In 1991, India’s ISRO awarded a contract to Russian space agency Glavkosmos for three cryogenic rocket engines and transfer of cryogenic technology. The agency’s quote was much lower than that of General Dynamics of US. Sensing America’s potential business loss, the Bush administration pressurized Moscow to backtrack on the deal.
They also imposed a two year MTCR (Missile Technology Control Regime) sanction on the Indian and Russian agencies. Russia gave us the cryogenic engines but not the technology, canceling that part of the deal citing Force Majeure.
Awareness of US foreign policy ‘strategies’ will be handy here. In 1966, as India was making rapid strides in atomic energy and rocket science, a bomb planted in an Air India flight resulted in its crash over the Alps near Mont Blanc killing Atomic Energy Commission Chairman, Homi J. Bhabha.
This is corroborated in the interview of Robert Crowley, former Director of CIA’s Clandestine Operations, in the book ‘Conversations with the Crow’.
The father of India’s space programme, Vikram Sarabhai, was a healthy, non-smoking, teetotaler of 52 years when he mysteriously died in his sleep in Kovalam’s Halcyon Castle, setting the clock back on our scientific progress by at least half a century.
Nambi Narayanan, a protege of Sarabhai who headed the cryogenic mission, is a brilliant scientist and the architect of India’s Liquid Propulsion Science.
The ISRO Chairman’s mantle would have been his for the taking. He embarked on a mission for the indigenous development of cryogenic technology.
So the CIA groomed moles in India’s Intelligence Bureau who instigated the Kerala police to implicate Narayanan and a few others in a fabricated case of spying for Pakistan.
The media had a field day as newspaper ratings shot up with daily doses of sleaze stories. Local politicians fishing in the murky waters reaped collateral benefits. After the CBI exonerated the scientist of the false charges, he came back to fight another day.
At 76, he still carries on with it. This is the crux of Nambi Narayanan’s highly readable autobiography Ormakalude Bhramanapatham (Orbit of Memories) written with journalist G. Prajesh Sen.
The account ratifies the findings of journalist J Rajasekharan Nair's book ‘Spies from Space: The ISRO Frame-up’ which came out in 1998, four years after the arrests and soon after the Supreme Court quashed the Kerala government’s notification to further investigate it.
Three years later, BBC scribe Brian Harvey in his book ‘Russia in Space – The Failed Frontier?’ explained how the US compensated Russia’s monetary loss in backing out of the ISRO deal by paying them 400 million dollars to fund seven voyages of the MIR space station.
The torture and trauma brought about by the case is the trigger for the book to unfold. The scientist’s rise through hard work and academic merit, his standing up for values, prudent decision making and the shaping of India’s technological destiny make absorbing reading.
Even if there was no spy scandal, Narayanan’s life story would inspire the younger generation. Regarding the case, this is a much awaited rendering from the horse’s mouth.
Recently Siby Mathews IPS, the cop who headed the Special Investigation Team (SIT), released his memoirs wherein he stuck to his guns vis-a-vis the case , so the finis is not called yet.
Apart from Siby the other dramatis personae of the espionage story include Special Branch police inspector S Vijayan, scientist D Sasikumaran, businessman K Chandrasekhar, labor contractor S C Sharma and Maldives nationals Mariam Rasheeda and Fouzia Hassan.
M.K. Dhar who was IB Joint Director disclosed in his book ‘Open Secrets: India’s Intelligence Unveiled’ that the CBI was made to exonerate the accused only because the then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao’s son Prabhakar Rao’s name was dragged in too.
It helped that the agency was headed by Vijaya Bhaskara Rao, who was handpicked by Narasimha Rao.
This is quoted by Narayanan who pulls out the rabbit from the sleeve in the closing chapter titled ‘They are the real spies; she too.’
Dhar colluded with Ratan Saigal who was expelled by the IB for being a CIA agent. The lady in question is an American, a CIA employee. Journalist Rajan Cherukkad debunks the theory that Saigal’s links with the Americans had anything to do with the spy case in his incriminating book ‘Attimarikkappetta Chara Case’.
Ormakalude Bhramanapatham tells of the travails that the machinations of nefarious forces put apparently innocent people through.
The career progression of Nambi Narayanan, who was born into a modest family in Nagercoil, parallels the growth of the Indian Space Research Organization from its humble roots in the 60’s in a fishing hamlet in Thiruvananthapuram.
Narayanan had the great fortune to work under three ISRO chairmen who he holds to be the only people deserving of that chair so far – Sarabhai, Sathish Dhawan and U R Rao.
Also read: 'Hadal' a map of conspiring minds: CP Surendran
Another mentor was APJ Abdul Kalam who was in the board that interviewed him.
The galaxy of guides also included T N Seshan, the resolute IAS man who was Director, Administration, of ISRO in its crucial years. He wrote the introduction to the book.
Sarabhai’s love of solid propellants made Narayanan realize the visionary’s missile program ambitions.
Narayanan, who studied mechanical engineering in Madurai, was attached to his family and forewent chances to study further at top Universities abroad, so as to look after his mother.
However, he later did a Masters in chemical rocket propulsion from Princeton University on a NASA Fellowship.
At Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS) Narayanan was tasked to form and lead a team to work in Vernon, France, for five years and master the liquid propulsion technology used in the Viking engine of collaborator firm SEP.
The book details the 53 member group’s saga of sacrifice in an alien land, laced with poignant anecdotes of hard professional and personal choices.
The success of Polar Satellite Launch Vehicles (PSLV) starting from the 90’s owes largely to the second stage liquid fueled rocket engine Vikas that was developed by Narayanan’s team.
The CBI investigation report provided as appendix to the book takes up 76 of its 336 pages. In 1999, the National Human Rights Commission instructed the Kerala government to pay Narayanan Rs 10 lakh in compensation. He received it in 2012, eleven years after he retired from ISRO.
Some view the spy case as the offshoot of designs of inspector Vijayan, who was approached by Mariam Rasheeda, whose visa was about to expire. She allegedly spurned his advances upon which he booked her under the Official Secrets Act.
C P Surendran’s novel Hadal is woven around this notion. But that’s hardly the bigger picture. It was not even a coup to oust a chief minister.
Nambi Narayanan himself has another book on the cards, this time in English. ‘Ready to Fire: How India and I survived the ISRO Spy Case’ is co-written with senior journalist Arun Ram. The true life story of Nambi Narayanan that can be as mind-blowing as a Frederick Forsyth thriller, begs to be recreated in fiction and on film. Anand Mahadevan has announced a trilingual movie with matinee idol Madhavan slated to play the scientist.