Declining a prestigious job in the United States, a 28-year old prodigy graduating from one of the Ivy Leagues, Princeton, chooses to return back to the motherland at a time when her future prospects looked bleak. Two decades later, the young man had not only pioneered the science of building India’s most celebrated space vehicles PSLV and GSLV but also raised to be the country’s topmost cryogenic scientist.
This is the story of one of India’s greatest space scientists, Nambi Narayanan. An exemplary achiever, instrumental in India’s space accomplishments but only to be falsely implicated by a political-bureaucratic nexus in a bid to not only prevent country’s technological progress but also to use it to further an evil political outcome.
Nambi Narayanan perhaps had never thought that the factionalism between two groups of the Kerala Congress would end his distinguished career of being a premier space scientist. It all started with factionalism within the Kerala unit of the Congress when two sides tried to out-manoeuvre each other despite knowing the fact they were putting longtime security interest of the country at a huge risk. A quintessential Congress mindset?
In the late ’70s, Kerala Congress was amidst huge chaos as there was an open revolt against the then Chief Minister K Karunakaran. The Kerala Congress was divided into two groups, the first being Karunakaran group and another faction led by the then blue-eyed boy of the Congress, 37-year-old AK Anthony. Antony finally replaced Karunakaran as the Chief Minister of the state in 1977 for a brief period of time. Later, Karunakaran came back to power in 1991, which had caused severe heartburn for AK Antony faction, who eventually tried undermining Karunakaran at every opportunity presented.
How did Scientist Nambi Narayanan got caught in all this?
It is an interesting question. After completing his masters at Princeton in a record 10-months time, Nambi Narayanan returned back to India in 1969 to work on a new project at ISRO under the guidance of the Vikram Sarabhai. Narayanan, a chemical rocket propulsion expert soon began to work on liquid propulsion engines at a time when ISRO was solely dependent on solid propellants. The liquid propellant engines designed by the team led by Narayanan later came to be known as “VIKAS Engines”.
If you are wondering regarding the difference between the two, let me help you here. In liquid propellant rockets, fuel flow to the engine can be controlled, the amount of thrust produced can be regulated and the engine can be turned off or on as needed. In solid propellant engines, the ignition of the fuel cannot be regulated or turned off, which makes the system simpler, safer, and cheaper but less efficient than that of a liquid-fuel rocket.
Narayanan envisioned the need for liquid fuelled engines for ISRO’s future civilian space programmes while another team headed by APJ Abdul Kalam was working on mastering the science of building solid propellants motors. Decades later, India envisioned a cryogenic engine project at ISRO and signed an agreement with Russia for transfer of technology to develop cryogenic fuel-based engines. However, the deal did not materialise as the United States put pressure on the Russians not to transfer such critical technologies to India.
Nevertheless, India signed a new agreement with Russia to design four cryogenic engines and ISRO chose its finest man, Nambi Narayanan to head the indigenous cryogenic programme. At a time when everything was going at an ease, a fabricated spy scandal surfaced in late 1994 which shut the doors for one of India’s greatest rocket scientists, Nambi Narayanan.
Earlier in 1991, a coalition government headed by Congress leader PV Narasimha Rao was ruling the Centre, while K Karunakaran was the Chief Minister of Kerala. AK Antony along with the future Chief Minister of the state, Oommen Chandy was waiting for an opportunity to undermine the K Karunakaran government. However, they got an opportunity when Mariam Rashida was arrested in October 1994, on the charges of overstaying her visa. Reportedly, S Vijayan, a Kerala Police Inspector had arrested Rashida on false espionage charges after she had rejected Vijayan’s offer to indulge in sexual activities.
In the meantime, a plot was designed to embarrass K Karunakaran, AK Antony and Oommen Chandy, along with few aspirational police officers used the opportunity of Rashida’s arrest to target the senior police officer Raman Srivastava, who was close to the Chief Minister Karunakaran then. Within a month of Rashida’s arrest, the case was given a sinister twist by the few senior officers, when Nambi Narayanan’s deputy D. Sasikumaran and three others were arrested. Two weeks later, on November 30, 1994, Narayanan was also arrested.
