ISRO ‘Espionage’ Case: Scientist Nambi Narayanan Demands New Probe

Narayanan, who continues to fight legal battles against IB & Kerala Police, has demanded a thorough investigation. 

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S Nambi Narayanan, a former senior Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) scientist who was accused of espionage by the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and the Kerala Police in 1994 and later exonerated, has recently published his autobiography detailing his hardships as an accused.

The English translation of his Malayalam book is expected to release soon. The CBI report which had absolved Narayanan, also criticised the IB and Kerala Police for coming up with a false case, and an ‘unprofessional investigation’.

Narayanan, who continues to fight legal battles against the IB and Kerala Police for falsely implicating him in a case of espionage and torturing him, has demanded a thorough investigation to uncover the motivations behind the case.

He says that the case delayed the development of cryogenic technology in India, causing a loss of billions of dollars.

Narayanan, indicating that ‘some of the superpowers’ did not want India to evolve in the field of cryogenic technology, told The Quint:

ISRO had signed a contract with Glavkosmos, a Russian firm in 1991 for the transfer of cryogenic technology to India. But America imposed sanctions on Glavkosmos and ISRO alleging the violation of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). However at the same time, USA, France and Russia had quoted cryogenic technology to India.
S Nambi Narayanan, ex-ISRO scientist to The Quint

Thus, Narayanan stated that the espionage case set back India’s progress in cryogenic technology by around 15 years. According to the former scientist, there was a foreign power or agency behind the conspiracy.

A special team with members from CBI, IB, RAW, Kerala Police and ISRO should investigate the conspiracy behind the espionage case. This is important, as what happened then (with me) could be repeated in any of our strategic establishments. 
S Nambi Narayanan, ex-ISRO scientist to The Quint

What Was the ‘ISRO Espionage’ Case?

On 20 October 1994, Mariam Rasheeda, a Maldivian national working with the Maldives Police department’s intelligence wing was taken into custody in Thiruvananthapuram, on charges of overstaying without valid documents. It was also found that she had had telephonic exchanges with an ISRO scientist, D Sasikumar.

Based on this, a case under the Official Secrets Act was registered against D Sasikumar for ‘unauthorised contact with a foreign national’, although his arrest took place later. Soon after, Rasheeda’s Maldivian friend Fausia Hassan, was also taken into custody. The IB unit in Kerala became actively involved in the case on suspicions that ‘material relevant to national security had been leaked’.

On 15 November 1994, a Special Investigative Team (SIT) led by Siby Mathews, who was then a DIG with the Kerala Police, took over the case.

At the time, based on Rasheeda and Hassan’s statements, others including scientist Sasikumar, Indian representative of Glavkosmos, Chandrashekaran, Bangalore-based businessman SK Sharma, and Nambi Narayanan were arrested.


On 2 December, the case was transferred to the CBI based on the recommendations of the Kerala Police.

On 13 January 1995, the Kerala High Court made observations based on some of the interrogation videos, and criticised the CBI for not investigating the case systematically. The court also noted that the accused had given statements of their free will and not under any pressure from the IB.

The CBI filed its report in 1996, accusing the IB and the Kerala Police of fabricating a false case. Sasikumar and Mariam were found to have had mere social exchanges which didn’t pose any threat to the nation. Narayanan didn’t even know the women who were forced to state his name under torture, according to the CBI. The report also recommended action against the former investigators. The police were criticised for allowing the IB to participate in the interrogation.


A Divided Investigation

On 29 April 1998, the Supreme Court removed the criticism against the CBI from the High Court order and called out the Kerala government for conducting a re-investigation in the meantime.

After the Supreme Court order, Narayanan began his fight for justice against the then interrogators, who were with the IB and the state police, and a filed a defamation suit against the officers. The National Human Rights Commission had ordered the government to compensate Narayanan.

The state police handed me over to IB which subjected me to extreme torture. If those officers are interrogated, the conspiracy can be revealed.
Nambi Narayanan to The Quint

Narayanan has maintained that the possibility of espionage was non-existent.

The drawings of the Vikas rocket engine, which were claimed to have been leaked, were sent by ISRO to private fabricators. Hence, there was no question of anyone leaking them.
Nambi Narayanan to The Quint
The Vikas (an acronym for Vikram Ambalal Sarabhai) is a family of liquid fuelled rocket engines designed by the Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre in the 1970s.

