Nambi Narayanan: Excavating The Espionage Case Of India’s Unsung Hero

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Is media a necessary evil? Or an entity that is prone to corruption and susceptible to abuse of power? Should there be a limit to the freedom of speech? Where does it end? What should be the conduct? In the case of Nambi Narayanan; the famous ISRO scientist who was charged with espionage, the case which was recently termed 'fabricated' by the Supreme Court of India. But how the media blew the whole thing out of proportion? Or most importantly how conspiracies can alter the proceedings and the life of a person?
Nambi Narayana-The Uncharted Minds
Image Credit- TOI photo by Rakesh Nair

‘Reputation of An Individual is An Insegregable Facet of His Right to Life with Dignity[1]‘ said the Supreme Court in the ISRO spy case which relates to allegations of transfer of certain confidential documents and secrets of the country’s cryogenic engine technology to enemy countries.

When the espionage was unearthed, Nambi Narayanan was in-charge of the cryogenic division. The Kerala government on August 11 handed over an additional compensation of Rs 1.30 crore to former scientist of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) Nambi Narayanan to settle the two-and-a-half-decade old spy case in which he was implicated by the state police.

Before having narrated the tale of Nambi Narayanan who was compelled to undergo immense humiliation and a judicial fight for over fifteen years, let us explore whether Media Trial disrupts an Individual’s Right of a fair trial.

Media Trial In India: Media Do You Have Any Idea?

Media is regarded as one of the pillars of democracy[2].

Freedom of media is always equated to the freedom of people to be informed of prevailing social matters. Free and healthy press is indispensable to the functioning of the democracy. Democracy essentially means ‘the government by the people’ and to have an active participation in the community decision.

It is, therefore, needed that the people be informed about the current affairs of society. The press and media must enlighten over issues relating to public importance.

The responsibility of the press and media is to maintain an unbiased opinion on such matters and to not interfere in sub-judice matters.

The judiciary and the media share a common bond and play a complementary role[3] to each other.

While the media explores, discovers, and reveals the achievements and follies of man, the judiciary deals with the legality of it.

Both the judiciary and the media are engaged in the same task: to discover the truth.

The media has been called the watchdog of society; the judiciary, the dispenser of justice, and the catalyst for social reforms.

Thus, both are essential for the progress of a civil society.

However, at times, these two pillars of democracy are at loggerheads. Under the fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression, the media claims the right to investigate, to expose, and to highlight the criminal cases.

According to it, in a democracy, the people have the right to know. Therefore, the media has a corresponding duty to inform the people about the criminal and social affairs. It, thus, demands the right to carry out a sensational publicity.

Yet, on the other hand, the judiciary is aware of the fundamental rights of the accused to a fair trial.

Since pre-trial publicity can derail a fair and speedy trial, the judiciary has to balance the competing fundamental rights. While the freedom of speech and expression of the media, the right to know of the people need to be protected, the right to fair trial of the accused needs to be secured and guaranteed.

Pre-trial publicity is injurious to the health of a fair trial.

The major shortcoming of the same is that the media proclaims the accused to be guilty even before he/she is tried or arrested.

Press and media show content in such a form that it is made to believe the published content is the gospel truth. The principle of criminal trial — ‘innocent until proven guilty’ — must be understood by media, as premature judgments of guilt or innocence is denial of fair trial to accuse.

When the constitution was being drafted, the members were very much mindful of the changes and challenges which were likely to take place in the coming decades.  

It is why freedom of speech and expression has been extended to include freedom of the press and media. But the freedom offered is not absolute.

Reasonable restrictions are permitted by sub-clause (2) of the same article. Parties to litigation have the constitutional right to have a fair trial in the court of law, one that is unbiased, fair, uninfluenced, impartial, and free from any kind of pressure.

Photographs, interviews, and other documents are published on these platforms to increase commercial value and to sensationalize the reporting.

The problem becomes more conspicuous when the matters involve big names and celebrities.

In such cases, media reporting can swing popular sentiments either way. It is, therefore, necessary to make a balance between the constitutional guarantee of free media on one hand and individual’s right to free trial on the other.

