Requiem for a scandal

Published : May 09, 1998 00:00 IST

The Supreme Court lays to rest the 73-month-old ISRO spy drama and vindicates the six accused and other suspects.

Pictures: C. Ratheesh Kumar

THE 'ISRO espionage case' in Kerala which opened with the arrest of a Maldivian national, Mariam Rasheeda, in Thiruvananthapuram in October 1994, finally came to an end at the Supreme Court of India.

The Supreme Court, in its judgment on April 29, reprimanded the Kerala Government for ordering yet another investigation by the State police after an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation had found that the allegations of espionage were false and a court had ordered the release of all the accused.

In the 18 months that the CBI took to reach the conclusion, the case, which was sensationalised by sections of the media as a spy-sex-political scandal, cut short the term of a Congress(I) Chief Minister, played havoc with the careers of an Indian Police Service (IPS) officer and two senior scientists of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and ravaged the lives of four others - two Bangalore-based businessmen and Mariam Rasheeda and another Maldivian woman, Fousia Hassan.

While the other accused were released after the Chief Judicial Magistrate, Ernakulam, accepted the CBI's report, the ordeal of Mariam Rasheeda continued, with the State police refusing, under one pretext or the other, to allow her to leave the country. A couple of defamation cases filed against her for alleged statements made by her about the conduct of certain police officers and charges framed at the instance of the Government under the National Security Act (NSA) kept her in the Central Prison at Viyyur in Thrissur until the Supreme Court delivered the latest verdict. She was released on April 30 after 73 months, but cannot leave the country unless she is granted bail in the other cases.

In what is regarded as a severe indictment of the State Government's actions, the Supreme Court Bench consisting of Justices M.K. Mukherji and Syed Shah Mohammad Quadri said that its decision to withdraw the consent for investigation it had given to the CBI (after the Central agency had completed its investigation and a court had ordered the release of the accused) and to entrust the case back with the Kerala Police for further investigation was "patently invalid and unsustainable in law" and could only be considered as a "mala fide exercise of power".

The court remarked that even before ordering further investigation - even before it was proved that the offence was committed at all - the State Government seemed to have formed the opinion that the accused were guilty. It pointed out that the CBI had reported that a committee of senior scientists of ISRO, constituted at its instance, had said in its report that no vital document was missing from ISRO. The court said that it was obvious that another investigation by the State police could not and would not be fair and that its outcome appeared to be a foregone conclusion.

Pointing out that the duty of an investigating agency is not to bolster a prosecution case with such evidence as would bring about a conviction but to bring out "the unvarnished truth", the court said, in its most damning conclusion: "... the Kerala Government wants the instant case to be further investigated by a team nominated by it with the avowed object of establishing that the accused are guilty, even after the investigating agency of its choice, the CBI, found that no case had been made out against them."

It said that it was "undoubtedly a matter of concern and consternation" that the Government had issued a notification for another investigation, which does not "comport with the known pattern of a responsible Government bound by rule of law". The apex court concluded cryptically by saying that "we say no more" and ordered the State Government to pay Rs.1 lakh to each of the six accused as costs.

MARIAM RASHEEDA was taken into custody by the Special Branch of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) on October 20, 1994, for allegedly staying on in India after her visa had expired. Nearly a month later, on November 13, from what appears now as a farcical investigation, a case was registered against her and her friend Fousia Hassan, alleging that "in collusion with some Indians and foreigners, they had committed acts prejudicial to the safety and sovereignty of India."

A special team of the Kerala Police was constituted soon, and the Intelligence Bureau was actively involved in the investigation. For days on end, sensational and "exclusive" details of the "involvement" of the two women and of D. Sasikumaran and S. Nambinarayanan, ISRO scientists; S.K. Sharma, a Bangalore-based labour contractor for ISRO; and K. Chandrasekhar, the Indian representative of the Russian space agency Glavkosmos, appeared on the front pages of local newspapers. Simultaneously, a tortuous trial of the accused began in the local press, with suggestions of involvement in the scandal of the State's Inspector-General of Police (South Zone) Raman Srivastava, a confidant of the then Chief Minister K. Karunakaran.

