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The Rediff Special/ Prem Panicker

A question of morale

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As for the scientific community here, they have their own rationale. "Exchange of information is a norm in scientific circles," Gupta asserts. "We have received information from foreign scientists that, perhaps in the strictest sense of the word, we were not supposed to get. Is the espionage? And by the same token, our scientists too have discussed complicated details of our space programmes with their counterparts abroad -- that is how scientific research in every field works, one thing it is not is espionage."

All of which smacks of an attempt on the part of all concerned to downplay the scandal. Or does it?

Senior scientists who have worked with Nambi Narayanan are quick to admit that the rapid progress India has made in the field of liquid propulsion owes a great deal to his efforts. He was, they point out, the main who led the Indian team to France to work with scientists there on the development of their Viking engine. And it was he, they add, who was mostly responsible in learning the complex configurations that helped the Indians to later develop the Vikas engine, an improved version of the Viking.

A senior scientist who was next in line of succession to Nambi Narayanan and who sought voluntary retirement two years ago alleges, however, that the scientist was a tough boss, difficult to work with unless he took a shine to you.

Gupta, for his part, has worked closely with Sasikumaran for four years. What is the former director's opinion of Sasikumaran's capabilities? "Average."

"No," the former VSSC director says, in response to a pointed question, "I wouldn't term him brilliant. Not even good. I said average, I mean average."

Meanwhile, the most interesting facet of the case appears to be the alleged involvement of Kerala Inspector General of Police Raman Srivastava. K D Nair, advocate for Mariam Rasheeda, claims his client identified the IGP as the 'Brigadier Srivastava' whose name has repeatedly surfaced in the investigation. The CBI, on its part, has for the last three days subjected the high-profile police office to intense interrogation. Moreover, following Vijaya Rama Rao's arrival, Srivastava has been quietly sidelined from most of his official duties.

Srivastava's was one of the first names to crop up, a member of Siby Mathew's staff confirmed, during the initial investigation by the Kerala special squad. Till just a couple of days ago, however the IGP remained active as ever. And the reason for this aberration -- given the promptitude with which the likes of Nambi Narayanan and Sasikumaran wee arrested -- is said to be Srivastava's proximity to a very senior politician in the state.


Chief Minister K Karunakaran, pat comes that answer.

In this connection, a police driver who was till recently assigned to Srivastava had an interesting story to narrate. At the end of every month, it has been the IGP's practice to go for a long -- 900-odd kilometres is how long -- drive.

The car's log books explained the distance covered as owing to visits to the various districts like Calicut, Mallapuram and such. "I was told to write that. Actually, every month we went down to Guruvayoor (site of Kerala's most famous Krishna temple)," the driver says.


Because, on the first of every month, it is the Kerala chief minister's practice to visit the temple. And Srivastava made it a practice to be there to receive him.

"This is not a matter for the state police," says Chief Minister Karunakaran, who also holds the home portfolio. "When the case burst open, I immediately alerted the Centre. And till now, no one has come to me with proof of Srivastava's wrongdoing. It is up to the CBI to tell me if they have any such proof, or if they want me to take any action. If I am asked to, definitely action will be taken."

But the same rationale didn't work in the case of people like Nambi Narayanan, you press.

"I can only say, it is not for me to take action on my own. And I definitely cannot take any action merely based on media reports," the chief minister insists.

For his part, Srivastava maintains he is being framed. "They have reported that I own land in Tamil Nadu and here," the IGP says. "In actual fact, I have asked the collectors of Tirunelveli and Nagercoil if they know of any agricultural land going for sale -- but I haven't bought a single plot in either of these two places. The money for purchasing it, if and when available, is now in my bank, it comes from the sale of my ancestral property in Lucknow."

What of Rasheeda, who has levelled allegations against the IGP? "I have not had any encounters with her. Of course, as IG I have met thousands of people officially, I cannot recall whether she was one of them."

Then why these allegations against him? "It is to protect a fellow officer, who is the one actually involved," Srivastava maintains.

Unfortunately for that argument, the 'fellow officer' -- IGP (computers) PR Chandran -- has openly admitted that he had been introduced to Mariam by his college mate Sasikumaran and that, at the latter's instance he, Chandran, had spoken to some officials about extending her visa. "I was doing a college mate a favour, that is all," Chandran says.

The most important question -- and one that gets comparatively little attention in the midst of all the salacious sidebars -- is the question of what impact the scandal will have on India's ongoing space programme.

"None," says VSSC Director Srinivasan, "the programmes for the polar satellite launch vehicle and the geostationary satellite launch vehicle are on course. We expect the GSLV (with the controversial cryogenic technology Nambi Narayanan and Sasikumaran have supposedly leaked to foreign parties) will be launched, as scheduled, in 1998."

A senior LPSC scientist elaborates: "Even assuming that some drawings have been leaked out, there are still two points to consider -- no country can make launch vehicles with just a set of drawings, they need an ongoing, and long-standing, space programme to be able to take advantage of such information. Since Pakistan has been mentioned, the fact is that they have no such capacity."

"Secondly, again assuming a leak -- and I maintain that is a far-fetched assumption -- how does that hamper our own efforts?"

The possibility of such leaked information resulting in sabotage is dismissed offhand by every senior scientist you speak to. "People who talk such rubbish have no idea," says Gupta, "how these things operate. Over 250 people are intimately involved in validating each and every component of the launch -- one man, or even a small group of men, cannot sabotage that kind of operation."

But yes, there is one major cloud on this optimistic horizon. Again, it is a senior LPSC scientist who underlines its importance. "Morale," he says. "That is our biggest problem. It was sky-high after our successful PSLV launch on October 15. Now, with all these media reports making out that our organisations are a hotbed of spies, with our being stoned on the roads and ostracised by our neighbours, morale is at an all-time low. And for us scientists, at least some of whom conform to the 'brilliant but temperamental' stereotype, something like this is all that is required to put us off our stroke."

This report appeared in the December 11 issue of The Sunday Observer. Reproduced here with the kind courtesy of The Sunday Observer.

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