Nambi Narayanan’s READY to FIRE – How the Rocket Man and the Indian Space Programme Survived the ISRO SPY SCANDAL?


Nambi Narayanan is the face of scientific intelligence, oriental wisdom, fortitude, patriotism, resilience, and as unfortunate as it might be, the ISRO Spy Scandal. The sensational case, that ultimately turned out to be a cooked-up story, grabbed headlines in the mid-1990s, and set the Indian cryogenic programme back by a decade and a half.  

Nambi was the project director, Stage-II and Stage-IV of the PSLV as also the p.d., Cryogenics, when he was arrested on November 30th, 1994. He was then 53 years old, and India’s Space Programme (INSCOPAR) stood at 31. Just a month back, ISRO had successfully launched its first PSLV rocket, and through it placed the IRS-P2 into the Sun Synchronous Orbit.  After the breakthrough success of the four-stage PSLV, the second and fourth of which were powered by liquid propellants, India now looked forward to acquiring and mastering the cryogenic technology, and thus embark upon the ambitious GSLV programme. If ISRO were to launch heavier commercial satellites, and place them into the Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit, the GSLV, powered by cryogenic engine, was a must. This was the realm of the lucrative space commerce. If successful, ISRO would be in a position to launch commercial satellites of other countries, and that too at a fraction of the cost at which the Americans did. This is where ISRO had begun treading upon some powerful toes, and thus became a target of industrial sabotage.

The US and France had also offered to sell us cryogenic engines, but the Russian offer was much better. In 1991, ISRO had signed a contract with the Russian Agency, Glavkosmos, for seven cryogenic engines and a complete transfer of technology. But in the backdrop of the collapse of the USSR, and weakening of Russia’s international position, the US created huge pressure upon the Russians to cancel the contract, citing violations of the MTCR (Missile Technology Control Regime).Since missiles do not utilize cryogenics, this was pure hogwash. But a weakened Russia was forced to renegotiate the contract in 1994, under which technology transfer was done away with. Nevertheless, Glavkosmos handed over blueprints, charts, test results, drawings and documents, which were arranged to be sent to India through four Ural Airlines flights. Three of these flights had already arrived in India by the time Nambi was arrested.

An amorous police inspector’s (Vijayan) attempt to corner a Maldivian woman (Mariam Rasheeda) snowballed into an espionage  case, which got mixed up with the factional war (Karunakaran Vs Antony-Chendy) inside the ruling Congress party, even as the IB played right into foreign hands to halt our onward march. The potboiler had every possible masala – sex, spies, compromised sleuths, petty politics, and rocket science- for a sensational opening, but ultimately died down, to be remembered as an intel misadventure, a police mis-procedural, that eventually fed an international conspiracy, and ended up hurting our national interest.

It was alleged by the IB and the Kerala Police that Mariam, and her friend Fauziyya Hassan, served as a honey trap with ISRO scientists to cart away drawings and documents of the cryogenic engine as well as the PSLV project to their masters in Pakistan. She was initially booked under the Foreigners Act for overstay, and later also under the Official Secrets Act. Since his name appeared in her contact diary, D. Sasikumaran, the deputy project director, cryogenics was arrested. Also arrested soon after  were a Bangalore-based representative of Glavkosmos, a labour contractor, and Nambi Narayanan. State police formed an SIT to investigate the matter. It was also alleged by the IB (but not by the police)that  IGP Raman Shrivastava, a favourite of the then CM, K.Karunakaran, had close link with the spy ring.

After the story broke with the arrest of the Maldivian women, that is a full month before Nambi was taken into custody, the espionage angle was laughed at by the scientific community, simply because India did not have the know-how to make a cryogenic engine. Drawings and blueprints related to the Vikas engine, developed in collaboration with the French, were available in plenty, and those were routinely shared with the Indian manufacturers. Hence, there was nothing to be smuggled as such. In any case, drawings mean nothing because what is needed are long years of development, guidance and extensive tests to develop a rocket engine. Rocket engine cannot be manufactured on the basis of know-how, you need the know-why, which cannot be smuggled! Indian could manufacture the Vikas engine, on the model of the French Viking, because they had spent close to 150 man-years working on it.

