Saturday, January 7, 2023

Classified - Hidden truths in the ISRO Spy Story - J Rajasekharan Nair

Rajasekharan Nair is a winner of the KK Birla Foundation Fellowship in Journalism in 1992 and the Kerala State Chalachitra Academy Fellowship. In this book he writes about the ISRO spy case that exploded in 1994 and then, over the years turned into a sordid story of human behavior at its worst.

In 1994 a spy ring was claimed to be busted by the Kerala Police, where scientists of the ISRO were selling secret drawings to Pakistan led by a honey trap of two Maldivian women. (The spy ring was supposed to have been led by the IG Police Raman Srivastava.) In no time ISRO scientists S Nambi Narayan, D Sasikumaran were arrested along with the two women Mariam Rasheeda and Fauziya Hasan and K Chandrasekhar, an agent of a Russian space organisation, and a labour contractor Sudhir Sharma. The Kerala Police which had no legal authority to handle such a case handed over the case to the Intelligence Bureau which had no legal legitimacy. The accused were arrested and severely tortured until they were let off. Nambi Narayan was in custody for 50 days, Sasikumaran for 60, Chandrasekhar for  58, Sudhir Kumar for 49, Fauziya Hasan for 1000 days and Mariam Rasheeda for 1145 days. Rasheeda was molested, threatened with rape, kept naked as part of the questioning in illegal custody.

What actually happened was that the ISRO contracted a Russian space organisation for transfer of cryogenic rocket technology. The deal was derailed by the CIA which imposed sanctions or some such thing and Glavkosmos, the Russian agency, cancelled the agreement. However in a reverse espionage case which included Nambi Narayan and the Russian agency the transfer of technology began taking place clandestinely. Not to the liking of the CIA obviously because India would capture a large part of the space market if it accessed the technology. Meanwhile the Maldivian women who had some issue getting admission in a Bangalore school reached out to D Sasikumaran who offered to help. Mariam's stay got prolonged because her flights got cancelled. When she went to extend her stay Inspector Vijayan of Kerala Police tried to harass her sexually in her hotel and was spurned. And thus began the story of revenge, of male ego hurt. 

The next day the media reported a connection between the women and the scientist. Political intrigues dragged other names and the CIA brought in the IB through its moles and put Nambi Narayan out of action for a crime he did not commit.

The joke - ISRO did not have the technology to sell to anyone. No one listened, no one tried to find out, everyone loved the drama and the scandal. After serving time in jail and having been brutally tortured, all six accused were let off in 1995 saying that the charges were false and baseless. 

The others did not fight their case legally but Narayan did and asked for a compensation of 1 crore. And in 2018 the CBI finally found 7 Kerala Police and 11 IB officials guilty. A compensation of 50 lakh was awarded to Nambi Narayan. Rajasekharan feels that the other accused got nothing despite having faced the same ordeal and that Nambi Narayan also conveniently kept some truths out.

What strikes one after reading this book and watching 'Rocketry' the movie, is that the truth can easily be twisted by authorities and illegal acts committed without any accountability at all. Rajasekharan Nair says that both CBI and IB are ghost organisations that exist in a constitutional vacuum. That the CIA can influence the system so easily is something that even 'Rocket Boys' the web series clearly pointed out. You realise that in the larger game, we are pretty small and insignificant and do not seem to have much agency. Once again we realise that our traits of turning against our own are easily exploited by outsiders, that there are leaks that can easily be opened, people corrupted at the highest levels, who will never get caught or exposed. For this case to have happened like this would need the involvement of people high up but one does not see a major head roll. We are so happy to slap cases of treason on slogan shouting college kids but these biggies somehow escape the net. Until we plug these leaks and expose the real names of people who are accountable, we will always see such cases. Take two steps forward and slide ten backward.                   

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