On October 20, 1994, a Maldivian woman named Mariam Rasheeda was taken into custody by the Special Branch of Police in Kerala. Her arrest soon snowballed into a massive espionage related scandal, with seven persons, including former ISRO scientist Nambi Narayanan, accused of being part of a spy racket.
Actor R Madhavanâ€™s directorial debut Rocketry: The Nambi Effect, which released on July 1, is a biographical drama that traces the life of Nambi Narayanan, an aerospace engineer who was working with ISRO and the main accused in the alleged espionage case.
Nambi, along with the others, was acquitted in May 1996 by a CBI court. However, it was not until 2018 that he was able to take a break from years of legal battle, because soon after the acquittal the Kerala government had ordered a re-investigation. This was challenged by the scientist, and the case dragged on for another couple of years until the Supreme Court quashed the state governmentâ€™s move.
Timeline of the 27-year legal battle
The bizarre espionage case began with the arrest of Mariam Rasheeda in October 1994 for overstaying her visa. She and her friend Fauziya Hassan, who were staying in Hotel Samrat in Thiruvananthapuram, were asked by Special Branch Inspector S Vijayan to appear before him. When the duo went to the police station, Vijayan detained Mariam alleging that she did not have a proper reason to stay in India despite her visa expiring.
Mariam, however, said she was here for medical treatment? and to help Fauziya get school admission for her daughter. Saying that she could not return as flights to the Maldives were suspended because of a plague scare, Mariam approached the police seeking permission to stay in India. That was when her passport was confiscated. The Intelligence Bureau (IB) and the Research and Analysis Wing also joined the case, and Mariam was arrested on October 20.
Mariam later alleged that Vijayan had made sexual advances which she turned down and said she had warned him that she would report him to another senior police official, Raman Srivastava.
On November 13, Fauziya was also arrested and the case was taken over by the Special Investigation Team headed by then Kerala DIG Siby Mathews. Both the Kerala Police and the IB claimed that Mariam confessed that confidential documents of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) had been leaked by its scientists. They alleged that the two Maldivian nationals had made telephone calls from their hotel room to D Sasikumaran, who was the general manager of the Proto Fabrication and Technology Division of ISROâ€™s Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre (LPSC).
Sasikumaran was arrested on November 21. Nambi was leading ISROâ€™s cryogenic engine project and Sasikumaran was his deputy. Nambi was also arrested soon after, on November 30.
After the arrests, the special team of the Kerala Police, saying that it was not equipped to handle the case, requested that it be transferred to the CBI. The Central team took up the case in December 1994.
The allegation by the Kerala Police was that Nambi and Sasikumaran fell into a honey trap set by the Maldivian women and subsequently gave them multiple documents that were deemed national secret. The documents included ISROâ€™s Vikas engine drawings, details about the cryogenic engine technology developed by India, among others. The story does not end there; the police also alleged that this data was passed on to a Pakistani nuclear scientist, who then paid the ISRO scientists lakhs of US dollars.
Multiple arrests, story woven wider
Apart from these four arrests, the Indian representative of Russian space agency Glavkosmos, K Chandrasekhar, and a labour contractor named SK Sharma were also arrested. They were booked under the Official Secrets Act.
The arrests were only part of the story. Using the scam, politicians and media in Kerala targeted several people, including then Chief Minister K Karunakaran and then Southern Range IG Raman Srivastava.
It is to be noted that Mariam first met Srivastava about the extension of her visa. There were many demands for Srivatsavaâ€™s arrest after the Maldivian women allegedly told the investigators that a â€˜coatwallahâ€™ was part of the conspiracy. However, Srivatsava was never implicated in the case. He was close to Chief Minister Karunakaran and his brother was an IG working in then Prime Minister Narasimha Raoâ€™s office. The political pressure increased to such an extent that Karunakaran stepped down as CM.
After close to two months in jail, Nambi was granted bail in January 1995. The case went on for 16 more months until May 1996, when a CBI court acquitted all six accused in the case. The CBI, after its 18-month investigation, submitted a 104-page-long final report that found that the entire case was false and fabricated with no iota of evidence to back any of the allegations put forth.
There was a time in the 1990s when the PSLV rocket was a huge success and ISRO was looking to develop the GSLV â€“ a more powerful rocket that could carry heavier satellites and go deeper into space. However, it needed a cryogenic engine for power. For this cryogenic technology, India had signed a deal with a Russian agency, which was opposed by the US, and India planned to develop the technology indigenously.
Nambi believes that he was arrested as part of a US-backed conspiracy to destroy Indiaâ€™s development of the cryogenic engine.
As for Raman Srivatsava, it was later alleged that Siby Mathews who headed the investigation had a strained relationship with him, and that is why Srivatsava was implicated in the scandal.
However, this was not the end of the road because months after the CBI courtâ€™s acquittal, the CPI(M)-led Kerala government reopened the case and ordered further investigation, which was challenged by Nambi. The governmentâ€™s case was quashed by the Supreme Court in March 1998.
In 1999, Nambi sought compensation and action against those who fabricated the case. But no such action was taken in all these years. However, in September 2012, the Kerala HC directed the state government to pay him a compensation of Rs 10 lakh.
Subsequently, in September 2018, the apex court awarded him Rs 50 lakh as compensation saying that he was subjected to harassment and mental cruelty. The Supreme Court also constituted a committee headed by Justice DK Jain and ordered a probe into the role played by the Kerala police in falsely implicating Nambi and others in the case.
This committee submitted its report in April 2021 saying that the entire case was part of a conspiracy and also recommended a detailed investigation. Based on this recommendation, the SC ordered a CBI re-investigation and an FIR was registered against 18 former officers of the Kerala police and IB in June 2021. However, the case is still pending in court.
At this juncture, we also should take note of a simultaneous media trial held, right from the arrest of the two Maldivians till this point. Apart from a few media houses, like Asianet News, that called out the policeâ€™s actions from the beginning and faced a defamation suit as a result, other media houses published sensational claims.
The entire case, which was sensationalised as a scandal revolving around sex, money and espionage, started with a three-centimetre-long news copy in the Communist partyâ€™s official newspaper Deshabhimani on Mariamâ€™s arrest for overstaying her visa. Later, the news was picked up by another newspaper Mangalam, with police sources connecting Mariam with several businessmen and scientists, thereby creating a buzz around the issue.
While Nambi was initially vilified by the media, he was later characterised as a victim of vendetta, politics and lack of media ethics. An investigation by The Caravan magazine in 2018, however, pointed out that the CBI had hastily shut the case as Narasimha Raoâ€™s son Prabhakar Raoâ€™s name had been dragged in. The magazine went on to ask if the CBI was acting on orders of the PMâ€™s office and why it had ignored the fact that Nambi had applied for voluntary retirement a few days after Mariamâ€™s arrest.
For Nambi himself, the fight has not stopped as all those officers who investigated the case remain unpunished.
Watch: How ISRO scientist Nambi Narayanan was exonerated in the ISRO spy case