Karunakaran was forced to step down as the CM after he was accused of shielding Shrivastava. It was alleged that Ural Airlines was used to smuggle out documents and drawings, whereas it were they who were transporting the vital material related to cryogenics from Russian and India, whereas the Air India had refused to risk the US ire.  Since no evidences were forthcoming, the ISRO scientists and others were released on bail in January 1995.Rasheeda and Fauziyya remained in jail for much longer. Nambi Sir spent fifty days in captivity, 27 of them in prison.  Later, Mariam accused Inspector Vijayan of seeking sexual favours from her.  Finally, the CBI submitted before the CJM, Ernakulam, in April 1996, that the case was false. While completely dismissing any wrongdoing, the CBI report lambasted the police and IB officers. They even wrote to the Centre and the State Governments, naming the Kerala Police and the IB officers who had fabricated the entire case- IB Director Matthew John and Deputy Director R B Sreekumar; and Kerala Police officers – Inspector Vijayan, DSP KK Joshwa  and Siby Matthews (DIG Crime).

But this was not the end of the ordeal. New CM, EK Nayanar, under pressure from the state police officers, ordered further investigation in 1996. The Supreme Court quashed this order in 1998, and the case came to its logical end. The NHRC ordered an immediate interim compensation of RS 10 lakh to Nambi Narayanan in 2001. However it took another eleven years and a High Court order for the Kerala Government to release the amount. Hats off to Nambi Sir for keeping at it!

Contrary to what is often thought, it was not Nambi’s career that was destroyed by the scandal, rather his reputation. Realizing that his future progression in the hierarchy was stalled, he had already put in his papers after the successful PSLV launch, and had taken the ISRO Chairman K. Kasturi Rangan into confidence. Despite his reinstatement in the organization in 1996, awarding of the Padma Bhushan, and various tributes paid through articles, books and cinema, can the good name of this great man ever recover its pristine glory? Can the sufferings faced by his family be wished away? Even the commercial losses suffered by the country’s space programme due to the delay in the cryogenic project can never be made good. But by surviving the ordeal, fighting back the corrupt system and living long enough to tell the tale, Nambi Narayanan has shown that truth does not necessarily have to lose to all-pervasive corruption, and that all hope is not lost.

Not every officer or investigative agency was out to get him. He specifically mentions PM Nair and ML Sharma of CBI who gave him a patient hearing. They were interested in getting to the bottom of the case. But it cannot be denied that such a senior scientist was tortured by the local and IB sleuths. He also alleges how both MK Dhar and Ratan Sahgal, Joint Directors, IB, might have played the CIA’s game. Dhar’s book, Open Secrets, made a pleading case for further joint investigation into the case by CBI, RAW, ISRO, IB and Kerala Police.

IN this delightful autobiography of his, Nambi Sir takes us to Thyagaraj Chettiar College in Madurai where he did his engineering, to the sugar factory in Trichy where he did his first job; to Thumba village in Kerala, the first home of the ISRO, and to Mahendragiri, where he had helped in setting up the Propulsion Complex. We follow him to Princeton and meet Prof. Crocci, and then to Vernon (France) where the ISRO team developed the Viking-Vikas Engine in collaboration with the SEP. Through Nambi we get to meet three ISRO Chairmen, Vikram Sarabhai, Satish Dhawan and UR Rao, as well as APJ Abdul Kalam, and TN Seshan, who served as ISRO’s administrative director. Nambi Sir has struck a perfect balance between the Case, India’s Space Programme and his own life story, and has served a must-read fare. How he tells the whole story from the Liquid Versus Solid Fuel angle provides valuable insights.

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