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May 7, 1998


T V R Shenoy

The trial of Mariam Rasheeda and others was a giant smokescreen

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'No smoke without fire' runs the old adage, meaning there is always some kernel of truth at the root of every rumour. Frankly, I have always found this an irritatingly smug assumption. In my experience the 'smoke' often turns out to be a 'smokescreen' hiding another, quite different truth.

I am more convinced than ever of this after digging through the details of the famous ISRO spy scandal. In case you have forgotten, this was the case where a group of people, including foreigners, were accused of espionage. The harassment stopped only recently courtesy of the Supreme Court. Quite understandably, they are wildly indignant at the vindictive behaviour of some investigators, notably the Left Front-controlled Kerala police.

But the trial of Mariam Rasheeda and the others was, I repeat, a giant smokescreen. How and why did a case begun by the Intelligence Bureau end up with the Central Bureau of Investigation? The answer to that is the untold story of the scandal.

It all began with the counter-intelligence wing of the IB in the days of the Narasimha Rao regime. For the record, the then IB chief, M Dhar, was later sacked. He ended up, predictably enough, joining the Congress!

Then the Research & Analysis Wing entered the picture. These worthies gave out clean chits as far as espionage per se was concerned. But in the course of the probe other irregularities had come out, concerning corruption.

The trail led the investigators first to Bangalore and then to Hyderabad. In Narasimha Rao's day, corruption cases always seemed to end up in the Andhra Pradesh capital sooner or later! Let us just say that certain influential men in the city had supplied material to the ISRO. At this point the CBI stepped in.

At that time the CBI was headed by Vijaya Rama Rao, a man handpicked by Narasimha Rao. (Some say he was actually chosen by Prabhakar Rao of the urea scam fame!) The CBI chief openly proclaimed that Narasimha Rao was his "mentor".

Well, he himself proved an efficient disciple. During Vijaya Rama Rao's tenure Narasimha Rao's political foes found themselves on the wrong side of a CBI chargesheet. But the CBI boss truly excelled himself in the ISRO case.

He knew perfectly well the intelligence agencies were satisfied that there was no espionage case worth the name. But he needed something to deflect attention from irregularities in the supply of equipment, when the needle of suspicion pointed towards Bangalore and Hyderabad.

So the CBI foisted a case on two ISRO scientists, D Sasi Kumaran and S Nambi Narayanan. It was rumoured they had assets disproportionate to their income. The unspoke corollary was that the money had been bought by selling Indian space secrets.

To anyone who knows the two men this was a ludicrous charge. One of them had just a black and white television set because a colour model would have been too expensive. As to that "disproportionate income," bank records revealed a figure that barely reached four figures!

(To digress for a moment, why does India pay her scientists so miserably and then complain of a brain-drain? That is something the new science and technology minister must ponder over.)

All these charges are now history. The last nail into their collective coffin was driven in by no less an authority than the Supreme Court itself. The judges have also ordered adequate compensation to be paid to the accused.

I am not sure if money alone can repay those who had their lives blown off course by a process that began in smear and innuendo and culminated by spending time in jail. None of this, however, seems to have bothered those who set up innocent men and women.

And why should they have been disturbed? Their aim was to deflect attention from corruption. Let us admit that this was achieved. As charges of espionage flew forth, it seemed almost unpatriotic to spare time to probe a lesser crime such as corruption.

Isn't it time that the truly guilty were brought to book? The Supreme Court censured the Kerala ministry in no uncertain terms. But what of Vijaya Rama Rao, his "mentor" Narasimha Rao? Perhaps we should take a leaf out of Vijaya Rama Rao's book and conduct a full-fledged probe into the Rao clan's assets!

T V R Shenoy

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