When S. Nambi Narayanan, a senior ISRO scientist, was arrested on November 30, 1994, on charges of leaking secrets pertaining to the Indian space programme to foreign nationals, little did anyone think it would one day be looked upon as the starting point of one of the most extraordinary battles for justice the country has witnessed.
Mr. Narayanan’s name was closely linked to two Maldivian nationals, Mariyam Rasheeda and Fousiya Hassan, who were arrested by the police on espionage charges. In May 1996, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), which had taken over the case from the Kerala police, dismissed the charges against Mr. Narayanan and the other accused, terming the case a fabricated one. Two years later, the Supreme Court endorsed the CBI’s closure report. But the damage was done.
The incident, which grabbed headlines as the ISRO spy scandal, shattered the lives and careers of ISRO scientists Mr. Narayanan and D. Sasikumar. In Kerala, the spy case fuelled a fierce political controversy, eventually leading to the resignation of the then Chief Minister K. Karunakaran.
Following his acquittal, Mr. Narayanan was reinstated in ISRO in what he himself describes as a ‘desk job’ at the Bengaluru headquarters. The scientist, who was instrumental in introducing the liquid propulsion technology in ISRO, had been working on cryogenic propulsion when the spy case broke. In 2001, he retired from service without achieving his goal. But the battle, in another sense, was only beginning for Mr. Narayanan.
He had moved court for compensation and action against the police officers responsible for framing him. It is in this context that the April 15 Supreme Court order directing the CBI to look into the report submitted by Justice D.K. Jain Committee needs to be viewed. In 2018, the Supreme Court awarded Mr. Narayanan ₹50 lakh as compensation, noting that he was “arrested unnecessarily, harassed and subjected to mental cruelty”. The apex court also constituted a three-member panel headed by Justice D.K. Jain (Retd.) for finding “ways and means to take appropriate steps against the erring officials”.
Mr. Narayanan had appeared before the committee in December 2020. The CBI report submitted to the Supreme Court in 1998 had reportedly listed the investigative flaws committed by then Additional Director General of Police Siby Mathews, and SPs S. Vijayan and K.K. Joshua. In April 1999, Mr. Narayanan had also moved the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) claiming compensation from the Kerala government for the mental agony that he had been forced to undergo. In March 2001, the NHRC had awarded him an interim compensation of ₹10 lakh. The Kerala High Court, in 2012, had directed the State government to pay the sum to Mr. Narayanan.
The 79-year-old, who lives in Thiruvananthapuram, views the April 15 Supreme Court decision as an additional step forward in exposing the forces that fabricated the spy scandal. Looking back at the gruelling court battles, Mr. Narayanan said he was forced to fight from a compelling need to defend himself.
At one point, his children had encouraged him saying he alone could prove his innocence. “They were right after all. Now people have a tendency to glorify my fight. But I was forced to fight out of necessity,” he observed on Saturday. Mr. Narayanan also looks fondly back at his days at Princeton University in 1970. Princeton, where he did his Masters, helped him “build the platform for his space dreams”, he recalls. The story of the initial days of the Indian space programme and the gruelling saga of the spy case were later recounted in his biography Ready to Fire, which came out in 2017. In 2019, Mr. Narayanan was awarded the Padma Bhushan, which, according to him, had come as a pleasant surprise. The upcoming film, Rocketry: The Nambi Effect, directed by Madhavan, also is based on his life.
When the landmark verdict of the Supreme Court came out in 2018, Mr. Narayanan had told the media that he planned to do something that he had been forced to put off for almost 25 years — spending time with his family. While commenting on the latest SC decision, Mr. Narayanan says he has succeeded in fulfilling that dream in the past several months.