ISRO spy case

Delayed justice for Nambi Narayanan, but will the ‘ISRO spy case’ end here?

Print edition : September 11, 2020

Former ISRO scientist Nambi Narayanan in Thiruvananthapuram, a 2017 picture. Photo: S. MAHINSHA

The former ISRO scientist gets an “additional compensation and solatium” totalling Rs.1.3 crore for being wrongly implicated in the infamous spy case.

Nearly a quarter century after he started his dogged fight for justice, former Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) scientist Nambi Narayanan has received an “additional compensation and solatium” totalling Rs.1.3 crore from the Kerala government for being wrongly implicated in the infamous ‘ISRO spy case’.

The compensation was paid as part of an out-of-court settlement mediated by former Chief Secretary K. Jayakumar, who was appointed by the State government for the purpose.

As part of the agreement, Nambi Narayanan has withdrawn the civil suit he had filed before the lower court. “It is a good decision by the government. The civil case has been withdrawn. There is no case pending now,” Nambi Narayanan told Frontline.

The amount paid is in addition to a compensation of Rs.50 lakh he had received in 2018 from the Kerala government as ordered by the Supreme Court for the “physical” and “mental” agony he underwent, and the Rs.10 lakh he had received as “interim relief” as per an order of the National Human Rights Commission.

Five others too had been accused in the case. But Nambi Narayanan alone chose to go for a long, lonely legal battle against the injustice and humiliation faced at the hands of the State police, which had branded him as someone “who helped India’s cryogenic and Viking engine technology secrets to be handed over to foreign countries”.

Over 20 years ago, on April 29, 1998, the Supreme Court upheld the findings of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), which had, after an 18-month inquiry concluded that the “allegations of espionage were not proved and had been found to be false” (“Requiem for a scandal”, Frontline, May 22, 1998).

But the case was prolonged as the State government then ordered another inquiry by the State police. On September 14, 2018, the apex court once again reiterated that “the criminal law had been 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”.

While ordering the State to pay Rs.50 lakh as compensation, the 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 the lower court in which he had claimed a compensation of Rs.1 crore.

Settlement

Nambi Narayanan said initially that he would continue to pursue the civil suit, but on July 23, 2019, he wrote a letter to Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan seeking a settlement through consensus and stating that he was willing to close the civil case. The government had then asked the former Chief Secretary to be a negotiator on its behalf.

In his report to the government submitted on August 7, 2019, Jayakumar said that Nambi Narayanan had explained in detail the issues relating to the conduct of the case, the irreparable losses in his life as a result of the case, the ordeal he had underwent, and that “it was the good name and recognition he had gained, as a scientist who had valuable contributions in the field of space research an rocket technology, which he lost with his arrest on November 30, 1994”.

He also said that though the court had found him innocent in 1998, the legal process had dragged on for over 20 years, during which he had faced public disgrace, mental agony, isolation even within his family, financial loss, the heavy financial burden of conducting the case, loss of physical and mental health, and the psychological effect all this had on his wife—the impact of which “was beyond something that could be compensated with money”.

This was the basis of his demand for a compensation of a total of Rs.2.15 crore (Rs.1 crore as “compensation” and Rs 1.15 crore as interest), the report said.

Nambi Narayanan also submitted before the government that while allowing a compensation of Rs.50 lakh, the Supreme Court had clarified that “he may proceed with the civil suit wherein he has claimed more compensation”. But, he said, the case had already dragged on for 20 years and it would take much more time for an eventual resolution. He also said he was already 78 years old, and wished to spend the evening of his life free of court cases, peacefully, and using his talent and knowledge for doing something creative for society.

In his report, Jayakumar said he had told Nambi Narayanan about the “impracticality” of the demand for 6 per cent interest for 20 years from 1999 and instead had suggested a specific amount as a “solatium”, for which he had responded positively and had said he was leaving it to the government’s wisdom.

The report therefore recommended a “solatium” of Rs.2 lakh for each year (a total of Rs.40 lakh) instead of Rs.1.15 crore (at 6 per cent interest for 20 years for Rs.1 crore) demanded by Nambi Narayanan).

Thus a compensation of Rs.1 crore and a solatium of Rs.40 lakh was agreed to finally, out of which the Rs.10 lakh already paid as interim relief as ordered by the National Human Rights Commission was to be deducted.

According to the report, Nambi Narayanan had agreed to withdraw the case before the civil court for a total compensation of Rs.1.30 crore, with all the parties having to submit before the court that they have come to a mutual agreement.

The report submitted to the government in August last year had recommended that this amount (Rs. 1.15 crore) aggregable to Nambi Narayanan “must be paid without delay”, because the crux of the agreement is “the resolution of the problem without any delay”.

“Even though he has not demanded it as condition, Nambi Narayanan’s belief and hope are that the process would be completed quickly. And there is a certain ‘administrative morality’ in obliging to it,” the report said.

The State Cabinet subsequently accepted the recommendations in the report.

The case

The ‘ISRO spy 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 then opposition parties and detractors of the then Congress Chief Minister K. Karunakaran within his own party. Karunakaran was eventually forced to step down from office and was replaced by A.K. Antony.

The case played havoc with the lives 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 Indian Police Service 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. (Srivastava later became the Director General of Police of the State and is now Adviser (Police) to Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan.)

In its order awarding the compensation, the Supreme Court 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”.

It further said: “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 award of the compensation for the “physical” and “mental” agony he underwent was a milestone in a series of such Supreme Court judgments giving more clarity and importance to the principle of “constitutional liability” that was relied upon in several earlier cases, which 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 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.

Far-reaching impact

Nambi Narayanan’s case will 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.

The ‘ISRO spy case’ in which at least one victim has now got some justice after 25 years by the effective intervention of the highest court, however, leaves a crucial question: who all were responsible for weaving such a fantastic false tale and why?; and who would compensate for the untold suffering that the other accused too went through?

While granting him the compensation of Rs.50 lakh in 2018, the Supreme Bench had in fact agreed with Nambi Naryananan’s 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”.

The court had also constituted a committee headed by Justice D.K. Jain, a former judge of the Supreme Court, with two officers to be nominated by the Central and State governments as members. The committee was to “find out ways and means to take appropriate steps against the erring officials”, the court said.

But nothing further had been reported since the court order on the proceedings of such a committee. The fate of the committee could not be ascertained immediately. State government officials and Nambi Narayanan too said they were unaware of the status of the committee.

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