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The Rediff Special/ Prem Panicker

What happens to the four years of life they have been robbed of?

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Deputy Editor Prem Panicker, who first reported on the ISRO 'spy scandal' four years ago, reflects on the injustice, the enormity of the crime committed against a group of innocent people.

In December of 1994, my editor -- we were working for The Sunday Observer, at the time -- sent me to Thiruvananthapuram with a very simple brief: go find out what is happening at the Indian Space Research Organisation, headquartered there.

On the surface, it seemed a wasted journey -- the front pages of newspapers both local and national had, for several weeks, been full of the "spy scandal" that had erupted, following the arrest of Maldivian nationals Mariam Rasheeda and Fawzia Hussain and of senior ISRO scientists Nambi Narayanan and Sasikumaran.

I stayed in Thiruvananthapuram three days, and came back with a story. Or, more accurately, a non-story -- the thrust of which was that to the best of my belief, there was nothing at all to the "spy scandal", that it was all a concoction of the media, which in turn was being fed a lot of bull by interested parties in politics, in the police force and yes, even within the ISRO hierarchy.

I filed my story. And later that evening, had a conversation with Deputy Editor Sherna Gandhy. Are you damn sure, Sherna wanted to know, that the spy scandal is so much hot air?

Frankly, if another reporter had filed the story and I was the editor checking it out, I would probably have had the same qualms Sherna did, that day, when she read what I wrote.

For after all, every single newspaper and newsmagazine was yelling hoarse, claiming a major spy ring that was rapidly undermining the very heart of India's space research programme... so how much credibility would there be in a story that said exactly the opposite?

But from where I stood, I had seen and heard things in Thiruvanathapuram that shocked me at the time.

Item: On my first evening there, I was sitting in the local press club, sipping a beer, waiting for a contact to meet me. At an adjoining table, a heated conversation was going on, featuring reporters of a couple of leading vernacular dailies. One reporter was telling his colleagues that he had just spoken to a member of the CBI special team investigating the case. That said CBI officer had confirmed -- confirmed, mind you -- that hidden assets had been seized from the homes of the two scientists implicated in the case. And so forth.

Next morning, that was the lead story in not one, but three different vernacular dailies.

There was only one problem with it. Two days earlier, the CBI had indeed landed in Thiruvanathapuram in force. And taken over the Hindustan Latex guest house there. Their first act was to surround it with a two-ring layer of protection -- the outer ring composed of state police, the inner ring comprising CRPF personnel. And there was no way -- believe me, I tried like hell -- to get through those two rings, and get to meet any member of the CBI team.

The phone? Forget it -- when I tried the HL guest house numbers, a voice informed me that the number was temporarily not in service. Later I learnt, from a senior state police officer, that the CBI had cut all existing lines, installed their own hotlines, and that no calls from the outside were being routed through.

How, then, did those "confidential sources" funnel info to the reporters?

Item: As per the existing reports, the documents the two scientists had passed on to the Maldivian ladies were plans for ISRO's liquid propulsion engine.

Following up on something a scientist told me, I went to the ISRO GHQ and asked to meet the PRO. He was all co-operation -- the sole proviso being he wouldn't talk about the case, on the grounds that it was under investigation. I casually asked him if I could have copies of the ISRO newsletters, and was promptly given the two latest copies. One of which contained detailed plans of the liquid propulsion engine in question, together with a scientific report explaining in detail the principles involved therein.

I had those plans, for the asking. I could have wrapped my sandwiches in it, or sold it to the KGB, or dumped it in the nearest trashcan, and nothing anyone could do about it.

How come the plan is passed around so openly, I asked the scientist I had first talked to. Because, he told me, a plan is nothing more or less than a basic document. What is not detailed in the plans are the finer details -- every nut and bolt, every wire and connection, has its own tolerances, its own specifications, none of which are part of the blueprint. These details, he told me, are only available with the departments concerned -- and no department knows details regarding matters that are not within its purview.

All of this rendered it impossible for any one or two scientists to have smuggled all the relevant information out -- as anyone could have found out, had they bothered to ask the right questions.

