The Supreme Court judgment of 14 September in the infamous ISRO espionage case has made only partial reparation to S Nambi Narayanan, former director of ISRO’s cryogenic engine project. A three-judge Bench led by Chief Justice Dipak Misra found “no scintilla of doubt that the appellant, a successful scientist having national reputation, has been compelled to undergo immense humiliation and ignominy.”
The Bench agreed with Narayanan that a mere compensation does not serve him complete justice and directed for the constitution of a threemember committee headed by retired Supreme Court judge DK Jain to investigate the role of the police officers who played a pivotal role in implicating the former ISRO scientists in the cooked-up espionage case.
More than the Kerala police, the role of senior Intelligence Bureau officers who plotted a conspiracy to sabotage India developing cryogenic engine technology needs to be investigated and exposed, particularly that of MK Dhar and Ratan Sehgal, joint directors of the IB, and RB Sreekumar, deputy director of IB’s Kerala unit who was formerly Commandant in charge of security of the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, Thiruvananthapuram. Sreekumar went on to become DGP, Intelligence, Gujarat. Since the Kerala police was dealing with an extremely sensitive case and set in motion the criminal law without any basis, the State government transferred the case to the CBI which found the case fabricated by the CIA infiltrated IB in New Delhi.
ISRO made its first foray into cryogenic technology in 1970, led by VR Gorariker, but was abandoned in 1974 and shifted its focus on the development of liquid propellant engine that resulted in the manufacture of Vikas engines used in the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle. On 15 October 1994, ISRO launched PSLV-D2 and put in orbit Indian Remote Sensing Satellite IRS-P2. It was the first successful launch of an Indian rocket that could be used for commercial satellite launches, hitherto the preserve of the USA, Russia and the European Space Agency.
The next step for ISRO to remain relevant as a space-age nation was to develop the GSLV (Geo Synchronous Launch Vehicle) capable of carrying heavier payloads which required cryogenic engines. India’s quest for mastering cryogenic technology was almost given up in 1974 and remained in cold storage till the 1980s. When ISRO decided to procure the technology, it found the price quoted by the USA and France exorbitant.
On 18 January 1991, ISRO signed an agreement with Glavkosmos, commercial wing of the Russian space agency, for the supply of seven cryogenic engines and transfer of technology. The USA promptly imposed sanctions on India and Russia under provisions of the Missile Technology Control Regime and forced Russia to annul the contract although cryogenic engines were not used in missiles. ISRO, however, managed to take possession of the contracted cryogenic engines with technical drawings and managed to cart them to Thiruvananthapuram in spite of Air India refusing to touch the cargo for fear of American sanction.
ISRO, meanwhile, continued to remain content with a single operational launch vehicle, the PSLV with limited payload capacity, and a single launch site, Sriharikota. India’s space programme could not advance at the pace envisioned by its founders because of its troubled history with cryogenic engine development and sanctions imposed on ISRO by the USA. Thanks to the ingenuity of Nambi Narayanan and his personal contact with top scientists in Glavkosmos, he was able to secure the seven cryogenic engines contracted by ISRO and move them to India in four chartered flights.
It only added to the determination of the USA to scuttle ISRO’s cryogenic engine technology development programme. Towards the second half of 1994, Nambi Narayanan and his deputy P Sasikumaran were “at the cusp of a cryogenic leap” when the Kerala police swooped down on them with the fabricated charge of selling the Russian drawings and blueprint of cryogenic engines to Pakistan for money through two Maldivian women, Mariam Rasheeda and Fauziyya Hassan. The media, particularly the Malayalam press, went along with the Kerala police in full steam.
Rasheeda’s crime was resisting sexual overtures by police inspector Vijayan who was looking after foreigners’ registration in Thiruvananthapuram. According to the IB, Narayanan and Sasikumaran took casual leave on 23 and 24 September 1994 and took Fauziyya to the Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre and later went on a picnic to Aruvikara dam, near Thiruvananthapuram. Official records show neither had taken casual leave on those days. The visitor’s book at LPSC had no entry of Fauziyya’s visit. So reckless was the police in making allegations without any basis.
The IB team came with an agenda and stuck to it. Led by Messrs Dhar and Sehgal, all they wanted was a confession from Narayanan. Sasikumaran, unable to withstand torture, fell in line. Narayanan was made of sterner stuff. Though physically broken down, he withstood all their third degree methods of interrogation. In the end, CBI, which took over the investigation, found no evidence to support the accused had committed “any acts which were prejudicial to the sovereignty, integrity and security of the state and violative of the Official Secrets Act, 1923.” Accepting the findings of the CBI, the Chief Judicial Magistrate, Ernakulam, discharged all the accused in the ISRO espionage case.
Dhar, one of the key fabricators of the spy case under the influence of the CIA, was to retire by the beginning of 1995. He made desperate attempts to change his date of birth so that he could get an extension of service even after the Chief Judicial Magistrate dismissed the case for lack of any shred of evidence. Sehgal, his co-conspirator, was caught having clandestine meetings with CIA’s station chief in Delhi, Timothy Long, and his deputy, Susan Brown.
Counterintelligence officers had found him receiving a huge packet of money from one of the CIA officials in Delhi outside Ambassador Hotel. Sehgal was given the choice of facing prosecution or put in his papers. He chose the latter and settled down in the USA. Then Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao during a discussion in Parliament hinted at the involvement of a ‘foreign country’ in thwarting the Russian cryogenic engine contract. Timothy Long and Susan Brown were expelled from India.
As a result of these shenanigans, ISRO’s work on cryogenic engine technology got derailed and continues to remain dependent on the European Space Agency to launch its heavier satellites from its launch site in French Guyana. Many of the ISRO scientists were reluctant to take up the challenge for fear of what happened to Narayanan and his team.
After years of perseverance, the country’s first indigenous cryogenic engine was successfully put through ground test for 12 minutes in 2007. It took almost another decade for launching the first successful operational flight of GSLV Mk-II with an indigenous cryogenic engine and placed the heaviest satellite so far, INSAT- 3DR weighing 2,211 kg in its intended geostationary orbit, and followed it by the first development flight of GSLV Mk-III, the heaviest rocket ever made in India, on 5 June 2017.
Buoyed by its success, ISRO has set its eyes on a 10-tonne payload launcher for which the semi-cryogenic engine is being developed. The specific impulse of the semi-cryogenic engine is higher, which means it can lift a heavier payload for the same propellant mass. GSLV Mk-III with a semi-cryogenic engine is expected to be ready by 2020. ISRO has plans to develop a second launch site on the west coast, somewhere in Gujarat, for its Gaganyaan (moon) mission.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his Independence Day address to the nation announced Gaganyaan, India’s first manned space mission, will carry a three-member crew to space in 2022. The spy case has retarded the growth of ISRO by at least two decades. Its future plans, however, look very impressive although its dependence on ESA to launch our heavy satellites continues as the GSLV Mk-III is yet to be operationalised.
The writer is a veteran journalist and former Director of The Statesman Print Journalism School.