EVEN two decades after the Supreme Court upheld the findings of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) exposing the sensational lies and half-truths in the so-called “ISRO spy case”—one of the darkest episodes in the history of the police and the press in India—every new turn in the long and tortuous course of the case continues to create a flutter.
On September 14, the Supreme Court once again reiterated that “the criminal law was set in motion” in November 1994 by the Kerala Police against the six people wrongly accused in the case “without any basis” and that it was initiated “on some kind of fancy or notion”. The case was transferred for further investigation to the CBI. After an 18-month inquiry, the CBI concluded that the “allegations of espionage were not proved and had been found to be false” ( Frontline , “Requiem for a scandal”, May 22, 1998).
What exactly that “fancy or notion” was and who made up those fantastic tales are questions that continue to remain unanswered, even as the court in its latest ruling ordered the State of Kerala to pay a sum of Rs.50 lakh within eight weeks towards compensation to former Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) scientist Nambi Narayanan.
It was a much-delayed relief, and Nambi Narayanan said: “Enough is enough. I spent many years serving my country in the ISRO and 24 years fighting for justice in this case. Now I want to spend the rest of my life with my family. Don’t you think I have earned it?”
He alone among the six people wrongly accused in the case chose to fight a two-decade-long legal battle against the injustice and humiliation faced at the hands of the State police, which branded him as someone “who helped India’s cryogenic and Viking engine technology secrets to be handed over to foreign countries”.
A three-judge Bench of Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra and Justices A.M. Khanwilkar and D.Y. Chandrachud also allowed Nambi Narayanan to proceed with the civil suit in which he had claimed a compensation of Rs.1 crore. (Nambi Narayanan has said that he will continue to pursue the civil suit.) The Bench agreed with his submission that grant of compensation was not the solution in a case of this nature and that those responsible for his harrowing experience “should face legal consequences”. It has constituted a “committee” headed by Justice D.K. Jain, a former judge of the Supreme Court, with nominee officers to be appointed, one each by the Central and State governments. The committee is to “find out ways and means to take appropriate steps against the erring officials”, the court said.
The CBI had in its report to the State government proposed action against the police officers in 1998 itself, but successive governments in Kerala chose to ignore that suggestion in one way or another. Finally, in early 2011, a United Democratic Front (UDF) government under Congress Chief Minister Oommen Chandy decided it was not proper or legal to take disciplinary action against the officers of the Special Investigation Team of the Kerala Police on the basis of the CBI report “after a lapse of 15 years”.
A single judge of the Kerala High Court quashed this order and asked the State to reconsider the matter in a manner that “should not be a namesake which will make the administration of justice a mockery”. But the Division Bench of the High Court subsequently overturned the single judge’s order.
The three-judge bench of the Supreme Court has now said that “the delineation of the Division Bench was too simplistic”. The order written by Chief Justice Dipak Misra said the entire prosecution initiated by the State police was “malicious” and had caused “tremendous harassment and immeasurable anguish to the appellant”.
“The liberty and dignity of the appellant, which are basic to his human rights, were jeopardised as he was taken into custody and, eventually, despite all the glory of the past, he was compelled to face cynical abhorrence. The situation invites the public law remedy for grant of compensation for violation of the fundamental rights envisaged under Article 21 of the Constitution,” the Bench said.
Referring to arguments that there has been no complaint with regard to custodial torture, it said such an argument was raised only because “the concept of torture is viewed from a narrow perspective”. Quoting Supreme Court judgments in several other cases, the bench said that “in all custodial crimes what is of real concern is not only infliction of body pain but the mental agony which a person undergoes within the four walls of police station or lock-up”; that “custodial torture is a naked violation of human dignity and degradation which destroys, to a very large extent, the individual personality; that it is a calculated assault on human dignity and whenever human dignity is wounded, civilisation takes a step backward—flag of humanity must on each such occasion fly at half-mast”.
Therefore, “it is quite vivid that emphasis has been laid on mental agony when a person is confined within the four walls of a police station or lock-up. There may not be infliction of physical pain but definitely there is mental torment.”
Pointing out that the “reputation of an individual is an insegregable facet of his right to life with dignity”, the judgment quoted the observation of a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court in a different context (in Vishwanath Agrawal vs Sarla Vishwanath Agrawal): “… reputation is not only the salt of life, but also the purest treasure and the most precious perfume of life. It is extremely delicate and a cherished value this side of the grave. It is a revenue generator for the present as well as for posterity.”
From this, the court said, it could be stated with certitude that the fundamental right of the appellant, Nambi Narayanan, under Article 21 had been gravely affected. “The police has the power to arrest a person even without obtaining a warrant of arrest from a court. The amplitude of this power casts an obligation on the police … (and it) must bear in mind, as held by this court, that if a person is arrested for a crime, his constitutional and fundamental rights must not be violated.”
Therefore, “there can be no scintilla of doubt that the appellant, a successful scientist having national reputation, has been compelled to undergo immense humiliation. The lackadaisical attitude of the State police to arrest anyone and put him in police custody has made the appellant to suffer ignominy. The dignity of a person gets shocked when psycho-pathological treatment is meted out to him. A human being cries for justice when he feels that the insensible act has crucified his self-respect. That warrants grant of compensation under the public law remedy.”
The court also said it could not lose sight of the “wrongful imprisonment, malicious prosecution, the humiliation and the defamation faced by the appellant” and “without any trace of doubt, suitable compensation has to be awarded, to compensate the suffering, anxiety and treatment by which the quintessence of life and liberty under Article 21 of the Constitution withers away”.
The case that began with the arrest of a Maldivian national, Mariam Rasheeda, in Thiruvananthapuram in October 1994 and her alleged “confessions” that “certain official secrets and documents of ISRO have been leaked out by scientists of ISRO” was used to the hilt by the opposition parties and detractors of the then Congress Chief Minister K. Karunakaran within his own party. He was eventually forced to step down from office and was replaced by A.K. Antony.
The case played havoc with the lives if not the careers of not only Nambi Narayanan, but also another senior ISRO scientist, D. Sasikumaran; Mariam Rasheeda; her Maldivian friend Fousia Hassan and two Bangalore-based businessmen, K. Chandrasekharan and S.K. Sarma. It also unsettled the career of a senior IPS officer, Raman Srivastava, against whom Karunakaran refused to take action without sufficient evidence of involvement, despite tremendous political pressure that led to his own ouster.
The award of the compensation of Rs.50 lakh, to be paid by the State to Nambi Narayanan for the “physical” and “mental” agony he underwent is a significant milestone in a series of such Supreme Court judgments giving more clarity and importance to the principle of “constitutional liability” that was relied upon, beginning with Rudul Sah vs State of Bihar (1983) and Sebastian Hongray vs Union of India (1984), cases that laid the foundation for holding the state liable for police excesses and making pecuniary compensation an important remedy for violation of fundamental rights by state forces.
The court has emphasised in clear terms the tendency of the police “to arrest anyone and put him in custody”, the “mental agony of a person wrongly confined in a lock-up, even if there is no physical torture” and the consequent “loss of reputation which is an insegregable facet of a person’s fundamental rights”, all of which cry out for remedy. In that sense, the judgment in Nambi Narayanan’s case is going to have a far-reaching impact in all cases of wrongful arrest and confinement and police excesses and misconduct where the victims seek compensation and action against erring officers.