Item: Since Rasheeda and Hussain were in jail and out of bounds, I figured I could pick up some information by speaking to their lawyer. Locating him was easy -- all I had to do was go to the courthouse, and ask the clerk there who had handled the case. Within minutes, I got the name, telephone number and residential address of K D Nair, the advocate in question.

I went to his office, and just for the asking, I got a transcript of the entire deposition of Mariam Rasheeda. A deposition that raised questions the media appeared to have not noticed, in its collective frenzy. To name just one instance, it was being made out that Rasheeda had deliberately overstayed her visa. False -- she had actually purchased a flight ticket well within the visa's lifespan. For an entirely unconnected reason, all flights had been cancelled -- whereupon Rasheeda had gone to the local police station and, in compliance with the rules, made an application for temporary extension of her visa, enclosing a copy of her flight ticket. These documents, too, were on record, and easily accessible.

But what startled me the most was Nair's initial response, when he learnt who I was and what I had come for. 'You are the first journalist who has bothered to talk to me,' Nair said then.

More than anything else, this was symptomatic of how the entire story was handled by the media. Rumours were touted as hard fact. Innuendoes passed off as "inside information from confidential sources". And the wildest of claims made, without any regard for veracity -- I mean, a very respected vernacular daily had written a passionate article about this sex and spy ring operating in Thiruvananthapuram, profiling its shadowy leader, talking of how a woman, the honey in what, in spy novels, they call the honeytrap, could be seen driving up and down Thiruvananthapuram in a Ferrari.

For heaven's sake! Anyone who has ever been to Thiruvananthapuram -- and I am a Keralite born and bred -- will know that a foreign car, any foreign car, excites much attention and gossip. Did it make any kind of sense, then, that a spy -- by definition, a person engaged in the most sub rosa of all activities -- would deliberately draw attention to herself that way?

Item: Nambi Narayanan was supposed to have brokered ISRO secrets for uncounted millions -- but when I went to his place, I found a very ordinary house, no sign of opulence, no nothing. I mean, my own ancestral home in Kerala is considerably larger and better -- and our family sold coconuts, not state secrets.

In a word, nothing jelled. Not one bloody bit of it.

Predictably, the CBI concluded its investigation with the finding that the whole thing was a total fabrication. At which, a political colouring was given to the finding. It was alleged that Inspector General of Police Raman Srivastava's proximity to K Karunakaran, said the IGP's relative being part of then prime minister P V Narasimha Rao's personal security cover, and such were behind the CBI verdict.

Four years later, the Supreme Court, no less, says there was no case. And, further, censures the state government for trying to make political capital out of a non-event.

We are then told that the state government has -- praise be to its magnanimity -- released Hussain and Fawzia, and permitted them to depart for the Maldives.

Oh, indeed?

What, then, of the unanswered questions?

What, then, of fixing responsibility? On the police officer, who first tried to take advantage of a stranded alien and, when she resisted, had her hounded, then arrested, and introduced the "spy" bogey into the equation? On those within the ISRO establishment who, as one weapon in the vicious faction fight going on at the time, leaked muck about their own colleagues to a media willing to print it all and more without pause for confirmation? On the media itself, for having abdicated all journalistic norms in a mindless pursuit of the front page byline, of newspaper-selling sensationalism?

Rasheeda and Hussain have been freed, have they? And what happens to the four years of life they have been robbed of? What happens to the emotional trauma suffered by Nambi Narayanan and Sasikumaran?

This is not, believe me, an exercise in being holier-than-thou. Not an attempt to say that I personally, or the paper I worked for at the time, were better than the rest of the media.

It is merely an expression of outrage, of indignation, at such gross injustice.

In a better ordered society, Rasheeda, Hussain, Nambi Narayanan and Sasikumaran would have sued the State, and the media, for everything ranging from wrongful arrest to calculated character assassination -- and any jury would have awarded them millions without even bothering to leave the box.

Here, we proudly announce that the Maldivian nationals are free to depart. That the slandered scientists are free to resume their normal lives, as best as they can. And with that, we think we have done our bit for truth and for justice.

Have we? Really?

Prem Panicker's report in The Sunday Observer

The Rediff Special

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