Soon after India had a spectacular space flight, a western newspaper carried a cartoon showing a half -naked Indian farmer with a cow knocking at the door of a luxurious space club as though India was crashing into an exclusive club. But India was engaged in the development of rocket technology for many years to explore space on its own. India’s foray into space raised some eyebrows and efforts were made to deny India the guarded rocket science, as was done in the case of nuclear technology soon after the tests in 1974. But India developed its own indigenous rockets and today, it is a legitimate member of the club of a handful of space-faring nations.
At one point in this journey, India hit upon the idea of obtaining the cryogenic engine technology from the Soviet Union to take our rocketry to a higher level and a contract was signed. But the then Chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, none other than the present President Joe Biden, asked the Soviets to terminate the contract for fear of India getting access to cutting edge technology in the fields of nuclear energy and space. A young Indian scientist in charge of the unit on cryogenic engine at the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), Nambi Narayanan, decided to get around the American diktat and told the Soviets to send him an engine without any technology transfer. The Soviets agreed, but asked him to make his own arrangements for transport. Since Air India would not touch it, he got a private airline to fly it to Thiruvananthapuram via, of all places, Pakistan. He said to me in an interview that he was doing nothing illegal as the contract was still valid and the Soviets had given it willingly. But the US was certain that what he did was open defiance of its wish and apparently handed over the case to CIA for necessary action. The general impression was that the whole space programme of India was being targeted, but it is possible that Narayanan personally was the prime target because of his “operation cryogenic”.
Unmindful of the CIA plot, Narayanan went about working on the engine to figure out the mysteries of cryogenic propulsion and learnt a thing or two for his own experiments. In 1994, the sleepy town of Thiruvananthapuram was rocked by a spy scandal with Narayanan at the centre of it and two Maldivian women who were said to have honey trapped him to transfer the cryogenic technology to Pakistan. All hell broke loose and Narayanan was arrested and tortured in prison to extract a confession. After a long period of investigation and incarceration of the accused, the Indian Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) submitted a report that the whole spy case was fabricated and all the accused were exonerated and released from prison two years after the case was filed. But the perpetrators of torture went unpunished and the victims were not compensated.
After 11 years of court battle, Narayanan was given financial compensation and also a high national honour, but he continues the battle to unravel the entire conspiracy and to bring the criminals to book. The unanswered question is why the ISRO did not rescue Narayanan by announcing to the world that India had no cryogenic technology to transfer to anyone. It took them two years to state the obvious fact that the police was looking in a dark room for a black cat which was not there.
The Nambi spirit of perseverance and dogged pursuit of a cause has been well portrayed in the Bollywood biopic, Rocketry – The Nambi Effect, made by the well-known actor R. Madhavan. Most storytellers were focusing on the ‘torture and the wrong’ that was done to Nambi Narayanan and how he was finally exonerated by the Supreme Court of India. But the movie dwells at length on the Space Odyssey of India and Narayanan’s signal contribution to science.
The time wasted on the spy scandal took its toll on ISRO and it took till 2001 to use a Russian cryogenic engine and till 2017 to use an Indian cryogenic engine to propel our rockets. In between, some countries used all the tricks to try and sabotage all rocket development by India, including sanctions, technology denials and even pressure on the USSR to halt cryogenic engine technology transfer on false excuses. Nambi Narayanan led the team which developed the ‘Viking’ engine in 1984, which was subsequently named ‘Vikas’, after the renowned Indian scientist Vikram A. Sarabhai. Since then Vikas engine has become India’s most reliable rocket engine and its variants have powered all Indian rockets. The Vikas engine never failed during its 53 flights, including Chandrayaan-1 and Mangalyaan. In other words, the damage done by the spy scandal was marginal and India is very much on its way to claiming its fair share of the vast expanse in space. It was more a personal tragedy than a national one.
In an hour long conversation with me, Nambi Narayanan recollected his horror story, as though it was a nightmare which had just ended. He was calm, collected, almost saintly in his pronouncements. He was more concerned about the loss of the momentum of space exploration by India rather than his own suffering. He characterised the biopic as the creation of a sympathetic filmmaker, who stayed as faithful as possible to the events, giving the film a certain authenticity and credibility. He considers the story of his agony as closed, but wants the guilty police officers and others punished for their thoughtless actions of cruelty and injustice. “I am only a witness to the prosecution now,” he said.
T. P. Sreenivasan is a former Indian diplomat
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