‘Classified’, a scintillating expose of the ISRO spy story

EXCERPT: Rajasekharan Nair’s book, unravelling a failed operation and the aftermath, reads like a thriller

J. Rajasekharan Nair | January 25, 2022


#ISRO   #intelligence   #spying   #S. Nambi Narayanan   #CBI   #Supreme Court   #Kerala   #books   #literature   #journalism  


Classified: Hidden Truths in the ISRO Spy Story
By J. Rajasekharan Nair
Srishti Publishers, 280 pages, Rs 350

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) was rocked by a spy case in 1994, taking down in its wake six persons, including S. Nambi Narayanan. They were blamed for passing critical rocket technology to a neighbouring nation and booked for the same.

[Update: Nambi Narayanan was charged with espionage and arrested. But the charges were dismissed by the CBI in 1996. The Supreme Court declared him not guilty in 1998. In 2018, the apex court asked the Kerala government to award him Rs 50,00,000. It also set up a committee to inquire into the role of officials of the Kerala police in the arrest of Narayanan. He was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 2019. He has also penned his side of the story, in Malayalam and English.]

Meanwhile, did you know that the CIA had sabotaged ISRO’s top-secret operation to transfer cryogenic rocket technology from Russia to India? Ever wondered what is the real reason why Nambi Narayanan does not want the whole truth behind the ISRO spy story to surface?

One of the most scintillating exposes of 2022, ‘Classified: Hidden Truths in the ISRO Spy Story’ unravels how the State agencies are surreptitiously trying to bury the wreckage of a failed operation masterminded by ISRO to illegally transfer cryogenic rocket technology from Russia to India.

Written by J. Rajasekharan Nair, winner of K.K. Birla Foundation Fellowship in Journalism, it
re-enacts the ISRO espionage case through documents, facts, and prudence, and not through the projection of individuals as the good, the bad, and the ugly.
 
It digs deeper into why Nambi Narayanan, wrongfully projected as the target and victim of the spy case, doesn’t want the complete truth behind the incident to surface, and why he attempts to air a counter-narrative using lies and contrived truths. It exposes that both IB and CBI operate from a constitutional vacuum and details why the new FIR filed by CBI against 11 persons is a farce.
 
Rajasekharan Nair's association with the ISRO espionage case was both as a journalist and a human rights activist. He was the first to report that the espionage story was a cock-and-bull story fabricated by CIA through its moles in Indian security agencies to abort ISRO’s clandestine operation to illegally acquire cryogenic technology from Russia.

Nair interviewed all the accused and filed more than half-a-dozen reports exposing the ISRO espionage story at a time when the media was celebrating the spy story. He had to face two defamation cases from a police officer. He won both.

As a rights activist, Nair approached the National Human Rights Commission and Kerala State Women’s Commission, seeking justice for the Maldivian women trapped in the case. The genesis of the Special Leave Petition (SLP) on which the Supreme Court ordered Rs. 50 Lakh to Nambi Narayanan in 2018 is the Original Petition (OP) Nair had filed before the Kerala high court.

Here is an excerpt from the book:

THE FALL

17 December 1994


End of a journey. How boring it was!

Fifteen hours to travel 315 km!

Guruvayoor–Thiruvananthapuram road is not a safari track. It is National Highway 47, the nation’s pride.
And he was not on a bullock cart.

Fan-belt was the first to go. Then the clutch turned unruly. The wiper went into a coma. The left tyre at the rear burst due to underinflation.

The rainy Friday night of that wintry December appeared like a nightmare for Raman Srivastava, Inspector General of Police.

He had gone to Guruvayoor Sreekrishna temple, a practice he has been continuing on the first day of every Malayalam month for more than two decades. The Uttar Pradesh man knew the Malayalam calendar better than many Keralites.

It was past midnight. He was dead tired and badly needed hours of undisturbed sleep. He asked his wife Anjali not to disturb him and gave direction to his camp office not to connect any calls to him.

Next morning, at 8:47 a.m. a call reached the camp office. The IG’s personal security had to disobey him. The call was connected to him.

“Reach Malligai today itself."

“Can I make it tomorrow?” a visibly tired Srivastava pleaded, “I am dead tired.”

“No. Take the evening flight. I tried to contact your DGP. I couldn’t. Please inform him also.”

At the other end of the line was M.L. Sharma, Joint Director of CBI. He was speaking from Malligai, CBI’s interrogation centre at Chennai.

Raman Srivastava booked a seat by the evening flight and confirmed to M.L. Sharma that he was coming.

He tried to sleep after that, but couldn’t.

What is wrong with my stars? He looked at his rings. Four in total. The latest one was to guard him against the wicked smile of a newborn star at the apogee of the cosmos. But neither the super cop who holds the record of becoming the youngest IG in the country nor his astrologer who could keep a deadly star at bay realized that the Press in Kerala was even more powerful.

