Classified: Hidden Truths in the ISRO Spy Story, by J. Rajasekharan Nair
A Sharp Look at the ISRO Spy Case.
The short of the matter, for people who have not followed the case closely, is that Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) scientist S. Nambi Narayanan and others were accused of spying and conspiring to sell to Pakistan cryogenic engine technology. For close to three decades the matter rolled around in the corridors of the judiciary, roiling and ruining lives, till 2018, when the Supreme Court ruled that Narayanan’s arrest had been unwarranted, and ordered compensation of Rs. 50 lakhs to be paid to him. Another accused, scientist K. Chandrashekhar, slipped into a coma hours before the verdict was announced, and died soon thereafter.
Veteran journalist J. Rajasekharan Nair has been following the case since it broke out. His book, “Classified: Hidden Truths in the ISRO Spy Story”, is an updated version of the book he had written in 1998, “Spies from Space: The ISRO Frameup”. He has brought out additional facts and updated the book based on the Supreme Court verdict of 2018 and developments since. What the book reveals is a story of bureaucratic egos and petty revenge dramas, of foreign agents embedded high up in the government, of political games and apathy, cover-ups galore, and international games of espionage and arm-twisting.
The basic arguments put forth in the book can be summarized thus: the trigger for this scandal was the implication of Maldivian national Mariam Rasheeda in a concocted espionage scandal. Inspector S. Vijayan was with the Foreigners Section in the Thiruvananthpuram City Police Commissioner’s Office. Mariam Rasheeda was a clerk in personnel records section of the National Security Service in Maldives and had come to India in 1994 for her friend’s daughter’s college admission. Vijayan went to meet Rasheeda in room 205 of Hotel Samrat, and there he allegedly tried to get physically intimate with her. When she threw him out of the room, he vowed retribution. Vijayan kept on digging around and soon enough he found out that among the numbers Rasheeda had dialled from the hotel (remember, this is before mobile telephony had launched in India), two belonged to D. Sasikumaran, Deputy Project Director, Cryogenic Project, Liquid Propellant Systems Center, at ISRO.
The Police Commissioner, V.R. Rajeevan, had issued orders for random checking to be performed on foreigners arriving at the airport in an attempt to crack down on drug trafficking. Vijayan took advantage of this order, interrogated Rasheeda, and presented this to the Rajeevan as a case of a foreign agent who had established contacts with a senior official at ISRO. He also tipped off a couple of local newspapers, one of which managed to take a photo of Rasheeda and published a scoop the next day.
Later, during the trial, Vijayan was unable to remember that he had met Rasheeda at the hotel and had attempted to molest her. The Chief Judicial Magistrate threw out the case, but that didn’t help the ISRO scientists. If the media in Kerala sensationalized this case and published reports without due diligence or investigation, the blame lies mostly with M.S. Mani, editor of the newspaper, Kerala Kaumudi. Mani had been removed from his post as editor through an order of the High Court. When he had gone to Raman Srivastava, then Commissioner of Police, to delay implementing the court’s order by a week, Srivastava had refused. A furious Mani had promised to ‘destroy Raman Srivastava’. His chance came four years and seven months later when Vijayan cooked up the espionage angle to implicate Rasheeda. Kerala Kaumudi published story after lurid story, alleging, among other things, that Srivastava “had close links with more than one spy ring; he had slept with Mariam Rasheeda in Bombay and Madras; he had purchased three thousand acres of land in Tirunelveli in Tamil Nadu”, and much more. This line of reporting was picked by the national media also, with newspapers like The Hindustan Times joining in.
Though Rasheeda had named Srivastava after she had been remanded to police custody, the CBI concluded that she had been tortured to implicate Srivastava. Rasheeda’s case was further roiled by her lawyer. He had had a run-in with Srivastava, who had ordered him to get out of his office over some argument over implementing an order over helmets for bikers! The scandal took larger contours, engulfing ISRO in a scandal and destroying the lives of several of its scientists, who were falsely accused, because of international developments.
For that we have to start with January 1991, when ISRO and Glavkosmos, the Russian space agency, signed a bilateral agreement for the supply of three cryogenic stages and the transfer of cryogenic rocket technology. Eleven months later, in December 1991, the Soviet Union ceased to exist, and Russia became an independent country, trying to revive its economy and scrounging for foreign aid. Through the 1980s, when India had been shopping around looking for cryogenic engines and the technology, General Dynamics had quoted ₹950 crores, and the French company Aerospatiale had quoted ₹650 crores. In 1991, it was Glavkosmos that bid and closed the deal at ₹235 crores. This was not good news for the US, for not only was this a lost commercial opportunity, but in the longer term, it threatened to do much more by making the American satellite-launch industry appear uncompetitive; for the price-per-kg payload that ISRO had calculated for its GSLV launches would be less than half quoted by US companies.
Therefore, within a few months, in May 1992, the US imposed sanctions on both ISRO and Glavkosmos by alleging that the technology would be used for weapons and ran afoul of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). India was not a signatory to the MTCR at the time, and the deal had nothing to do with India’s missile program. What was surprising was, the author writes, that “No lobbying was done to reverse the lie that India’s acquiring cryogenic technology was linked to its missile program.”
