Former ISRO Scientist Mr. Nambi  Narayanan

India’s PSLV and later GSLV programs vindicated this truth, a point the author says was fairly seen only by the CBI

Chennai: If there is a valuable universal lesson from this sharp, compelling, extremely readable and in parts dramatic narrative about the infamous ‘spy case’ that had rocked the Indian Space Science Organisation (ISRO) in the 1990s’, it is this: As people benefit more and more from the ripened fruits of high-end science and technology, they should also give some thought to its pre-history, to the saga of suffering of countless scientists, engineers, technocrats, right up to the lowly helper at the long-end of the knowledge chain, who make a science and technology vision of its leaders into a mass-benefiting new reality.

This tract titled, ‘Ready to Fire: How India and I Survived the ISRO Spy Case’ by S. Nambi Narayanan, one of the brilliant engineers associated since the mid-1960s’, from the early days of the Indian Space programme, formulated by the great Vikram Sarabhai who set up the ‘Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS)’ in Trivandrum, written with journalist Arun Ram, is precisely one such reminder of how the traumatic adversity brought about by a “conspiracy” of circumstances, when ISRO’s PSLV programme was on its ascendant phase in the early 1990s’, again demonstrated the truth that self-reliance comes at huge cost. 

Nambi Narayanan, who had led a team of Indian scientists to France in the 1970s’ to jointly develop the ‘Vikas-Viking engine’ that has made PSLV the ISRO’s sturdy workhorse till today, shortly after the successful launch of the second flight of PSLV from Sriharikota in October 1994, had the shock of his life when he and another ISRO colleague, P Sasikumaran, were (subsequently with some others accused in the case) were arrested by the Kerala police. The IB also joined in to investigate, charges of “passing on documents/drawings of ISRO relating to Viking/Vikas engine technology, cryogenic engine technology” etc to Pakistan. It all started with the arrest of a Maldivian woman, Mariam Rasheeda, by a special branch police inspector of the Kerala Police on alleged charge of overstaying in India and leading to implicating the ISRO scientists in a sensational spy case.

Meticulously going over every detail, nuance, mood and turning points of the case in this 340-page book, that bears the experienced journalistic imprint of Arun Ram, until the more professional and thorough CBI investigation showed it was totally a false case, and whose investigative report was later also accepted by the Supreme Court, Nambi Narayanan has juxtaposed this narrative with a chronicle of his own life and times with ISRO since his younger days. The scientist in fact calls it a sort of an ‘Experiment with Truth’ in standing up to this attempted bid to ‘frame-up ISRO scientists’, albeit indirectly slowing down a crucial phase of India’s prestigious space program itself under the alleged influence of some foreign agencies. What began as an overstaying case by a Maldivian woman, to whom the Trivandrum cop had allegedly made “sexual advances”, and her friend, it quickly took on highly exaggerated and sensational contours of sex, spies and scandal, in the pages of a powerful regional press, particularly in Kerala, uncritically lapping up the police versions, amid a grim factional fight in the Kerala Congress seeing this case as a ruse to settle their scores. 

Add to this earth-shaking drama, the over-arching space technology race between the two global superpowers then, America and erstwhile USSR until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and what the author agonises about a scientifically ill-informed Indian intelligence agencies, the plot got only thicker! 

At the end of the chapter on how the cryogenic deal ISRO had done with the Russian space agency, the author says: “The ISRO spy case bubble burst in less than two years when the CBI called the IB’s bluff and I was reinstated in ISRO as the director, advanced technology and planning, on 1 June 1996 at the Bangalore headquarters. But the arrest and the subsequent damage the case did to ISRO scientists’ morale was so bad that our cryogenic project languished for almost nineteen years. I can say with certainty that if this fabricated case was not to be, India would have launched its first GSLV using an indigenous cryogenic engine at least fifteen years earlier. In fact, I had a special interest to achieve this, as I wanted to see GSLV flying before I retire in 2001. …..The dream was shattered when a police jeep from the Vanchiyoor station screeched to a halt in front of my house early in the afternoon of 30 November 1994.”

The first big relief came when the Chief Judicial Magistrate, Ernakulam, D Mohana Rajan, on 14 November 1995, acquitted the Maldivian woman Mariam Rasheeda in the “overstaying case’. That shook the very foundations of the ISRO spy case, as one of the telephone numbers found in her dairy was that of the ISRO scientist Sasikumaran had led to the alleged ISRO link. But the CBI investigation found that the “espionage case was false and baseless”, and for the first time the premier investigating agency told the CJM it would file its report in the connected case. It turned out that Mariam and her friend had been touch with Sasikumaran and few others accused for an admission to her friend’s daughter in a Bangalore school. The second, even more foundational, argument that convinced the CBI investigating officers was the nature of rocket science itself. Nambi Narayanan from the very beginning of the interrogation by the IB officers, had been emphasising the “perennial truth in rocket science: getting all the blueprints and even few pieces of finished engines do not enable one to put-together a rocket engine. You need the ‘Know-Why’ beyond the ‘Know-how’.” So, logically, there was no question of “smuggling out” any designs of engines to anyone outside. Developing a rocket engine is actually the result of working long years with a country that had the technology. India’s PSLV and later GSLV programmes vindicated this truth, a point the author says was fairly seen only by the CBI.

The book is also full of little known anecdotes: like Nambi Narayanan once saving the life of Dr A P J Abdul Kalam during a ‘bell jar’ experiment in early days at Thumba, Nambi’s arguments with Dr Kalam on virtues of a liquid propellant versus solid propellant, how Tamil Nadu missed getting the first launch pad, which went to Sriharikota in Andhra Pradesh, due to the goof-up by former Chief Minister, C N Annadurai’s minister Madhiazhagan, TN Seshan’s great pro-active role at ISRO and so on and last but not least late Vikram Sarabhai’s generosity.

The book is a must-read for all those who want to know more about how India is now a player to be reckoned with in the global satellite launch market.