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Biden’s Sanctions and Nambi Narayanan’s Fake Spy Case: Two big blows to India’s Cryogenic dreams

  • Adrija, Vishwaksen | Team PresentMirror | Updated: Nov. 2, 2020, 11:13 a.m.

On 15th Oct 1994 ISRO tasted its 1st successful PSLV launch victory with PSLV D-2 announcing a new competitor in Space Arena. A month after that the Project Director, a Cryogenic technology Scientist, was arrested for false Espionage charges a couple of years after sanctions were imposed by the US senate on Russia and India. The two events made India’s cryogenic dreams pace back by at least 20 years. The Scientist arrested was Nambi Narayanan and the one to impose sanctions was Senator Joe Biden


After getting the success in Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), the next step for ISRO was to develop the GSLV (Geo Synchronous Launch Vehicle) ability to carry heavier payloads. To achieve this, ISRO and Glavkosmos, commercial wing of the Russian space agency, signed a contract for the supply of seven cryogenic engines along with transfer of technology from Russia to India in 1991 worth $ 250 millions, but a series of sanctions were imposed on India and Russia by USA under provisions of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), accusing that with this transfer India may use the cryogenic engine in Missiles, thus also putting a hurdled full stop to India’s cryogenic dreams.

The Democrat Senator who brought the amendment in the house threatening Russia that if this proposal goes through, the aid that US was to provide will be scuttled was none other than Senator Joseph R. Biden alias Joe Biden.

“Foreign Relations panel votes to block assistance if Moscow goes through with rocket sale to India.”, screamed the US news headlines. President George W Bush was looking forward to the aid and he had no specific objections with India either. All other newspapers except LA Times have deleted this story, since US elections are at helm.

The amendment proposed by Biden had unanimous 19-0 vote by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which went on to add several new conditions in Bush’s proposal for $24 billion assistance to then struggling Russia. One of them was to sabotage India’s Space Program. Russia had to choose between 24 billion package and 250 million help for a friend. It was compelled to choose the former.

“I am confident that the Russian leaders will recognize the wisdom of stopping this sale once they see the risk of losing their economic aid,” said Biden.

Mr. Nambi Narayanan, a fight back towards justice after falsely accused of espionage.


A few months back, former Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) scientist Nambi Narayanan, wrongly implicated in a fake spying case in 1994, has received a compensation of Rs 1.3 crore from the Kerala government.

It was 30 November 1994, 3 scientists, Naambi Narayanan, D Sasikumaran and K Chandrasekhar were arrested by the Kerala police after allegations of espionage under the sections 3,4 and 5 of the Official Secrets Act. Mr. Nambi Narayanan, a 53-year-old scientist was then involved in Indian space agency's cryogenic rocket engine project, and was responsible for acquiring the technology from Russia.

When Mr. Narayanan sued the Kerala government for framing him, he was awarded five million rupees ($70,000; £53,000). A few months back, the government said it would pay him an additional 13 million rupees as compensation for his illegal arrest and harassment at the behest of Congress administration. Nambi Narayanan was the pioneer of India’s Cryogenic dream.

At Isro Mr Narayanan worked with the stalwarts of India's space programme: scientists like Vikram Sarabhai, its founder and first chairman, Satish Dhawan, his successor, and Abdul Kalam, who later became India's 11th president. "When I began working with Isro, the space organisation was in its infancy. We never really had a plan of developing any rocket systems. We were planning to use rockets from the US and France to fly our payloads," Mr Narayanan says.

Thereafter the plan changed and Mr. Narayanan was entrusted with the responsibility of developing homegrown Indian rockets.

Many experts believe that the unfortunate Scientist was made scapegoat of a scuffle between two congress factions of AK Antony and CM K Karunakaran, to bring down his government in Kerala. However, there may be more to the story.

Brian Harvey has detailed in his book ‘Russia in Space: The Failed Frontier’, how Russia was helping India for cryogenic Technology transfer in 1992 even after sanctions were imposed by US senate. In 1993, India under Nambi Narayanan had narrowed its way even after sanctions and had flown crucial parts of Russian cryogenic engine to India. It was then Spy Espionage charges were imposed on Narayanan. A true copy of his book was also presented as evidence in the Espionage case.

Nambi Narayanan managed to get the contracted cryogenic engines with technical drawings and sent them to Thiruvananthapuram in spite of Air India refusing to touch the cargo for fear of American sanctions. Was the espionage case a reward for this?

According to former RA&W officer, NK Sood, the Man who framed Nambi Narayanan, was Rattan Sehgal associate of former Vice President Hamid Ansari.