What Former Investigators Have to Say

When contacted, Mathew John, the then Director of the Kerala unit of the IB refused to respond. However, RB Sreekumar, former Gujarat DGP who was the then deputy director of IB in Kerala, said the investigation was deliberately destroyed.

Citing the book Open Secrets, written by MK Dhar who was the then joint director of the IB, Sreekumar claimed that the names of a close associate of the then Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao had emerged during the interrogations, which sabotaged the case.

Sreekumar says that espionage cases are usually investigated by the IB. In this case, the Maldivian women worked in their intelligence wing and had documents in their native language. IB had the relevant language and technical experts.

At every stage of our investigation, the Prime Minister’s Office was kept informed. Therefore, the accusation against the IB was merely an excuse to sabotage the case.
RB Sreekumar, ex-Deputy Director, Intelligence Bureau, Kerala

Siby Mathews, former DIG with the Kerala Police and ex-chief in the case, stood by the decision to arrest the scientists.

As I had investigated the case for a limited time, I cannot pass comments about their culpability. But there were adequate reasons to arrest them.
Siby Mathews

Rasheeda and Hassan had mentioned the roles of the key accused, including that of Narayanan, added Siby Mathews.


Mathews cites a few reasons for Narayanan’s arrest. The latter had submitted his resignation to ISRO, just ten days after Rasheeda’s arrest. Narayanan had asked to be relieved of his duties within ten days. “We were apprehensive that he might leave the country,” Mathews says. Later, Mathews had recommended a CBI inquiry into the case. “If I had a sinister motive and had falsely framed them, would I have done that?” asks Mathew.

The ex-cop points to this with regard to questions regarding the motive of the accused and the alleged loss to ISRO. “Even the CBI in their report did not accuse us of having a motive. If Nambi was anyway planning to leave the organisation, how can he claim his arrest affected the project,” says Mathews.

What About the Allegations of Torture?

Mathews denies the allegations of torture and says that Narayanan, when produced before the judicial magistrate, had said that he wasn’t tortured. Later, the Kerala High Court had viewed some of the interrogation videos and observed that the accused had spoken to the investigators in a relaxed manner and not under pressure.

These videos which are said to be in the custody of the IB, have been cited by the investigators as evidence of the absence of torture or coercion.

PA Vishwambharan, a former IB officer who claims to have been involved in the interrogation (confirmed by RB Sreekumar), says that there were a total of 70 videos of the interrogation. However, both the CBI report and Narayanan have denied Vishwambharan’s role.

Video recordings of some of the other accused taken without their knowledge were produced before the court, which passed orders based on them. Later, the CBI pressurised the IB into disowning the recordings. These videos, which should still be with the IB, could expose Nambi’s claims.
PA Vishwambharan, former IB officer

Nambi Narayanan’s Response to Allegations

In response to the allegations, Narayanan says that he was produced before a magistrate after a few days in CBI custody. “The magistrate pointed to the CBI officers and asked me if they had tortured me. I said the CBI did not torture me. That doesn’t mean the IB hadn’t tortured me,” said Narayanan who is amused with the arguments put forward by Mathews, after being exonerated by the CBI.

“They had found me innocent after a thorough investigation. It is unfortunate to justify my arrest after this,” Narayanan said. Similarly, Narayanan questions the IB’s role in the interrogation.

“The law does not allow them any police powers,” he says quoting legal provisions. Narayanan, who mocks Vishwambharan’s claims, recalls the CBI report where the IB officers had feigned loss of memory when probed about the team members.

“If Sreekumar remembers one of them, he should disclose the names of the other IB officials,” demanded Narayanan.

He had discussed his voluntary retirement plans with the then ISRO Chairman. “This was a career-related matter which was discussed one year earlier with the then chairman, UR Rao. It had nothing to do with Mariam Rasheeda,” Narayanan says.

“All those aspects were looked into by the CBI after which they exonerated me,” says Narayanan.

(The writer is a former journalist with The Times of India, Coimbatore, and currently works as a researcher.)

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Topics:  ISRO   Espionage   CBI Investigations 

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