Sankaralingam Nambi Narayanan’s scientific career was destroyed by spying allegations.

Lebison Gopi

Indian court offers final vindication for innocent space scientist who was arrested and tortured

Sankaralingam Nambi Narayanan, the former top Indian space scientist who was arrested and tortured in 1994 after allegations he sold space program secrets to Pakistan, has finally had his name cleared and his treatment condemned by the highest court in India.

On 14 September, the Supreme Court of India announced its conclusion that the original case against Narayanan was concocted and awarded him 5 million rupees (roughly $70,000) in compensation. The entire prosecution initiated by the Kerala state police was malicious and caused tremendous harassment and immeasurable anguish to Narayanan, the court said. It also ordered the creation of a committee headed by a former Supreme Court judge to take action against the police officials whose actions led to the spying imbroglio.

Narayanan and others accused in the episode were declared innocent by a local court in 1996, but a spate of litigation on the matter followed over the next 2 decades. Narayanan says his life was never the same. “The lives of all the accused got shattered and we all suffered silently,” he says.

Narayanan considers the new court ruling a final vindication. “Although this judgment has come so late in the day, I am really very happy and thankful for it. Whatever I was saying was certified and acknowledged by the Supreme Court that, yes, I am innocent!” Narayanan says. “I had to borrow money to fight the cases [but] I did not want to die being called a spy and wanted to prove my innocence beyond doubt.”

In addition to Narayanan, another top Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) scientist, D. Sasikumaran, and four other people—including two Maldivian women who allegedly bought the space program secrets—were arrested in November 1994 under the Official Secrets Act on charges of spying for Pakistan. Narayanan remained in custody for nearly 50 days and, according to a 1996 inquiry by India’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), was repeatedly tortured by the state police and Intelligence bureau officials, as were the others. CBI’s report also concluded that the charges were false. All of the accused, who had challenged the case as completely fabricated, were declared innocent by a local court in 1996.

In 2001, India’s National Human Rights Commission ordered an interim relief of 1 million rupees to Narayanan. “But I got it only after 11 years, in 2012, after moving the high court twice,” Narayanan tells Science.

The case shook India’s space agency to the core. “The whole of ISRO got demoralized,” says Narayanan, who was a pioneer of liquid propulsion technology and a key part of India’s major effort to send heavy rockets into space.

In the 1990s, India was negotiating with the Soviet Union and the United States for access to critical cryogenics technology, which uses low temperatures to store fuel in a liquid state; India agreed to buy technology from the Soviet Union. But with the breakup of Soviet Union, the United States pressured Russians to renege on the agreement with India, and Boris Yeltsin capitulated. India lost its access to the needed cryogenics.

Narayanan strongly suspects an international conspiracy—in which rogue elements in Indian intelligence agencies played along—drove the spying case against him and the others, which derailed ISRO’s space plans. “India’s cryogenics program definitely got delayed by about 15 years,” he says.

Why would the United States or anyone want to block India’s space program at that time? India had hoped to offer to launch satellites at a fraction of price that NASA or Europeans charged—a market now estimated at hundreds of billions of dollars. India is now an important player in that market, but it still trails in being able to launch heavy satellites because it has only in recent years mastered cryogenic fuel technology for its rocket engines.