Spy thrillers are fun to read. The cloak and dagger stories are full of heroics and mind games. There are patriotic and courageous heroes defending the country against local traitors and foreign villains. Barring a few that are based on real-life events, most spy stories are figments of a writer’s imagination.
What happens when real-life police and Intelligence officers cook up a spy scandal? It will ruin lives and tarnishes reputation and the effects are nearly impossible to undo.
The infamous ISRO spy case of the mid-90s is now back in the news. It refuses to die, despite clear court judgments. The wounds are still festering. Some recent developments have put the case under the media spotlight once again. Congress MLA K Muraleedharan demanded action against three police officers who were charged by the CBI with messing up the investigation. In the wake of the case, his father the late K Karunakaran had to resign as the Chief Minister of Kerala. Now he wants his father’s name to be cleared. He made this demand at a public function held to tender a public apology to ISRO scientist Nambi Narayanan.
The Kerala High Court recently directed the State government to pay him `10 lakh as compensation.
It all began in 1994. On October 20, the Kerala police arrested a woman, a citizen of the Maldives, on charges of staying in India after her visa had lapsed. One event led to another and the Intelligence Bureau took over the case from the Kerala police. Five other persons were arrested. They were Fouzia Hassan, another Maldivian citizen, Nambi Narayanan and D Sasikumaran, (ISRO scientists), K Chandrashekhar (a representative of the Russian space agency Glavkosmos), and S K Sharma (a businessman).
The Intelligence Bureau accused the ISRO scientists of leaking important defence secrets to the Maldivian women, whose background they felt was “suspicious”. The charge was the ISRO scientists sold the secrets for millions of dollars, even though there was no proof of it. They both lived in humble houses and their middle class lifestyle was anything but lavish.
During that time, newspapers in Kerala and outside published several sensational news items which turned out to be a tissue of lies. Many journalists did not follow basic journalistic principles of checking the accuracy of news before publishing it. Besides accepting the police’s unreliable version as gospel truth, they added their own juicy and spicy titbits.
Later the probe was handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). After months of rigorous investigation, the CBI concluded that the allegations were baseless and false and there was no spy ring as alleged by the IB. Two years after the arrests, the court accepted the premier investigating agency’s findings and discharged all the six persons. Another two years later, the Supreme Court too came to the same conclusion putting an end to the legal battle.
What was indeed most tragic in the case was the damage done to the six persons arrested in the case. The arrested scientists were tortured in custody. They spent nearly two months in jail. Their careers as top space scientists were ruined forever. “I can’t explain the trauma my family went through... There was no crime, but we were targeted as criminals. We have a ludicrous system,” Sasikumaran was reported to have said. He is now working as an engineering consultant in Thiruvananthapuram.
His former colleague Narayanan too lives in the same city. For three long decades he worked hard to develope technology that would bring honour to the country. He even neglected his family life. And suddenly his dreams were shattered and he and his family had to silently suffer trauma and agony. His wife, son and daughter remained aloof fearing insults.
Even the Maldivian woman was later found to have been a victim of police inefficiency and bad motives. It was found during CBI investigation that she had tried to follow the law by going to the police in connection with her Visa extension. A police inspector had in fact obstructed her from completing legal steps so that she could return to her country. The bungling of the investigation not only ruined the lives of individuals, but also had a far wider impact. There are some who believe that the spy case delayed India’s space programme, including the mission to moon, Chandrayaan.
The stakes are high in the world of espionage and counter-espionage. Leakage of sensitive information can harm a country’s security and development. But petty politics, personal bad motives and organisational inefficiency can harm innocent people who are wrongly accused of spying.