleged that ISRO did not support him in the matter.

Later, federal detectives said there was no evidence of any confidential documents being stolen from the space agency and and an internal investigation by ISRO proved that no drawings of the cryogenic engines were missing.

The charges against him were dismissed by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in April 1996. The Kerala government had tried to reopen it and dragged in the Supreme Court, which finally dismissed the case in 1998.

The Redressal

In September 1999, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) held the Kerala government accountable for having damaged Narayanan's distinguished career in space research.

On 3 October 2012, the Kerala government dropped charges against the police officials who were alleged involved in the false implication on the grounds that over 15 years had passed since the case was initiated. The top officer involved in the case, Siby Mathews, was later appointed Chief Information Commissioner in Kerala (2011 - 2016). Narayanan had approached the apex court challenging the judgement.

Seeking justice, on 7 November 2013, Narayanan stated he will expose those behind the conspiracy.

Even at 71, The Fight for Justice Continues

On 14 September 2018, the Supreme Court appointed a three-member panel to probe the "harrowing" arrest. The bench awarded Narayanan a compensation of ₹ 5,000,000 (roughly US$70,000), to be recovered from the Government of Kerala. A committee headed by retired Supreme Court judge DK Jain was constituted to inquire into the role of officials of the Kerala police in the arrest of Narayanan.

The CBI in its probe report had revealed, that the then top police officials were responsible for his illegal arrest.

The Supreme Court noted on 6 April that the "entire prosecution" initiated by the state police was "malicious and it has caused tremendous harassment and immeasurable anguish" to Narayanan. "It can be stated with certitude" that the fundamental right of life and personal liberty of Narayanan was "gravely affected".

Narayanan’s autobiography titled ‘Ormakalude Bhramanapadham’ was released on 26 October, 2017. He is presently residing in Kerala’s Thiruvananthapuram with his family.

The Nambi-Modi Meet

PM Modi met with Nambi Narayanan and the actor Madhavan.
PM Modi met with Nambi Narayanan and the actor Madhavan.
(Photo Courtesy: Prime Minister Narendra Modi)

Actor Madhavan had taken to Twitter to share pictures from their conversation with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He said that he had showed the PM clips from the film, and he was touched by the visuals and was concerned for the “wrong done” to Narayanan.

“Happy to have met you and the brilliant Nambi Narayanan Ji. This film covers an important topic, which more people must know about. Our scientists and technicians have made great sacrifices for our country, glimpses of which I could see in the clips of Rocketry. He was awarded the Padma Bhushan, the third-highest civilian award in the country. He was instrumental in developing the Vikas engine that was used for the first PSLV that India launched,” Modi tweeted.

(The Quint is available on Telegram. For handpicked stories every day, subscribe to us on Telegram)

Stay Updated

Subscribe To Our Daily Newsletter And Get News Delivered Straight To Your Inbox.

Join over 120,000 subscribers!