In Saibal Kumar vs. B.K. Sen[4], the Supreme Court tried to discourage the tendency of media trial and remarked,

No doubt, it would be mischievous for a newspaper to systematically conduct an independent investigation into a crime for which a man has been arrested and to publish the results of the investigation. This is because trial by newspapers, when a trial by one of the regular tribunals of the country is going on, must be prevented. The basis for this view is that such action on the part of a newspaper tends to interfere with the course of justice, whether the investigation tends to prejudice the accused or the prosecution.”

Media acts as a facilitator along with being an expediter on many matters including those affecting the collective conscience of society.

To cite a few, like Sushant Singh Rajput case, Jessica Lal case[5] and recently the Nambi Narayanan case. Though media to a large extent plays an irrefutably positivist role, the role of media in media trials specifically of sexual offense is doubtful.

On the same lines, media fails to understand the legal implications like the intrusion of victim’s privacy, the implication of verbatim re-production in the public domain, denial of Right to a fair trial, the conception of bias in public based on inadmissible evidence and interfering in the judicial process by impacting the sentencing process defeats the whole idea of a fair and impartial trial.

The ISRO Spy Scandal: A Completely Conjured Fictional Story

Nambi Narayanan was born on 12 December 1941 (age79; as in 2020) in Kerala, India. His hometown is Nagercoil in Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu. He was educated at DVD Higher Secondary School, Nagercoil. He completed his bachelors in Mechanical Engineering from Thiagarajar College of Engineering, Madras University, Madurai. Narayanan further went on to join a 20-member team, started working at Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS), Thumba in Thiruvananthapuram.

He also received a NASA fellowship. Narayanan completed his Master’s in Chemical Rocket Propulsion from Princeton University, New Jersey. Though NASA offered him US citizenship but Narayanan was determined to pursue research in India.

In 1994, He was falsely accused of espionage in ISRO spy case[6].

The story starts with five conspirators: two scientists, two Maldivian Women and Chandrasekharan, who represents the Russian Commercial Space company, who allegedly met in a hotel named Madras International Hotel along with the DIG of Kerala Police, Raman Srivastava.

“Together they hatched the conspiracy to sell away India’s secrets”.

Further, this story gets complicated with the embellishment of several facts associated with the case. Along with the claim that they had met in a hotel, it was also added that the accused was setting up a company called Cavalier Ltd to sell the ISRO Technology they had developed and to use them for commercial purposes. It was also alleged that the scientists got sexual favors from the two Maldivian based women in exchange for the secrets.

Put 2 and 2 together and make it 22, the Intelligence Bureau helps to conjure a completely fictional story[7].

The main reason the DIG of Kerala was targeted because according to IB’s story, they had spotted someone who was wearing the same pimps as a brigadier and it can’t be a brigadier, so it has to be the DIG of police.

They got hold of Raman Srivastava, he was made a co-conspirator. By this time the wheels had begun to move and the whole country was furious about the spy scandal.

On October 22, 1994, Mariam Rasheeda was arrested[8]. According to the story that the Intelligence Bureau put together, she went on video to confess and make a statement in exchange to make a deal with the police for her early acquittal.

Nambi was arrested following the video confession.

Consequently, Fauzia Hassan, who was known as Rasheeda’s boss and Nambi Narayanan’s and Sashi Kumaran’s handler, was taken into custody for further questioning.

On November 15, 1994, DIG Siby Mathews of Kerala police, an obvious rival of Raman Srivastava (DIG) was assigned by the state government to head a special investigation team looking into the ISRO spy case. By that time the whole country coined a name for this issue as ‘The ISRO Spy Case‘.

Kerala press by then had made a huge deal out of this for commercial purposes and value, blew it way out of proportion unnecessarily. Series of leaks from the investigation followed.

Further, the police had taken two more people into custody. One, Dr. Sashi Kumaran and two, S.K Sharma, a Bengaluru based labor contractor who was supposedly spotted with the conspirators in a club.

