A scandal that ISRO would like to forget
The Indian Space Research Organisation has come a long way from its humble beginning in the abandoned Church of Saint Mary Magdalene at Thumba, on the outskirts of Thiruvananthapuram, with the launch of the first sounding rocket on 21 November, 1963, to the Mars Orbiter launch from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota on 5 November, 2013.
The first Indian satellite, Aryabhata, built in 1975, had to be launched from Russia as the country lacked a launch vehicle to put it in orbit.
PSLV has become the trusted work horse of the ISRO. In photo, the recent PSLV-C25 lift off (Photo Courtesy: ISRO)
A Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV) was developed soon after and satellite Rohini was placed in orbit successfully on 18 July, 1980. SLV was followed by the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), successfully launched on 15 October, 1994, to place a remote sensing satellite in orbit.
The PSLV has since become the trusted work horse of the ISRO. The next step in ISRO’s long march was the development of Geosynchronous Launch Vehicle (GSLV) capable of carrying heavier payloads and placing them on higher orbit.
The GSLV needed a cryogenic engine, the technology for which was not readily available and difficult to master. Russia came forward to sell seven cryogenic engines and transfer technology to India.
The USA protested and threatened Russia with an embargo, forcing it to cancel the deal. The seven cryogenic engines had already been shipped to India, but Russia was unable to transfer the technology as it did not want to invite the wrath of America.
Placing communication satellites in orbit is a $ 300 billion business and it is the monopoly of the USA and the European Space Agency. Neither wanted ISRO to gain a foothold in this lucrative business as it would be able to provide the service at one-fourth the cost quoted by them.
When all this was going on, two brilliant dedicated scientists, Nambi Narayanan and Sasi Kumar, at the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC) were reading up all material available on cryogenic technology and with the Russian engine in hand, were quietly trying to master the technology.
The USA, with its excellent information gathering machinery, got wind of what was going on inside VSSC, and put the CIA on the job of sabotaging the cryogenic project.
Their mole in VSSC was RB Sreekumar, an IPS officer seconded to (Central Industrial Security Force) CISF, and posted as commandant in charge of security of the centre.
At the relevant period, he was deputy station director of the Intelligence Bureau in the South, and the director was Rattan Seghal, a highly decorated police officer who was tipped to take over as IB chief from DC Pathak.
Like the Laurel and Hardy team, the two were faithfully carrying out the bidding of their CIA masters. Seghal was subsequently caught red-handed while passing sensitive information about our Atomic Energy Commission to his CIA handlers and dismissed from service, but allowed to escape and settle in America, his ultimate aim in life.
Sreekumar rose steadily to the rank of DGP, with the President’s medal as bonus thrown in, and is still being found useful by the Congress in its fight against Narendra Modi of the BJP.
To achieve his goal of sabotaging the cryogenic engine project, the IB team secretly working for the CIA, plotted an elaborate drama which should be the envy of any Bollywood script writer.
In fact a film based on the ISRO spy scandal for international audience is under way in which a popular Malayalam film star is cast as Narayanan and search is on for an actor to play the role of Sreekumar.
No actor worth his name is willing to be cast as Sreekumar after knowing his role in the scandal.
Narayanan was accused of selling cryogenic know-how and scientific literature on the subject to Pakistan’s ISI for money through two Maldivian women who happened to be in Kerala at that time, and his younger colleague Sasi Kumar of parting with the secrets for sex with the women he had never met or seen.
The duo had completed 50 per cent work on developing indigenous cryogenic engine by 1996 and was confident of completing it before 2000. That would have made India a real space power by now.
The two were terrorised, tortured and humiliated by the IB team, spreading panic among the scientific community in VSSC. None was prepared to stick his neck in support of the two for fear of getting branded by the powerful IB.
Former ISRO chairmen Satish Dhawan, UR Rao and Yashpal, eminent space scientists Radam Narasimha and S Chandrasekhar, and former Chief Election Commissioner TN Seshan issued a statement on 26 December, 1996, warning, “the espionage case reveals that the country’s space programme or for that matter other strategic programmes may no longer be immune to outside interference.”
K Kasturirangan, then ISRO chairman, also chose to turn the other way as the two top scientists were drawn into pit.
Men in authority in the government watched helplessly as the media played into the hands of the CIA by putting out exaggerated stories with no basis about the two scientists.
At the instance of the IB, the Kerala government constituted a Special Investigation Team with Siby Mathew, then a DIG, as chief. Under the direction of Sreekumar, considered close to the powers be in Delhi, the team arrested Narayanan and Sasi Kumar without a shred of evidence against them.
They were physically and mentally tortured and made to sign on blank white papers.
Mariam Rasheeda and Fauzia Hassan, the two women, from Maldives were in Kerala to educate their children. Inspector Vijayan, a member of the SIT, in a routine check of foreigners in the city stumbled on Rasheeda whose visa had just expired.
Offering to help renew her visa, he tried to molest her. She pushed him out of her room.
In revenge, he accused her of having links with Sasi Kumar and that she and her friend Fauzia were Maldivian spies working on behalf of ISI in Kerala. The Kerala police arrested the Maldivian women in violation of all norms.
ISRO terminated the services of the two distinguished scientists. Chief Minister K Karunakaran was forced to resign and was succeeded by AK Antony.
The new government handed over the spy case to the CBI. After a thorough investigation, then CBI director Vijaya Rama Rao concluded the entire episode “a cock and bull story” and exonerated all the accused, including Narayanan and Sasi Kumar.
In its closure report, the CBI recommended action against Siby Mathew and two of his deputies. Mathew took voluntary retirement before any action could be taken against him. When Oomen Chandy became the Chief Minister of Kerala later, Mathew was appointed the Chief Information Commissioner.
Kerala has seen five Chief Minister since the ISRO spy case. None had the decency to inquire about the whereabouts or wellbeing of the two distinguished scientists.
They had lost everything, their honour and reputation. Though they might have reached their age of retirement, ISRO made no effort to reinstate them. The cryogenic engine remains where they left off.
The launch of a GSLV with indigenous cryogenic engine on 25 December, 2010, failed to reach orbit. An expert committee constituted by the government found out the reasons for the failure and suggested modifications to be carried out in two months.
Instead of two months, it took scientists at the Liquid Propulsion System Centre two years to carry out the modifications. Even after the modifications, ISRO is not confident of launching a GSLV mission successfully as it aborted the launch in the last minute on 19 August this year.
Instead of standing on false prestige, ISRO should engage Nambi Narayanan and Sasi Kumar at least in an advisory capacity to guide its young team of scientists involved in the cryogenic project, rather than carting our satellites weighing 2,000 kg or more all the way to Kourou in French Guiana to be launched by the European Space Agency’s Ariane rocket by paying at the rate of $ 20,000 a kilo.
Sam Rajappa is Consulting Editor of The Weekend Leader