A petition before the Chief Judicial Magistrate court relating to the ISRO espionage case raises further questions about the CBI’s handling of the investigation from 1994 to 1996. On 23 July this year, former Kerala police officer S Vijayan has requested the court to reopen and reinvestigate the ISRO espionage case in his petition. This comes 25 years after the CBI filed its final report on the case. The petition draws attention to the “serious factual and legal defects” in the report “which finally caused the discharge of the accused persons.” Earlier this month, Vijayan placed documents before the court showing land transactions in 2004 and 2008 of nearly hundred acres in Tamil Nadu between one of the prime suspects of the case, the former ISRO scientist Nambi Narayanan, and CBI officials, among others.
The former CBI officials named in the petition include Rajendranath Kaul, KV Harivalsan and PM Nair. Kaul and Nair held important positions in the agency when the CBI was investigating the ISRO case between 1994 and 1996, and Harivalsan had registered a separate case against Narayanan and Sasikumaran—the other ISRO scientist implicated in the case—under the Prevention of Corruption Act 1988. According to the land documents produced before the CJM court, Narayanan and his son Sankara Kumar are the power of attorney holders for various land transactions in the names of these CBI officials or their relatives. Vijayan’s latest petition states “the ISRO case was sabotaged by Sri Nambi Narayanan” by “bribing the investigating officer and his superior officers.”
The ISRO espionage case dealt with the suspected transfer of rocket technology and information about India’s defence establishments to foreign nationals. The case was initially investigated by the Kerala police and the Intelligence Bureau before being transferred to the CBI. The agency dismissed all the leads that had until then been gathered and accused the IB and Kerala police of having concocted an elaborate conspiracy. The details have been covered in The Caravan’s cover story in November 2020. Because of the CBI’s interventions, the case was effectively buried, and no trial into the facts of the case ever took place. Instead, the investigators themselves became the subject of investigations and long-drawn-out judicial proceedings.
Narayanan—who received the Padma Bhushan in 2019 is the most recognised face of the controversy, even becoming the subject of a recent feature film showcasing his alleged persecution—accused IB and Kerala police officers of torturing him during the interrogations and setting back his career. In 1995, a Kerala High Court bench comprising two judges who viewed video tapes of the interrogation stated they perceived no signs of torture. In 2005, following a departmental enquiry, the union home ministry absolved the officers. Subsequently, the Kerala High Court and state governments under both the Left Democratic Front and United Democratic Front ruled against taking disciplinary actions against the police officers.
A Supreme Court bench headed by Dipak Misra in September 2018, however, while ruling in favour of Narayanan, directed the appointment of a committee headed by a former judge, DK Jain, to “find out ways and means to take appropriate steps against erring officials.” The three-member committee included DK Prasad, a former additional secretary in the union home ministry, and VS Senthil, a former additional chief secretary of Kerala. The commission submitted its report, on 25 March 2021, in a sealed cover.