The Intelligence Bureau cannot arrest an individual, it cannot go to the court, it cannot prosecute anyone. The main functioning of the Intelligence Bureau is to have its impressions and to share them with the prosecution agencies. Due to which they brought in the Central Bureau of Investigation. Although, Raman Srivastava was put under suspension without a shred of evidence.

By March, 1995, the Karunakaran government had to step down and A.K Antony had replaced him. They said Karunakaran was soft on Raman Srivastava and it was a conflict of interest and it was under his watch that ‘awful scandal’ had taken place.

On May 1, the CBI filed a closure report concluding there was nothing they could find against Nambi and others to prosecute them. This report was filed in the special CBI court in Kochi. A CPM-LED LDF government ordered a re-investigation by the state police. They wanted to re-open the case which the CBI applied for closure on.

The matter was taken to the High court, both the CBI and IB were summoned. IB was asked to submit every shred of evidence it had on the case. The lawyer representing the CBI and IB was the same guy, one Mr. KTS Tulsi. He had to walk on eggshells because he didn’t have the provision to throw one agency under the bus and support the other.

Luckily, he found a diplomatic way of putting it across by saying “IB had information based on its impressions and information from the given resources but CBI worked on evidence. Therefore, CBI’s evidence needs to be taken into consideration.”

High court quashed the case and ordered a re-investigation. 

On January 13, 1996, CBI went to the Supreme Court of India against the High Court of Kerala rejecting its investigation by ordering an investigation headed by the Kerala Police.

Simultaneously Nambi challenged the order before Division Bench of Kerala High Court. He fell on his face as the mood in Kerala at that point as per popular view was nasty and everybody had presumed, they were Pakistani Spies by that time.

In 1998, the Supreme Court quashed the Kerala Government’s order to re-investigate as it went against the concept of good governance.

In 2001, Nambi Narayanan and Sashi Kumaran decided to fight back to have their honor restored.

The National Human Rights Commission of India ordered a 10 Lakh compensation to Nambi.

The Kerala government didn’t bother to pay the said amount and hence took a stay order on the NHRC’s compensation to him, but this dint stop Nambi Narayan from fighting back.

Just like every other conspiracy case, this one also had an interesting plot of unraveling the allegations made thereby.

The six conspirators were supposed to have met at a Hotel somewhere on 24-26 January, 1994 but what was found is that nobody by that name had checked into the hotel[9]. Now, someone called Sashi Kumaran had checked into the hotel, he is the guy who checked in, it turned out to be another person by the very same name.

The chief of ISI will be thrilled to know that due to unimaginable politics and media trial India’s Missile progress has been hampered including India’s GSLV program and one of India’s best scientists was compromised.

Not to mention, the cold war between India’s Intelligence agencies.

Speaking of which, it also destroyed the credibility of the entire Indian Security System and this without anybody in ISI having to do anything about it, as it is Indian’s who themselves, who had done the job for him.

As it turns out, the entire story was fictional and fake.

The dates on which they have been supposed to have met in the then Madras. The DIG of Kerala Police, Mr.  Raman Srivastava was not only wasn’t there but he was actually in Trivandrum supervising the Republic Day Rehearsals and there was sufficient evidence to prove his innocence. Everything had started falling into place, that’s when they had received information from Interpol which said that Zuheira, the so-called Columbo ISI agent had never even visited India during the timeline of the case.

Lastly, the Kerala Government approached the court and took a stay.

The so-called “stay” lasted a decade.

In the end, the Kerala Government had no other choice but to compensate for the same.

Two steps front and one step back is still one step front:

The former scientist of the Indian Space Research Organisation S. Nambi Narayanan finally gets justice after an excruciating fight with the judiciary and the public for more than two decades.

A successful scientist having a national reputation, was compelled to undergo immense humiliation. Not just the state and the Intelligence Bureau that concocted a fictional story, the same was magnified by paid-media purely for creating a sensational news out of nothing, but an irresponsible usage of social media as is happening today.

On November 30, 1994, Dr. Nambi Narayanan was detained and taken into custody by the state police. He spends over 50 days in custody. In his darkest phase of detention, Nambi Narayanan was forced to stand continuously for 30 hours without food or water till he collapsed, all the while yelled at and insulted as a ‘traitor’, in addition to beatings on the head, neck and torso.

