The True Story of Nambi Narayanan, Scientist Madhavan Stars in Rocketry
The 80-year-old former ISRO scientist is still awaiting justice as the case against 18 police officers accused of fabricating the case against him in 1994 is pending in court.
On October 20, 1994, a Maldivian woman named Mariam Rasheeda was arrested by the special branch of the Kerala Police. His arrest quickly snowballed into a huge espionage scandal, with seven people, including former ISRO scientist Nambi Narayanan, accused of being part of a spy racket.
The directorial debut of actor R Madhavan Rocket: The Nambi Effect, which premieres on July 1, is a biographical drama that traces the life of Nambi Narayanan, an aerospace engineer who worked with ISRO and the main defendant in the alleged espionage case.
Nambi, along with the others, was acquitted in May 1996 by a CBI tribunal. However, it was not until 2018 that he was able to take a break after years of legal battle, as soon after the acquittal the Kerala government ordered a new investigation. This was disputed by the scientist and the case dragged on for a few more years until the Supreme Court overturned the state government’s decision.
Timeline of the 27-year legal battle
The bizarre spy case began with the arrest of Mariam Rasheeda in October 1994 for overstaying his visa. She and her friend Fauziya Hassan, who were staying at Samrat Hotel in Thiruvananthapuram, were invited by Special Branch Inspector S Vijayan to appear before him. When the duo went to the police station, Vijayan detained Mariam, alleging that she had no valid reason to stay in India despite her visa expiring.
Mariam, however, said she was here for medical treatment? and to help Fauziya get her daughter admitted to school. Saying she couldn’t return as flights to the Maldives were suspended due to a plague scare, Mariam approached the police to seek permission to stay in India. It was then that his passport was confiscated. The Intelligence Bureau (IB) and the Research and Analysis Wing also joined in the case, and Mariam was arrested on October 20.
Mariam later alleged that Vijayan made sexual advances which she refused and said she warned him that she would report him to another senior police official, Raman Srivastava.
On November 13Fauziya was also arrested and the case was taken up by the Special Investigation Team led by Kerala DIG Siby Mathews.. Kerala Police and the IB claimed that Mariam confessed that confidential Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) documents were leaked by her scientists. They alleged that the two Maldivian nationals made phone calls from their hotel room to Dr Sasikumaran, who was the Managing Director of the Proto Fabrication and Technology Division of ISRO’s Liquid Propulsion Systems Center (LPSC).
Sasikumaran was arrested on 21 November. Nambi headed ISRO’s cryogenic engine project and Sasikumaran was his deputy. Nambi was also arrested soon after, the November 30.
After the arrests, the Kerala Police Task Force, saying they were not equipped to handle the case, requested that she be transferred to the CBI. The central team took charge of the case in December 1994.
The Kerala Police allegation was that Nambi and Sasikumaran fell into a honey trap set by Maldivian women and then gave them several documents considered national secrets. The documents included, among others, drawings of ISRO’s Vikas engine, details of the cryogenic engine technology developed by India. 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 thousands of US dollars.
Multiple arrests, larger woven story
Besides these four arrests, the Indian representative of the Russian space agency Glavkosmos, K Chandrasekhar, and a contractor named SK Sharma were also arrested. They have been reserved under the Official Secrets Act.
The arrests were only part of the story. Using the scam, Kerala politicians and media targeted several people including the then Chief Minister K Karunakaran and then Southern Range IG Raman Srivastava.
It should be noted that Mariam first met with Srivastava about extending her visa. There have been numerous calls for Srivatsava’s arrest after Maldivian women allegedly told investigators that a ‘coatwallah’ was part of the plot. However, Srivatsava was never involved in the case. He was close to Chief Minister Karunakaran and his brother was an IG working in Prime Minister Narasimha Rao’s office. Political pressure grew to such an extent that Karunakaran resigned as CM.
After nearly two months in prison, Nambi was released on bail in January 1995. The case went on for 16 more months until May 1996, when a CBI tribunal acquitted all six defendants in the case. The CBI, after its 18-month investigation, submitted a 104-page final report which concluded that the whole affair was bogus and fabricated without any evidence to back up the allegations made.
There was a time in the 1990s when the PSLV rocket was a huge success and ISRO was looking to develop the GSLV – a more powerful rocket that could carry heavier satellites and go further into space. However, he needed a cryogenic engine for power. For this cryogenic technology, India had signed an agreement with a Russian agency, which the United States opposed, and India planned to develop the technology locally.
Nambi believes he was arrested as part of a US-backed plot to destroy India’s cryogenic engine development.
As for Raman Srivatsava, it was later alleged that Siby Mathews, who was leading the investigation, had a strained relationship with him, and that is why Srivatsava was implicated in the scandal.
However, that was not the end of the road as months after the CBI court acquittal, the CPI(M) led government of Kerala reopened the case and ordered a further investigation, which was challenged by Nambi. The government’s case was overturned by the Supreme Court in March 1998.
In 1999, Nambi sought compensation and action against those who fabricated the case. But no such measures have been taken for all these years. However, in september 2012, Kerala HC ordered the state government to pay him compensation of Rs 10 lakh.
Subsequently, in September 2018, the supreme court awarded him Rs 50 lakh as compensation, saying he had suffered harassment and mental cruelty. The Supreme Court also set up a committee headed by Justice DK Jain and ordered an investigation into the role played by the Kerala Police in falsely implicating Nambi and others in the case.
This committee tabled its report in April 2021 saying the whole thing was part of a conspiracy and also recommended a detailed investigation. Based on this recommendation, the SC ordered a new CBI investigation and an FIR was registered against 18 former Kerala Police and IB officers in June 2021. However, the case is still pending in court.
At this point, we must also take note of a simultaneous media trial that has been held since the arrest of the two Maldivians up to this point. Apart from a few media houses, such as Asianet News, which denounced the actions of the police early on and faced a libel suit, other media houses published sensational statements.
The whole affair, which has been sensationalized as a sex, money and espionage scandal, began with a three-centimeter-long copy in the official communist party newspaper Deshabhimani about Mariam’s arrest. for overstaying his visa. The news was later picked up by another newspaper Mangalam, with law enforcement sources linking Mariam to several businessmen and scientists, creating a buzz around the issue.
While Nambi was initially vilified by the media, he was later branded a victim of vendetta, politics and lack of media ethics. An investigation by The Caravan magazine in 2018, however, pointed out that the CBI closed the case in a hurry as the name of Narasimha Rao’s son, Prabhakar Rao, was dragged out. The magazine then asked if the CBI was acting on orders from the Prime Minister’s Office. and why he had ignored the fact that Nambi had asked for his voluntary retirement a few days after Mariam’s arrest.
For Nambi himself, the fight has not stopped because all the officers who investigated the case remain unpunished.
Watch: How ISRO scientist Nambi Narayanan was exonerated in the ISRO spy case