Rattan Sehgal, co-conspired with Maloy Krishna Dhar, the then IB joint Director to conduct the entire thing. Ironically Karma came back strongly on Sehgal when he was caught having clandestine meets in secrecy with two CIA officers, Timothy Long and Susan Brown.

RAW Officers caught Sehgal receiving bribe from CIA in Delhi’s Ambassador Hotel. Sehgal was removed from his service and two CIA officers were banned from entering India. Dhar retired soon after and went on to repent for his sins by giving starking revelations in his explosive book ‘India’s Intelligence Unvieled’, as to how Congress party controlled Intelligence Bureau to do its dirty work. One of the revelations is related to framing of Narayanan and others in the espionage case.

The aim of the IB team led by Dhar was to grab a confession from the presumed pale bearded Scientist. Would it take time for a man only used to using his brain give in to the 3rd degree punishment mean for hardened criminals? But did they imagine the old man will be so tough that he will not only fight the case for next 20 years but also clean his name.

The Struggle


Image file : When a documentary on his life left his wife in tears; Credits: Deccan Chronicle

It was like the sudden staccato burst of fireworks and he was equally startled, when on a winter afternoon three policemen arrived at his house in Trivandrum, Kerala. "They had that look as if they were looking at someone who had done some crime," Mr Narayanan says.

A scrum of journalists had arrived, and within hours newspapers were describing him as a traitor - a man who had sold rocket technology to Pakistan, after falling into a honey trap set by two women from the Maldives. The bemused journalistic establishment and the limping regulatory apparatus were making the reality even more pernicious for the esteemed man.

And his life had never been the same since then.


Image File : Nambi Narayanan, arrested by Kerala Police for Espionage

"I was in a shock, and then a trance. At one instance it appeared to me that I was watching a movie - with me as the central character," Mr Narayanan wrote in his memoirs.

Over the next few months, his dignity and reputation were torn to shreds. The entire scandal was undoubtedly turning out to be both enfeebling and expensive, and clearly Mr. Narayanan could not hope after such an excruciating experience to get back to his normal life.

Mr. Nambi Narayanan was charged with violating India's official secrets law and corruption, among other things. His interrogators beat him up and handcuffed him to a bed. They forced him to stand and answer questions for 30 hours on end. They made him take lie-detector tests, but found nothing. Mr. Narayanan told the police that rocket secrets could not be transferred by paper and that evidence was being fabricated against him. In spite of all his assiduous efforts, he had to spend 50 days in captivity, including a month in prison. Whenever he was taken to a court hearing, crowds appeared shouting that he was a spy and a traitor. Any other person in such case would have committed suicide but Nambi fought his way back to respect.


Image File : Nambi Narayanan conferred with Padma Bhushan; Credits: Outlook India

Even after being physically broken down of all the torture and interrogation by IB, Narayanan kept fighting for his honour. A month after his arrest India's Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) took over the case from Kerala's Intelligence Bureau. Mr Narayanan told federal detectives that none of the information he dealt with was classified. "I don't know how this whole thing has come to this stage. We are terribly sorry," one detective told him.

CBI found no evidence to support the accused had committed “any acts which were prejudicial to the sovereignty, integrity and security of the state and violative of the Official Secrets Act, 1923.” Chief Judicial Magistrate, Ernakulam, accepted the CBI findings, and acquitted all the accused in the ISRO espionage case. While the other Scientists like Sasikaran, gave in to torture and fabricated an escape confession, Nambi fought his way through and regained the lost honour of not only him but also his colleagues.

Apart from formal punishment and social opprobrium, Mr Narayanan had to see his wife slowly give in to solitude and despair. The intolerable narrowness and the purblind conscience of the society around her along with her husband's incarceration and absence had severely affected Meenakshi Ammal's mental health. The couple had been married for nearly three decades and had brought up two children together, but after her husband’s arrest, the austere temple-going woman had slipped into depression and stopped talking.

A ray of justice finally arrived in 2018, when the Supreme Court under Justice Deepak Misra ordered an investigation into the role of the Kerala police in the fabrication of the case against him, and Mr Narayanan is keen to see the results. "I want people who fabricated this case against me to be punished," he says. "One chapter is over, but the next chapter is still there."

Perhaps the remonstrance and retaliation acknowledges that intellect, no matter how docile can never be tamed once and for all. No amount of money would probably be enough to compensate for the loss of reputation and lifelong research that the man surfaced on being frequently tortured and scourged by the dirty political hegemony.

The two blows to India’s Cryogenic Program were the most severe and country’s space quest was forced back to die into oblivion. The timed execution of the events, the callousness of the Congress party towards a Scientist and sanctions by a US senator, cannot be presumed to be delinked. Both were enemies to rise of India’s Space Giant. ISRO and detrimental to India’s Space dreams.

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