Furthermore, the author notes that “no country in the world has a missile using the cryogenic engine”. Why is that? Because the technology is highly complex and requires “at least forty-eight hours for filling the cryogenic fuel with a specific impulse… No sensible military management would recommend a war weapon that needs a gestation period of forty-eight hours”.
In 1992, the US Senate Foreign Committee, of which Joe Biden, then senator from Delaware, was a member, voted to have the US block aid worth billions of dollars to Russia if it decided to go ahead with the cryogenic contract. Biden gloated at the time, “I am confident that the Russian leaders will recognise the wisdom of stopping this sale once they see the risk of losing their economic aid.” In July 1993, Russia “cancelled the agreement, invoking force majeure. A modified agreement was signed between ISRO and Glavkosmos in January 1994. The agreement didn’t have the technology transfer clause.”
Being arm-twisted by the Americans did not go down well with Glavkosmos. It made a statement in 1993 that most of the technology had already been transferred to India – while not true, this was meant to hoodwink the US for what was to follow. The person heading the cryogenic program at Glavkosmos decided to go ahead with the technology transfer, notwithstanding US sanctions, through surreptitious means. For this, he had the support of Prof. U.R. Rao, the Chairman of ISRO, who wholeheartedly supported this clandestine plan. The plan itself was to “transfer the cryogenic technology to an Indian company as an off-shore partner” and to later get the technology transferred to ISRO at a later date.
Knowing that American intelligence agencies would be keeping an eye on Glavkosmos in Russia and getting hold of information from its agents inside the Indian establishment, Glavkosmos first transported “the cargo to some other destination by road and then airlifted it from there to India using different Url flights that took different air routes.” And thus, the first flight took off from Russia and landed, via Karachi, at Thiruvananthapuram on 23 January 1994; and the third flight, via Sharjah, on 17 July 1994. Before the fourth flight could come in, the spy scandal broke out. That the CIA would have been aware of developments is not in dispute; just how much, is anyone’s guess. They, however, knew that ISRO didn’t have the cryogenic technology in 1994, notwithstanding Glavkosmos’ statements. That certainly ruled out any plans or conspiracy to clandestinely transfer the technology to Pakistan, as allegations would be made by Kerala Police and central agencies. However, with its moles within the Intelligence Bureau (IB), the CIA was able to get Kerala police to pursue their desired line of investigation; viz., that ISRO scientists had conspired to committed treason.
Two pertinent points need to be made. First, the IB extracted confessions that S. Nambi Narayanan and D. Sasikumaran “had supplied the Cryogenic Missile Technology to Pakistan for a hefty sum.” This should have been laughed out of the courts because it took ISRO two years after the spy scandal broke out to conduct the first test of a subscale cryo engine, that too for ten seconds. As the author points out, a “subscale is not even a prototype. It is only a micro-miniature, a prelude to the subsequent development of the prototype, and then the engine as such.” Two years after the alleged spies had allegedly transferred the technology to Pakistan, ISRO had been able to manage only a ten-second test of a subscale engine. To put this in context, it had taken ISRO scientists “nearly 35 man-years in France before the technology of the Viking engine… was transferred to India under a legal contract. It then took seventeen years… for ISRO to develop the Vikas engine.”
That the Kerala Police invoked the Official Secrets Act of 1923 against the accused was another mockery of the law – under the Act, the State police “have no jurisdiction… even to file a complaint in a case relating to a Central government institution.” The role of the IB was such that they attempted to drag the DRDO also into their plot, only to be snubbed by the then DRDO chief, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. Even the Chairman of Glavkosmos was compelled to say that “Those who are initiating inquiries did not have any technical expertise, let alone any idea of the rich legacy of Indo-Russian space cooperation.” That no evidence was found, that two different central government agencies – the IB and the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) – took turns in torturing S. Nambi Narayanan and others, and that no official involved in hatching the conspiracy to frame ISRO scientists suffered any consequences, that the alleged CIA mole inside the CBI was never brought to book, that the Kerala Police was a part of this conspiracy, and that politics took centre-stage, rather than a search for truth, should come as no surprise.
The author quotes former R&AW officer, N.K. Sood, where he stated that “Rattan Sehgal, Addl Director, IB, was caught passing on sensitive documents to CIA in 96. (He) was allowed to retire (and) go to the USA. He also falsely implicated Nambi Narayanan in the infamous ISRO spy case.” Nothing came of D.C. Pathak, then Director of the IB, who sent several unofficial (UO) notes to the “Cabinet Secretary, Home Minister, Principal Secretary to Prime Minister, and others… to immediately bring Raman Srivastava, IG of Police, in the ambit of the case.”
The first section of the book – three chapters - assume the reader is aware of the case and its developments; hence readers may find it more useful to start from the second section, and then return to the first chapters later.
This copiously referenced and meticulously researched book deserves a wide audience, more people need to know the facts about this case. The treachery that was perpetrated and the injustice that was allowed to fester for decades need to made known. This book is a detailed look, covered with a veteran journalist’s sharp eye, at the case that shook the nation.
Disclaimer: views expressed are personal.
This review was first published in Daily Guardian on 1 July, 2022.
© 2022, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.