Last week, India’s Supreme Court awarded five million rupees (around Dh255,000) in compensation to Nambi Narayanan, and said his arrest and torture — following his framed involvement in the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) ‘spy scam’ — was wrongful. This sounds pretty clear and simple. Except that Narayanan had to fight for 24 years for justice. Along the way he made friends. Along the way he made enemies. Along the way, too, friends turned enemies; and enemies turned friends. But through it all, implacable as an incarnation, inexorable as a force of nature, from an icon to a ‘spy’ to a crank to a victor, Narayanan fought one and all — from 1994 to 2018.
Narayanan was a rocket scientist at Isro and a protege of India’s great rocketry brain, Dr Vikram Sarabhai, who (rather mysteriously, according to some) died of a heart attack when he was only 52 years old in 1971. It was with Sarabhai’s blessings that Narayanan went to Princeton for higher studies. Naryanan came back to eventually direct India’s cryogenic fuel system, which in essence meant that from solids, rocket fuel shifted to liquefied gas, which is more viable in storage, weight and propulsion. Naryanan rose in the hierarchy of Isro because of his hawkish brilliance. And he had, from what little I know of him, no patience for fools, whose number is legion in any field.
Just as he was set to head Isro, the spy scandal broke. The unlikely spy-in-chief was Mariam Rasheeda, a Maldivian woman who had accompanied her friend Fauzia to Thiruvananthapuram (formerly Trivandrum), where the Isro headquarters are located, to scout around for school admission for her friend’s daughter. A police officer, Vijaya Kumar, whose overtures Rasheeda had spurned, in the process of having her visa extended, framed Rasheeda as a spy on the basis of a couple of drawings of rocket engines that she had in her possession. At this point, you would not be punished for thinking of Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana.
In Greene’s novel, set just before the Cuban Missile Crisis, James Wormhold, a salesman for vacuum cleaners, who was looking for a supplementary income, was approached by the MI6. He sent sketches of his products as part of a secret military installation and sent fictitious reports and imaginary names until the matter he fabricated met its counterparts in reality.
Vijaya Kumar built a case against Mariam as a spy out to ferret out India’s rocket technology. The net spread. Naryanan was caught in it. As the false case accumulated layers, crime, sex, espionage and politics, just about every political party bought into the story and furthered it as it served to divert attention from real issues.
Narayanan was accused, among other things, of selling ‘state secrets’ to Pakistan. He was arrested by the Kerala Police in 1994, and remained in custody for some 50 days, till the Central Bureau of Intelligence, empowered to take on special cases from the state police force, actively came into the picture. Narayanan’s battle for justice in earnest began around that time.
Cut to: I was at that time working for a weekly paper called the Metropolis on Saturday, a product from the Times of India stable. I wanted to find out what was really going on. The national and international media were flocking to Thiruvananthapuram. The small town set deep in South India had become the seat of a fantastic, movie-like espionage drama. When I reached Thiruvananthapuram, I found out that Rasheeda, India’s all-in-one answer to Mata Hari, James Bond, and perhaps Greene’s Wormhold, was staying in a seedy hotel unable to pay her room rent. She would haggle with rickshaw drivers. These are not the kind of things that international spies would do. I wrote a two-part series, saying the Isro spy scandal was fiction. No one of course paid much attention to the deviant voice.
In the event, Rasheeda was sentenced to prison. She spent five years in Viyyur Central jail in Thrissur, Kerala. When she was released, she boarded the first flight out to Maldives from her nightmare. No one spoke of compensation. No one spoke of the utter unfairness of it all. Years later, in 2016, I wrote a novel, Hadel, loosely based on the Isro scandal as written by a fictitious Rasheeda assuming the voice of the police officer who persecuted her.
Cut to: Narayanan. Unlike Rasheeda, nothing cowed him.
He had been wounded. But he wore his wounds like badges of honour. In the beginning, he was vulnerable to anger. The police, the politicians and the media had done their best to destroy one of the most determined and visionary rocket scientists of India — soon after Narayanan’s Princeton stint, he was offered a job with Nasa, which Sarabhai had advised him not to accept — and succeeded. His family life had been affected. Financially, he was on his last legs. Socially, for a long time, he was a pariah.
But of all these, I would think, the thing that hurt him the most was his knowledge that but for this ordeal, he could have taken India’s rocketry to greater levels sooner. And what can hurt a genius more than the inability to exercise his gifts? Except in this case, it is India’s loss too.
C.P. Surendran is a senior journalist based in India.