The tragic death of Homi Bhabha and the trend of top Indian scientists dying under mysterious circumstances

On the 24th of January, 53 years ago, Homi Bhabha met a tragic end when Air India Flight 101 crashed near Mont Blanc while he was travelling to Vienna for a conference. Many believe that the crash wasn't an accident but premeditated assassination carried out by American intelligence agencies to thwart India's nuclear programme.

Homi Jehangir Bhabha, often referred to as the “Father of the Indian Nuclear Programme”, is certainly one of the greatest minds to have ever been born in the sacred land of India. He was the founding director of the Atomic Energy Establishment, Trombay (AEET) which has now been renamed as the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in his honour.

On the 24th of January, 53 years ago, the great man met a tragic end when Air India Flight 101 crashed near Mont Blanc while he was travelling to Vienna for a conference. Many believe that the crash wasn’t an accident but premeditated assassination carried out by American intelligence agencies to thwart India’s nuclear programme.

Such conspiracy theories received a major boost when an alleged conversation between journalist Gregory Douglas and a top CIA operative Robert T. Crowley was made public by a news media called in a book titled ‘Conversations with the Crow’. The transcript of the conversation hinted at a CIA role in the ‘accident’.

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The CIA officer was quoted as saying: “We had trouble, you know, with India back in the 60’s when they got uppity and started work on an atomic bomb…the thing is, they were getting in bed with the Russians.” Referring to Bhabha, he said, “that one was dangerous, believe me. He had an unfortunate accident. He was flying to Vienna to stir up more trouble when his Boeing 707 had a bomb go off in the cargo hold.”

The cryptic manner of Crowley’s statement stirred quite a conversation. It is evident that he was talking in innuendos. If a bomb went off in the flight, then it certainly could not have been an ‘unfortunate accident’.

There’s a history, however, of top Indian scientists suffering a similar fate. There was the incident of former ISRO Scientist Dr Nambi Narayanan who was wrongfully arrested and tortured after being falsely accused in the 1994 ISRO spy case. Recently, the Supreme Court awarded him compensation for Rs 50 lakhs for all the hardship that he had to endure.

Nambi Narayanan was a scientist in ISRO and headed the cryogenics division. In November 1994, Narayanan was arrested by the Kerala police after allegations of espionage under the sections 3,4 and 5 of the Official Secrets Act. After his arrest, he was remanded in police custody for a period of 50 days during which he was reportedly harassed and tortured by officials of Kerala police and the Indian intelligence bureau. However, after an investigation by the CBI, the allegations on him were found to be false and in 1998, the Supreme Court upheld the findings by the CBI.

Incidentally, Dr Narayanan is one of the pioneers of liquid rocket fuel technology in India. The initial research of his time was also used in India’s moon mission.

Then, there was the mysterious death of Vikram Sarabhai, the father of India’s space programme. He was found dead in his hotel room on the 30th of December, 1971, at the Halcyon Castle at Kovalam. He had shown no signs of illness the previous evening when he was meeting scientists and holding a discussion. The next morning, however, he was dead.

Dr Narayanan certainly appears to be of the opinion that international powers were involved in Sarabhai’s death. He wrote in his biography, “The challenges and questions raised by his death are many. If he was eliminated, it is likely there was an international conspiracy behind it. Or else, how did such a scientific talent like him die in such an unnatural manner?’’

Narayanan, who had worked closely with Sarabhai during his time as a junior scientist at ISRO, dedicates an entire chapter to him in his biography. “A man who had never smoked in his life, a teetotaler,’’ he wrote. “Then how was he led to such a death? Why was the cremation performed without even an autopsy despite the fact the dead man was such a great scientist? All these remained questions.”

He also cited Crowley’s conversation which we have mentioned above. “In it, Crowley is quoted as saying that the Indian victory in the 1965 India-Pakistan war made America uncomfortable and that it viewed with concern the emergence of India as a nuclear power. The book says India’s nuclear dreams were wiped out over Mont Blanc without leaving even a trace of evidence. Read together with it, Sarabhai’s death and the (ISRO) spy case will leave us uncomfortable,’’ he asserted.

Unfortunately, there appears to be a trend of top Indian scientists ending up as victims of a tragic fate. Between 2009-13, 11 Indian nuclear scientists died unnatural deaths. The frequency was so high that the Bombay High Court in 2017 asked the Central government to take care of scientists.

In November 2013, Vice reported that two high-ranking engineers, KK Josh and Abhish Shivam, working on India’s first nuclear-powered submarine were found dead on railway tracks by workers. They were clearly not hit by a running train as no marks were found on their bodies. It was widely speculated that they were poisoned elsewhere and left on the tracks to make it look like an accident or a suicide.

In 2009, there was the suspicious death of nuclear scientist Lokanathan Mahalingam. The 48-year old went missing from his morning walk only for his body to be recovered five days later at the Kali river. Only a few weeks earlier, another scientist who worked at the Nuclear Power Corporation, was found dead in the same forest.

It’s not just our nuclear scientists who appear to be dying under mysterious circumstances. In a 15-year period, the ISRO lost 684 personnel.

The greater concern appears to be the fact that a lot of these mysterious deaths are simply clubbed as ‘unexplained’ or ‘suicides’ without proper investigation. Replying to a question on the matter, the government said in 2017 that 71 suicides were reported between 1995 and 2015 and 2 murders. The problem is we cannot be sure of the authenticity of the classification as they have repeatedly questioned by relatives and others due to the mysterious nature of the circumstances and allegations of an improper investigation by the Police.

In October 2013, The Sunday Guardian reported on the lack of attention paid by the then UPA government at the Centre to the mysterious deaths of India’s top scientists. In an article titled ‘PMO unconcerned about scientist deaths’, the author wrote, “What is surprising is the inattention of the Government of India towards what many believe to be a systematic outside effort to slow down India’s march towards nuclear excellence by killing those involved in the process.” The author also mentions that the deaths of Josh and Shivam were dismissed by the Ministry of Defence as well as the media as a routine incident despite the circumstances.

In any other country, the 11 unnatural deaths between 2009-13 would have created a storm in the media. However, with the media firmly in the pockets of the establishment, it hardly created even a flutter. Iran, for instance, executed a man over the deaths of 4 scientists between 2010 and 2012 after claiming that it was a series of assassinations aimed at sabotaging its nuclear energy program. Iran has often accused the United States and Israel of such assassinations.

The lives of a great many top Indian scientists certainly appears to have come to an end under very suspicious situations. Or in the case of scientists like Dr Narayanan, their names were dragged through the mud and careers ended. Although there’s no clear cut evidence to suggest an international conspiracy, there never is in such circumstances, Dr Narayanan may well be true in his assessment considering the trend that has emerged.

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