It was at the height of this trial that the case was referred to the CBI on the request of the special team of the Kerala Police as it was not equipped to handle the case, given its inter-State and international ramifications and the possible involvement of one of its senior officers himself.

After an 18-month-long investigation, the CBI said that "the allegations of espionage are not proved and have been found to be false." However, given the publicity the case had received, this conclusion was viewed in the State widely with suspicion. The case had forced Chief Minister K. Karunakaran out of office and the Division Bench of the Kerala High Court had made an unusually critical observation about the way the CBI was conducting the inquiry.

The High Court's remarks were, however, removed by the Supreme Court while disposing of a special leave petition filed by the CBI; the apex court also found fault with the High Court Bench for disclosing the details of the case which was still under investigation. However, doubts still persisted in the public mind, as the trial in the press had led to half-baked conclusions about alleged trading of the country's space technology secrets. It was in this context that the new State Government ordered a fresh investigation with Chief Minister E.K. Nayanar, who also holds the Home portfolio, saying then that "the fact that the case was investigated by the CBI does not mean that it was fully investigated."

The Left Democratic Front (LDF) Government, which was then just one month into office, was obviously under tremendous pressure to hold such an inquiry. Right from the time a section of the State Congress(I) started pressing for the ouster of Karunakaran, there were widespread demands, especially from the LDF which was then in the Opposition, for a comprehensive investigation. Doubts had been raised in some quarters whether Karunakaran was shielding Srivastava. Besides, there was a forceful opinion within the State police that the force's honour should be vindicated. The State Government possibly had no option but to order a further investigation. The decision triggered a sensitive controversy regarding the legality, propriety and politics of the probe. It was in this context that the six accused decided to approach the Supreme Court, an action which effectively stalled further investigation by the State police.

THE 73-month drama, which could thus be stopped only by the effective intervention of the highest court, has now raised a crucial question: if there was no case at all, who cooked up such a fantastic tale and why; and who would compensate for the untold suffering that the accused went through for nearly four years?

S.K. Sharma told Frontline: "No one can compensate us. Nobody can even imagine how we and our families were made to suffer. I had never been to Kerala. My only mistake was that I knew Chandrasekhar. For that I was arrested and made to suffer. Exactly a year after my arrest, my father, who had come to console me, died of a heart attack. He had served in the Indian Army for well over 30 years."

Sasikumaran, who was under "deemed suspension" and recently rejoined duty in ISRO, Ahmedabad, said: "For us individually, and for our families, it was undescribable misery. It is a miracle that we all came out of it, but I would not say, unscathed."

He said that after the two Maldivian women, he had the misfortune of having had to spend the "longest honeymoon" with the Kerala Police, during which time the only investigation conducted by them was to question him on generalities, merely for 45 minutes in two sessions in a span of 12 days.

Nambinarayanan said: "I had lost all hope. Somebody had said Nambinarayanan had swallowed an elephant and nobody was asking how or whether it was possible? I was arrested on November 30, and on December 1 one of the seniormost space scientists in the country had rung up my daughter to say 'If somebody says that documents were sold for monetary benefit for transfer of technology, then they are cheating themselves.' Those who know understand that the so-called espionage was not possible. But I was appalled at the lack of knowledge about technology or transfer of technology or even about what constituted espionage among the people who were sitting in judgment over me."

He said: "The CBI found it was a false case. They did not say it was a case that they were unable to prove. Today, when the Supreme Court says that the intention to hold a further investigation was mala fide, you have only got to read the two in conjunction to guess the truth."

Sasikumaran believes that there was a mastermind behind the whole scheme, and "the scheme got so big and complex that the god behind the curtain started moving backwards and backwards."

Both Sasikumaran and Nambinarayanan said that they suspected a larger conspiracy. They said that it may not be that the person who made the first move, or the one who made the second, for their own personal motives, was aware of the larger implications. "But at some point somebody seems to have realised that here is a free ride available and seized the opportunity... But all at our cost, at the cost of our family and the reputation of the organisations we represent."

