India’s biggest achievement since independence is its march to leadership ranks in space technology. In June last year, the national space organisation, ISRO, put into space a rocket as heavy as 200 fully grown elephants, making it a major player in the satellite launch industry alongside the US, France and Russia.
The pioneers who prepared the ground for this great leap forward were Homi Jehangir Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai, men of impeccable scientific credentials. Bhabha pioneered nuclear research while Sarabhai focussed on space and rocketry. Both had the nuclear bomb at the back of their minds, according to Ready to Fire, the important and moving book by Nambi Narayanan, the ISRO scientist who pioneered cryogenic technology in India at great personal cost.
Sarabhai had developed close contacts, says Nambi, with Armin Dadieu, the German rocket engineer. (Germany’s V-2 rocket, symbol of its space technology leadership, had stunned Britain in World War II). He also knew Itokawa, specialist on Japan’s pencil rocket. Nambi writes: “With faith in the Japanese wisdom on onboard-control systems and the German mastery over fabrication, both not allowed by the US to be put to use by those countries, Sarabhai was trying to forge a deadly brotherhood. The US was ostensibly unhappy.”
Then, at 56, Bhabha died in an air crash in Switzerland in 1966. At 52, Sarabhai died in a hotel room in Trivandrum in 1971 for no apparent reason. In 1994, when ISRO was close to mastering cryogenic technology on its own after having been obstructed by the US, Nambi Narayanan and Sasikumar were arrested, tortured and virtually destroyed by Kerala Police in the notorious ISRO spy case. Nambi, a man of almost superhuman willpower, went through it for four years before he could go to the Supreme Court, which declared him and others as innocent.
It all started with a Kerala Police inspector eyeing a six-foot Maldivian woman. Spurned by her, he set out to get her tied up in legal knots, then found an opportunity to file spying charges against her. The case quickly became a cause célèbre used by multiple agencies for multiple purposes. The end result, as summed up by Kumar Chellappan in a 2013 article, was that the case “not only finished the careers of India’s two exceptionally brilliant space scientists, but also put the country’s cryogenic engine development on hold for more than 19 years.”
Nambi Narayanan’s account of the drama, subtitled How India and I survived the ISRO spy case, fills us with equal parts of pride and shame. Sarabhai’s vision and the dedication of his team of scientists make up an inspiring episode of recent history. It makes us feel that we are a people who can achieve anything if only the dreamers are given a free hand. The next moment, though, reality makes us feel ashamed—the reality that we will never do well because of the dishonesty and crookedness of those who are in positions of power.
Kerala Police, known for its love of third-degree methods and the selfishness of some of its officers, played a dastardly role in the spy case. The CBI itself rejected all its findings and case diaries which “reflect adversely on the methods and intentions of the investigating officers of the Kerala Police”.
One bows in awe before Nambi Narayanan, who withstood the cruelties of the sadistic police which Sasikumar could not. The first blow landed when they asked him to give the name of a Muslim friend and he, quite honestly, gave the name of his colleague APJ Abdul Kalam. For more than 30 hours he was made to stand, answering questions, taking beatings. When he asked for water, the answer was: “You third-rate criminal, you want water?”
This astonishing man gathered strength by telling himself “I cannot let down Sarabhai, my father, my gurus and myself.” As he puts it: “I took deep breaths and stood my ground. I spoke. ‘You guys are committing a big crime, and you will be punished for this.’”
It is sickening to learn that a scientist working on a nationally important project became a victim of cunning politicians (Congress leader Oommen Chandy used the ISRO case to get rid of the then Congress chief minister), and scheming police officers (a DGP used the case to malign another officer who stood in the way of his promotion). Nambi Narayanan lost his career, but recovered his honour. May his tribe increase and may he succeed in getting just desert for those police tormentors found guilty by the CBI itself.