Initially, the police had come up with a theory stating that the two ISRO scientists, Narayanan and Sasikumaran had been trapped in a sex racket involving the Maldivians and had shared the secrets pertaining to highly confidential “flight test data” from experiments with rocket and satellite launches. A team of Intelligence Bureau (IB) officers had allegedly played a controversial role in the whole case to frame two top ISRO scientists who were incidentally working on a secret project to build cryogenic engines. The case got murkier when RB Shrikumar, an officer close to Congress ecosystem was posted as the Deputy Director of the State Intelligence Bureau (SIB) at Trivandrum in 1994.
Shrikumar and other officials of the IB, along with the politically charged Kerala Police allegedly acted with a malafide intent not only destroy the career of Nambi Narayanan but also by compromising national security by preventing ISRO from succeeding in its mission to master the art of cryogenic engines. Yes, you heard it right. Years later, Nambi Narayanan goes on to plead with successive governments to investigate, expose the role of the CIA and politicians, police officers, media who had acted at CIA’s behest.
After 15 days of investigation by a Special Investigation Team (SIT) of the Kerala Police, the case was transferred to the CBI which after 18 months of the investigation in April 1996 concluded that the case against Nambi Narayanan and others was fabricated. The CBI had reportedly submitted two confidential reports to the Union and Kerala governments listing respectively serious lapses by IB officials and SIT members.
The CBI in its report had observed, “The aforesaid IB officials comprising the team enquiring into ISRO case acted in an unprofessional manner and were privy to the arrest of six innocent persons, thereby causing them immense mental and physical agony.” The CBI had also clearly indicted Srikumar for “failing in their duty to conduct the inquiry in an objective and fair manner.”
Interestingly, five top most scientists of the country, Sathish Dhawan, UR Rao, Yashpal Rodham Narasimha, K Chandrasekhar and TN Seshan had also written a joint statement in 1997 stating how America is posing hurdles to block India’s cryogenic engines programme. The statement by the top scientists had subtly hinted regarding the outside interference in the cryogenic developmental programme by fabricating fake espionage cases against its top scientists like Nambi Narayanan. It has been alleged that CIA to safeguard the US commercial interests, had planted a fabricated case through its moles in the Intelligence Bureau, using the politically inclined Kerala police as a conduit.
It leads to a very disturbing question on why did the Intelligence Bureau officers like RB Srikumar with the help of Kerala Police try to undermine the cryogenic programme by planting a fake espionage case against Nambi Narayanan and other scientists? The Congress leaders of Kerala to sustain its agenda towards K Karunakaran had allegedly utilised the services of the Kerala police to implicate Nambi Narayanan and other scientists in a fabricated case despite knowing that he was involved in one of the country’s significant developmental programmes.
However, the Supreme Court in 1996 had upheld the findings of the CBI and had asked the Kerala government to pay Rs 1 lakh in compensation to Narayanan and others. However, Dr Narayanan had approached the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC)seeking justice for the harassment and agony meted out to him. In 2001, the NHRC had awarded a compensation of Rs 10 lakhs to him.
The Supreme Court also awarded former ISRO scientist Nambi Narayanan a compensation of Rs 50 lakhs for his wrongful arrest and harassment by the Kerala Police in the 1994 ISRO spy case. The apex court had also ordered a probe into the role of the police officers involved in Narayanan’s arrest and alleged harassment in custody. The three-member probe panel is to be headed by former judge DK Jain.
The Union government led by Narendra Modi has finally awarded prestigious Padma Bhushan to Nambi Narayanan on the occasion of 70th Republic Day in 2019. Nonetheless, questions still remain on the need for accountability and justice for decades-long physical and mental agony suffered by the Narayanan. The compensation money along with the prestigious Padma award may bring him half-closure but will not clearly quantify his sufferings and leave alone the delay in mastering the art of cryogenics by the Indian space scientists without Nambi Narayanan.