ALL of the accused who spoke to Frontline, including IGP Raman Srivastava, who was also reinstated into active police service the day the court gave its verdict, were highly critical of what some of them described as the "mischievous and dangerous" role of sections of the media in the evolution of the case. "But for the media's role, things would not have gone so far. It may be that the media played into the hands of certain individuals. Or they just swam with the tide, to save themselves and their circulation figures," Nambinarayanan said.

Srivastava said: "Truth cannot be covered or twisted for long. My honour and my family's honour have been vindicated by the judgment, even though I was not an accused, but only a suspect."

Sasikumaran said that what pained him most was that nobody wanted to correct their own small mistakes but preferred to keep quiet. "But those small mistakes led to individual tragedies. I can never forget my 55th birthday, the day I was arrested. Or the day I was presented in court. These are things that you never dream will happen to you."

"Political vendetta may have been a major factor that fuelled it," Nambinarayanan said. "But that should not in any way lessen the importance of the other forces that were operating. Each player had a different motive but they all fell into the same groove."

Sasikumaran said: "For all of us, the important thing now is to pick up the threads of our lives. That is my priority. The Supreme Court judgment has said things perfectly right for people like us and our families. Everything now depends on the reaction. If 'they' think they have made a mistake and are sorry about it, punishing them may not be among our priorities. Probably, the system will take care of that."

IN one respect, the Supreme Court's judgment has come as a blessing in disguise for the State Government. Although the verdict has given a reason for the Opposition to seek an apology from the Government and even its resignation, it has got the State Government out of a difficult situation.

K. Karunakaran, who demanded a public apology from Chief Minister E.K. Nayanar, said that the verdict had vindicated the stand he had taken as Chief Minister and that public opinion was now directed against the Nayanar Government for going after "imagined spies". He said that the victims and their family members could not be compensated by any amount of money. "The innocent scientists and the others involved were branded as spies. If they had indulged in any illegal activity they would have been living a life of luxury," he said.

Opposition leader A. K. Antony was silent on the political gains that his faction in the Congress(I) made from the case - he secured the resignation of Karunakaran, with whom he was fighting an intense factional war at that time. But he said the judgment exposed the "vindictive stand" of the LDF Government, which had ordered the investigation in order to justify its earlier political stand. One of his close supporters, however, said that it was a wrong impression that the Antony group had demanded Karunakaran's ouster. "We had demanded in September or even earlier that he step down from the leadership of the legislature party. It is true that the (ISRO) case provided an impetus to the demand."

Nayanar, who was convalescing in Chennai after eye surgery, said in a statement that the Government's decision to order further investigation was taken in good faith and in the interests of the security of the nation. He said that there could be mistakes in decisions taken in good faith and that the courts had every right to correct such mistakes. This did not mean that the government should resign every time a court made such a correction. The Opposition leaders were being too harsh in criticising the Government decision, he said.

Nambinarayanan said: "One can say mistakes can happen and that the courts can rectify them. But is it just to say that a mistake has happened when somebody's image has been tarnished and he has been called a spy?"

A day after her release in Thiruvananthapuram, Mariam Rasheeda was in tears recounting the physical and psychological torture she underwent in custody. She was not sure whether the State police, the I.B. or the CBI was responsible for the inhuman methods of interrogation that she was subjected to for 23 days. She said that she was questioned for hours on end, some times in continuous sessions which lasted even up to 4 a.m. when her male interrogators took turns to torture her. The women officers always waited in an adjacent room, she said.

Her normally expressionless face exhibited a range of emotions when she said that "I have lost half my life" and when she reminded herself that "my daughter was nine years old then; she would have grown up by now" and when she recalled the surprisingly humane treatment she received from some of the jailors. She said she expected to go back to Male in about two weeks "when the formalities would hopefully be over". (Fousia Hassan returned to Male after she was released in 1996.)

Mariam Rasheeda said she expected the Government in Male to meet the expenses of her lawyer. Her lawyer said that the Supreme Court judgment gave her ample scope to sue for damages of "at least Rs.10 crores", but this would be done only in consultation with the Maldives Government.

Nambinarayanan, Sasikumaran and Sharma also said that they had not thought about going to court again, though they would be fully justified if they did so. "However, I am going to say who did what and I am going to stand by it," Nambinarayanan said.

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