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Who is killing India's nuclear scientists?

January 06, 2015 12:35 IST

'Forensics experts say in all such unexplained deaths of scientists and engineers involved in the nuclear programme, fingerprints are absent, as also other clues that would assist the police in identifying the culprit(s).'

Prasanna D Zore/Rediff.com reports on a petition that demands a Special Investigation Team probe the mysterious deaths of India's nuclear scientists.

Based on the data compiled under the Right To Information Act by activist Chetan Kothari, about the deaths of various personnel working for India's nuclear establishment, over a four year period between 2010 and 2014, Kothari through his advocate Ashish Mehta has claimed in a Public Interest Litigation that 'Over the last few years, a number of India's nuclear scientists have been dying under mysterious circumstances and the police are classifying them either as 'unexplained' or suicides.'

The PIL -- a copy of which is available with Rediff.com -- appeals to the Bombay high court to constitute a Special Investigating Team to probe these deaths and find out if India's premier nuclear establishments have been following protocols and standard operating procedures when it comes to the safety of their employees.

"The data compiled by my client using the RTI Act clearly shows that the reasons for many deaths cited by the various respondents have been categorised as 'unexplained'. The number of deaths are not only shocking but there is lot of mystery surrounding these deaths," says Ashish Mehta, the advocate for the petitioner.

"The PIL appeals to the honourable high court to constitute a SIT, under the court's supervision, comprising of competent, high-ranking and experienced scientists and investigators so that the nation comes to know about the causes of these mysterious deaths," Mehta told Rediff.com

Citing a number of deaths of key nuclear engineers and scientists, the PIL states that the government and the defendants have not taken these deaths -- often under mysterious circumstances -- seriously and made no efforts to find out the truth behind them.

'It is very pertinent to note that there are parallels here with the numerous attacks on the Iranian nuclear scientist community', the petition notes, but 'the same cannot be said for the Indian government, as the Indian government is not making any noise about the whole thing.'

'Once the "unexplained" rubber stamp has been approved, government bodies don't tend to task the authorities with investigating further', the petition states.

Buttressing its claims the petition cites, among others, the mysterious deaths of two high-ranking engineers who worked on India's first nuclear-powered submarine, the INS Arihant, seen in image above.

The petition states:

'Recently, two high-ranking engineers -- K K Josh and Abhish Shivam -- on India's first nuclear-powered submarine were found on the railway tracks by workers. They were not hit by any train, but yet were dead. Reports claimed they were poisoned elsewhere before being placed on the tracks to make the deaths look accidental or suicide.'

'They were pulled from the line before a train could crush them, but were already dead. No marks were found on the bodies, so it was clear they hadn't been hit by a moving train, and reports allege they were poisoned elsewhere before being placed on the tracks to make the deaths look either accidental or like a suicide.'

'The media and the ministry of defence, however, have described the incident as a routine accident and didn't investigate any further. This far, there have been no reports of the police having identified any of the perpetrators of the murders of personnel whose brainpower has been crucial to the success of several key programmes.'

'In any other country, the murder of two Engineers connected to a crucial strategic programme would have created a media storm. But it's rather shocking why such a thing is not happening here. However, the deaths of the two were passed off both by the media as well as by the ministry of defence as a routine accident, with only the ordinary police officer tasked with investigations into the cause of death. The inquiries went nowhere.'

'When nuclear scientist Lokanathan Mahalingam's body turned up in June of 2009, it was palmed off as a suicide and largely ignored by the Indian media.'

'In April of 2011, when the body of former scientist Uma Rao was found, investigators ruled the death as suicide, but family members contested the verdict, saying there had been no signs that Rao was suicidal.'

'If the deaths of those in the community aren't classed as suicide, they're generally labeled as "unexplained." A good example is the case of M Iyer, who was found with internal haemorrhaging to his skull -- possibly the result of a "kinky experiment," according to a police officer.'

'After a preliminary look-in, the police couldn't work out how Iyer had suffered internal injuries while not displaying any cuts or bruises, and investigations fizzled out.'

'On 23 February 2010, M Iyer, an engineer at BARC, was found dead in his residence. However, as is usual in such cases, no arrests were made and the investigation ran into a stonewall.'

'Forensics experts say that in all such unexplained deaths of scientists and engineers involved in the nuclear programme, fingerprints are absent, as also other telltale clues that would assist the police in identifying the culprit.'

'These indicate a high degree of professionalism behind the murders, such as can be found in top-flight intelligence agencies of the type that have been so successful in killing Iranian scientists and engineers active in that country's nuclear programme.'

'The killer had used a duplicate key to enter the house and strangle the engineer in his sleep. Interestingly, efforts were made by some of the investigating police officers to pass the death off as a suicide. Finally, the Mumbai police decided to register a case of murder.'

'According to the Government of India, over just a three-year period, there have been at least nine unnatural deaths of scientists and engineers at just BARC as well as the Kaiga nuclear facility, of which two have been categorised as suicide, with the rest unexplained in terms of bringing to book those responsible.'

The petitioner expressed shock at the government's indifference to such valuable assets.

The petition states:

'The most pressing issue isn't who might be behind the murders, but that the Indian government's apathy is potentially putting their high-value staff at even greater risk. Currently, these scientists, who are crucial to the development of India's nuclear programmes, whether for energy or security, have "absolutely no protection at all, which is quite amusing for people who are in such a sensitive programme.'

"All these deaths under mysterious circumstances clearly indicate a conspiracy by foreign hands who want to create impediments in India's nuclear programme and weaken India's security," says Kothari about what prompted him to file a PIL of this nature.

"The government has so far never instituted a fact-finding mission to ascertain this, turning a blind eye to this disturbing chain of events," adds Kothari.

Pressing for the constitution of an SIT, the PIL says, 'The Government of India is certainly not taking this matter seriously, and that is both saddening and deeply disturbing from a national security perspective. As the new government is in place, it is important that this neglected issue is directed by this honourable court to be looked into very seriously by the Respondents and remedial steps must be taken forthwith'

The petition has been filed under Article 226 of the Constitution of India.

Prasanna D Zore/Rediff.com in Mumbai