The ISRO spy scandal of the early 1990s has come to an end with the exoneration of S. Nambi Narayanan, the scientist (wrongly) accused by the Malayalam and later national media of selling secrets of the satellite organisation to a couple of Maldivian women.
The son of the then Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao‘s son too was merrily reported during the media mayhem.
Indian Express editor-in-chief Shekhar Gupta writes of how he came to report the story in India Today, which was one of the few mainstream media organisations at the time which did not fall for the artlessly woven fiction.
It was towards the end of 1994, when Rao’s minority government was tottering in its third year that the story broke. It was then hailed as the biggest spy story, the most damaging security breach ever in India’s history and it looked as if the entire Indian space and missile programme had been exposed, and destroyed from within, for just a little bit of free sex and quite a bit of money.
I wasn’t directly covering or handling the story yet, but was as outraged as any fellow Indian would have been.
It was in that period that on one of my frequent visits to Chennai (then Madras) I found myself sitting next to a prominent scientist of ISRO pedigree (let’s not name him just now). In-flight conversation veered inevitably to the ISRO spy case.
He did not engage, and was careful not to say yes or no to anything.
His reserve broke only once, when I said, how could such senior scientists be keeping thousands of such classified documents (the police case said 75 kg) in their homes and be selling them to India’s enemies?
He looked into my eyes, and said, deadpan: “ISRO is an open organisation, my friend. At ISRO, we do not classify anything.”
Then what is this case all about, I asked.
“You go and find out,” he said, “You used to be an investigative reporter, I believe,” he said….
The result of that long journalistic investigation, ultimately, was a six-page investigation published in the January 31, 1995 issue of India Today, headlined, ‘The Great Espionage Mess’. Three brilliant colleagues worked with me on that investigation, Jacob George in Cochin, M.G. Radhakrishnan in Trivandrum and Saritha Rai in Bangalore).
Our conclusion was that what was hailed as a great espionage story was in fact a shocking frame-up. It was full of fabrications and inconsistencies….
A couple of years after the story was published… the same distinguished scientist walked up to me. I folded my hands in polite namaste, but he surprised me by poking my chest to the left with his forefinger.
And then he said: “What you did on the ISRO story was like applying balm to our wounded hearts. We had built that organisation and that rocket project with our blood and sweat. You people helped save it from being destroyed.”
That scientist, if you haven’t guessed already, was A.P.J. Abdul Kalam.
Read the full story: ISRO spy case test