Srivastava scanned ‘The Indian Express’ to see whether the paper had printed a new lie on him. Two weeks back, it had front-paged an ‘exclusive’ about his links with the spy ring. The story was planted by the IB officials. And now, with a legal forum in Kochi moving the High Court seeking his arrest, the newspapers were celebrating the highly explosive spy story.

***

Operation Srivastava began on 22 October 1994 with ‘Kerala Kaumudi’, a Malayalam newspaper, linking his name to the spy ring for the sole reason that its Editor M.S. Mani found it the right opportunity to take revenge on the IG.

In no time, the terror of the Kerala Police became the whipping boy of the media. The symphony reached its crescendo with ‘The Indian Express’ filing a front-page story with a screaming headline, ‘Net Closing in on Top Police Official’, describing Raman Srivastava as a member of the spy ring, receiving and delivering highly sensitive defence secrets.

His father, a retired IG, advised him not to take anything lying down. And Srivastava decided to take the bull by its horn. He typed out his press statement and approached the DGP for formal permission to go to the Press. The DGP fully agreed with the IG. With his letter, Srivastava met the Chief Secretary. He asked the IG to wait till the Chief Minister returned from his tour.

But before the Chief Minister returned, CBI had landed in Thiruvananthapuram and Srivastava found it improper to issue a statement then. He informed the Chief Secretary and sent in a formal letter withdrawing his request to go to the Press.

‘What new things have emerged?’ Raman Srivastava asked the question again and again while on the flight. The CBI officers had questioned him twice before M.L. Sharma summoned him to Malligai.

He watched the wings cruising through the mountain-like clouds.

What could Anjali be doing now? Might have returned to the pooja room. Before he had left for Malligai, she had put her arms around him and whispered, almost breaking down, “Whatever happens, you have to come back to us.”

She feared he would commit suicide out of shame.

The seat walet had a couple of newspapers and magazines. He didn’t touch them. Not even the glossy ones. All are trash. Of late, he  had developed distaste for what they called journalism.

He had nothing else to do. How long can you watch the wing and clouds? He tried to take a nap. He closed his eyes. His memories woke up.

5 December 1994

It was his first encounter with the CBI team. Srivastava reached the CRPF camp in Thiruvananthapuram in his private car at 3:30 p.m.

M.L. Sharma and his deputy P.M. Nair met him at the officers’ mess. He had heard of Sharma as a tough guy in charge of the terrorist cell in CBI. Their questions were not focussed. They had taken up the case only the previous day.

But six days later, it was not the same experience. At the State Bank of Travancore Guest House, Thiruvananthapuram, the grilling was on in full swing. This time it was R.C. Sharma and Ashok Kumar, both Superintendents of CBI.

The tough face of R.C. Sharma, the sharp eyes of Ashok Kumar and their razor-like questions linking him to Fauziya Hassan, two ISRO scientists, a businessman and Mariam Rasheeda came rushing on him.

He heard Mariam Rasheeda’s name for the first on 20 October around 3 p.m. when Police Commissioner V.R. Rajeevan, DIG, gave him a call and told him the Maldivian woman had been overstaying and that IB, RAW and Special Branch had questioned her because they had some doubts about her. Srivastava, Rajeevan’s immediate boss, agreed with his suggestion that she could be booked for overstay.

Two days later, ‘Kerala Kaumudi’ front-paged a report linking his name to Mariam Rasheeda who, the newspaper reported, was a spy. In the light of the report, he told the DGP and Commissioner that he was distancing himself from the investigation which, otherwise, he should have supervised.

“I haven’t met any one of them,” Srivastava’s reply didn’t seem that convincing to R.C. Sharma.

“Not at Hotel Lucia or Madras International?”

“I have been to Lucia. Its owner is my friend. But not to Madras International. At Lucia, I didn’t see any of the accused.”

“You saw them at the Army Club in Bangalore?”

“I have never been there.”

“Do you occasionally wear a coat?”

“I don’t have one. I normally wear a safari suit or shirt and pants. I used warm clothes only during my posting in Shillong.”

“What about Nambi Narayanan? You have been to his house any number of times.”

“I don’t know him, but I can identify him. I have seen his photos in the papers. Maybe he can also identify me. My photos also have appeared in newspapers. I am a known face in Thiruvananthapuram.”

“How come all of them claim they know you?”

“Could be a conspiracy against me.”

“Who are the conspirators?”

“I don’t know who exactly they are. I have many enemies.”

“Like who?”

Srivastava smiled. What a long list! “Maybe,” he said, “Mathew John of IB has some grudge against me. Or else why should he threaten the DGP that he would book me under the NSA?”

“You mean, an IB officer had threatened your DGP?” Sharma sounded excited. He pushed his chair closer to the table and leaned forward a bit more. And Srivastava narrated the episode.

[…]

The excerpt reproduced with the permission of the publishers.
 

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