Former ISRO scientist and stalwart in cryogenic technology in India, Nambi Narayanan, recently spoke about his long struggle against a falsely cooked-up spy case. This coincided with R. Madhavan’s biopic on Narayanan ‘Rocketry: The Nambi Effect’ reigning in the theaters in the country.
Narayanan narrated how it has been challenging to escape the label of a spy and maintain his respect as a scientist. He held that the only regret he had when he was falsely accused is not receiving support from academic and scientific intelligentsia when “it really mattered”.
Who Is Nambi Narayanan?
Born in a Tamil family in Nagercoil, Travancore, Narayanan cultivated an interest in mathematics from a very young age. He drew inspiration from Vikram Sarabhai, the then ISRO chairman, while in college. His career at ISRO kickstarted in 1966 as a technical assistant at the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station.
He completed his master’s at Princeton in chemical rocket propulsion with a NASA fellowship. When he returned to India in the 1970s, he was all set to pioneer liquid propulsion engine technology at a time when Indian rocketry was still limited to solid propellants. This was revolutionary as liquid-fuelled engines are more efficient and can lift heavier payloads.
Being assisted by the French, Narayanan and his team created the liquid-powered ‘Vikas’ engine. This acts as the groundwork for all Indian rockets like PSLV, GSLV, and GSLV Mark 3. It successfully launched the PSLV (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle) that took Chandrayaan to the moon in 2008.
In October 1994, Mariam Rashida, a Maldivian national, was arrested by the Kerala Police for illegally extending her stay at Thiruvananthapuram. She was suspected of collaborating with ISRO scientists for transferring cryogenic engine technology to foreign countries.
This is how in November 1994, Narayanan and then ISRO Deputy Director D. Sasikumaran were arrested for alleged smuggling of confidential space research documents to other countries like Pakistan. Although CBI reversed the charges against Narayanan as false and baseless in 1996, Narayanan had already spent 50 days in prison by then.
Officers of Kerala police and Intelligence Bureau officer RB Sreekumar were accused of fabricating false charges against Narayanan. Recently Sreekumar was arrested in the 2002 Gujarat riots case for allegedly spreading false information, having served as Gujarat’s Director General of Police.
Narayanan received a huge blow to his career and lost over two decades of his life as an aftermath of such events. He said that he felt like losing hope many times when he argued in the court. “You get frustrated, agitated, and feel dreams being shattered. You can’t get out of it easily.”
Narayanan has claimed that the US had a hand in the false espionage case. The US government apparently tried to thwart the development of the cryogenic engine technology in India, and successfully too, as the false case damaged ISRO and sabotaged the cryogenic engine project. They had assumed that India was in cahoots with Russia, who had supplied production technology alongside cryogenic engines to India.
Rattan Sahgal, associated with the ISRO case investigation was allegedly caught red-handed by then IB chief, Arun Bhagath. He was accused of working for the CIA, with evidence of nine video clips of his unauthorized meeting with American diplomats.
Over twenty years after his acquittal, Narayanan said that he reminds himself of why he had fought the case. Now 80 years old, Narayanan firmly stated, “The fight will end when the people who fabricated it (the spy allegation) are punished appropriately.”
Disclaimer: This article is fact-checked
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