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The Rediff Special/ Prem Panicker

Spies in the Sky

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The experts at liquid propulsion," a senior scientist attached to the Liquid Propulsion Service Centre at Valiamala, some 23 kilometres off the heart of the Kerala capital, Thiruvananthapuram, jibed, "are you gentleman of the press. Your propellant comes out of a bottle, and then you fly kites higher than we ever flew the PSLV."

The man has reason for his wrath. Early that morning, on his way to work, his car was stoned at a traffic junction in the city. "People tell me I have a passing resemblance to Dr Nambi Narayanan (the LPSC deputy director now in the Central Bureau of Investigation's custody on suspicion of passing out classified information), I guess that is why they chucked stones at my car."

His is not an isolated instance. An Indian Space Research Organisation minibus was heckled by a group of boisterous bystanders in another of the city's streets. A driver of a LPSC staff car reached home late on Wednesday night, and was met by an angry wife who shrilled: "Bad enough you drive those spies, do you have to come home at midnight on top of it?"

In Thiruvananthapuram, the scientific community employed in India's space research organisations like LPSC, ISRO and the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, Thumba have become persona non grata overnight. Staffers talk of how neighbours who used to drop in frequently now ignore them when they meet on the streets. Of how abuse and -- on occasion, more material tokens of anger -- are flung at their cars and vans. Of how life has been made miserable in the last three weeks.

At ISRO's Bangalore headquarters, scientists are incensed by press reports that 17 of their peers were taken into custody a couple of days back -- a report, incidentally, that the police deny.

"Thus far," a scientist at Antariksh Bhavan said, "not one scientist on our staff has been taken into custody. These press reports are definitely harming our morale."

Back in Thiruvananthapuram, we hire a car to take us to the Valiamala complex. On being told of our destination, the driver starts off on a tirade. "Those bloody fellows," a furious Madhavankutty swears, "sit in air-conditioned offices, get salaries above Rs 20,000 and even that is not enough, now they are selling off our country. We should do what the Arab countries do, stone them to death!"

There is a lot of ire in Thiruvananthapuram. And the initial reaction would be to say, serves them right. After all, those who sell the country's most closely guarded secrets down the drain deserve no pity.

Fact: Not one case of espionage has been registered in Kerala at the time of writing this report

Mariam Rasheeda and Fawzia Hussain -- in press-speak, the honeypot' and the 'queenpin' respectively -- have been charged with section of the Foreigners Act. LPSC's director (fabrications) D Sasikumaran has been charged with possessing wealth beyond his known sources of income, Bangalore-based businessmen Chandrasekharan and S K Sharma have been charged with abetting Sasikumaran in acquiring that wealth.

Sasikumaran and Nambi Narayanan are only suspected of having passed on crucial documents relating to India's space programme.

"There is one very important factor we have to take into account before we sit in judgment," says S C Gupta, former director of the VSSC, "what documents were passed on? The answer to that question is vital -- in our organisation, only a very minor percentage of documents relating to aspects of the space programme are classified. And only if a classified document has been passed on does action under the espionage laws hold."

So what documents are Sasikumaran and Nambi Narayanan suspected of having passed on? The question is yet to be answered.

Why? Because for now, the thrust of the CBI probe is merely to pin down names, dates, events. They have not yet begun to analyse the documents allegedly seized from Fawzia Hussain.

Yet, every day brings fresh stories in the local dailies. Stories quoting 'informed sources close to the CBI' who said that 'interrogations revealed that the scientists had links not merely with Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence directorate, but also with other foreign countries.

The validity of these news reports can be put in perspective by examining the CBI's modus operandi. Early this week, a CBI team led by Joint Director M L Sharma teamed up with a four-member squad from Madras and took full charge of the investigations. A day later, CBI Director K Vijaya Rama Rao joined them.

Their first act was to co-opt the Hindustan Latex guest house in the Kerala capital. Their next act was to delink all telephone lines in the guest house and install their own hotlines. Armed guards, briefed to keep everybody out, have been placed at the gates of the guest house.

In other words, there is no outside access to the CBI team. So -- and this is a question that is being increasingly asked -- where are the 'leaks' from informed sources' coming from?

"Ninety-nine per cent of what has appeared in the press so far," says a senior police office who, as part of the special squad headed by Deputy Inspector General Siby Mathew, had initially investigated Rasheeda's and Fawzia's connections with the scientists and also travelled to Bangalore to affect the arrests of Chandrasekharan and Sasikumaran, "are plain bullshit. You people have got the names right. But very little of the rest is accurate."

So what is the position?

As this officer sees it, the present scenario runs thus: "Fawzia and Rasheeda have overstayed their visas. The two have had some connections with a senior scientist in the space programme. Some documents, and some money, has changed hands. It is the ramifications of these that are now being investigated. Period!"

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

Prem Panicker's report in The Sunday Observer, continued

The Rediff Special

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