That meets every textbook definition of ‘torture’.

No police officer who participated in, or had vicarious responsibility for, the torture to manufacture fake evidence to destroy Dr. Nambi, in an attempt to ‘use allegations as a substitute for evidence’ has been convicted of any offense yet. Dr. Nambi has been honored by the Government of India with the Padma Bhushan, and by the Government of Kerala with Rs 1.3 crore compensation, and additional exonerations[10] by courts.

But Nambi will never get back those lost years, not to mention his broken reputation over the years. This is simply a case of ‘professional death’.

Over the years, ISRO has had its share of mysterious deaths. Before Nambi took charge of India’s nuclear program, two deaths had taken place. To cite, one, Dr. Homi Bhabha who mysteriously died in an air crash that ‘accidentally flew’ into Mont Blanc in Switzerland and two, Dr. Vikram Sarabhai who was ‘found dead‘ in his guest house.

Many other scientists were also dying mysteriously for decades more until India’s first professor of geopolitics, appointed by Manipal University, connected the dots and showed how those ‘mysteries’ were not so mysterious after all.

Thereafter, there has been a lull in actual deaths. But now, character assassination using fake allegations, which eventually leads to professional deaths shows us its vision of a new normal.

Fake Allegations And Its Consequences:

Section 383 of the Indian Penal Code defines extortion as-

‘Whoever intentionally puts any person in fear of any injury to that person, or any other, and thereby dishonestly induces the person so put in fear to deliver to any person any property, or valuable security or anything signed or sealed which may be converted into a valuable security, commits ‘extortion’.

Professional death is indeed grievous hurt.

Section 386 states that-

‘Whoever commits extortion by putting any person in fear of death or of grievous hurt to that person or any other, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine’.

Surprisingly, even lawyers are utilized to convey the threats, while claiming that the advice is for the scientist’s own good to resign rather than face those long-drawn-out proceedings as a result of the manufactured allegations.

Thus, while there are clear provisions in the IPC for punishing those who level fake allegations for personal gain or other ulterior motives, otherwise described as camouflaged extortion, those provisions are rarely applied rigorously.


Professional Womam Clipart-The Uncharted Minds

Fasila Saleem

A third-year law student, pursuing her law degree in ICFAI law school, Hyderabad. She is a law student by profession and a dancer by passion. She likes to explore through different avenues of her interest that include IPC and cases that require a keen eye for detail. She has previously worked for the Chennai high court and has recently interned under the High court of Judicature of Telangana.

S Tejasri

A fourth-year law student, pursuing her law degree in ICFAI law school, Hyderabad. She is a law student by profession and a theatre artist by passion. Her main field of interest is ADR. She has previously interned under ICADR Hyderabad and also with the advocate general of Karnataka.

References and Citations

[1] S. Nambi Narayan vs Siby Mattews & others Etc, CA No. 6637-6638, 2018.

[2] Trial by media vs right of fair trial, IJTR.

[3] Trial by media: An International Perspective,(2011) PL October S-38.

[4](1961) 3 SCR 460.

[5] Media trials in India, SSRN, (2014).

[6] Nambi Narayan Wiki, WikiBio.

[7] Soutik Biswas, Nambi Narayanan: The fake spy scandal that blew up a rocket scientist’s career, BBC News, Jan 27.

[8] Nambi Narayanan, Arun Ram,Ready To Fire How India, and I Survived the ISRO Spy Case, 2018.

[9] Shekar Gupta, Justice for ISRO’s Nambi Narayan, The Print (Aug. 13, 2020)

[10] Sunil Chacko, Time for Nambi protection act, TSG, August 22, 2020.

[11] Indian Penal Code, 1860.

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Kate LaClair
Kate LaClair
3 years ago

Damn the media…for their viewerships and audience, they can fall to such low..Shame on media

Sandeep Katiyal
Sandeep Katiyal
3 years ago

There is also a film called the ‘The Nambi Effect’ played by R. Madhvan
This is funny as to who gave media the authority to decide what is right and what is wrong

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