Petition relating to ISRO case alleges “suspicious” land deals between Nambi Narayanan and ex CBI officials

Former ISRO scientist Nambi Narayanan and his son are the power of attorney holders for various land transactions in the names of CBI officials who investigated the ISRO case between 1994 and 1996
24 July, 2021

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.

On 15 April, the Supreme Court directed the CBI to treat the report as a preliminary enquiry report and probe the matter. The CBI was required to submit its report within three months. On 1 May, the agency filed a first-information report against 18 former officials of the Kerala police and IB, including Vijayan, RB Sreekumar, a former director general of the Gujarat police, Siby Mathews, a former deputy inspector general of police, and VR Rajiven, a former police commissioner.

Vijayan was the circle inspector of Thiruvananthapuram in 1994. He had booked two Maldivian women, Mariam Rasheeda and Fouzia Hassan, for overstay of visa on the instructions of Rajiven, his senior. This routine check turned into an investigation on suspected espionage pointing to an international network of businessmen, scientists and spies allegedly passing on information on India’s rocket technology.

The Supreme Court order this April stated that “the private respondents will be free to pursue all the pleas, as may be available to them in the proceedings that may follow, if and when initiated by the Central Bureau of Investigation.” But, according to Vijayan’s petition, when the CBI officer in charge of the case, Sunil Singh Rawat, took his statement on 30 June, the interrogation was abruptly stopped when he started to provide more detailed information about the case.

Narayanan has named Vijayan in the list of officials who allegedly tortured him and conspired to fabricate the case. Vijayan told Rawat that he was admitted for treatment of chickenpox at the Iranimuttom government hospital on 15 November 1994. On the same day, an SIT was formed under Siby Mathews, who took over the case with his team. Narayanan was arrested on 30 November.

On the day of Narayanan’s arrest, Mathews recommended the transfer of the case to the CBI, since the case involved international actors and was spread out across three states and foreign locations. “There is reason to believe that strategically important information about the IAF/Armed Forces (R & D wing) have been passed on by the espionage chain to unfriendly countries. The complicity of senior military personnel is very likely,” Mathews had written to the director general of Kerala police at the time. “There is information (not fully authenticated) about the involvement of a senior officer.” Mathew’s anticipatory bail application states that, “if there was any conspiracy or bad faith on part of the petitioner, he would not have recommended that the investigation be transferred to another agency.”

Most stories about Narayanan state that he was robbed of a longer career at ISRO because of the case. Vijayan has submitted various documents relating to Narayanan’s voluntary retirement. The former scientist had submitted his retirement letter weeks before his arrest, citing “personal reasons.”

Vijayan also said he was unable to submit the land records before Rawat during the interrogation. He has requested the CBI court to issue directions to the CBI to “conduct an in-depth investigation on each document regarding the circumstances under which they were created, reasons thereon for such creations and who are the persons acquainted with those documents and beneficiaries of suspicious land dealings as part of the investigation.”

The documents include encumbrance certificates of several acres of land in the Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu. An encumbrance certificate is a legal document signed during the purchase of land to show that it is free from any legal or monetary liability. All the documents are registered at the Nanguneri sub-registrar office in Tirunelveli. The land-transaction documents, according to the petition, show Narayanan or his son N Sankara Kumar as holding power of attorney over the land.  The land was purchased in the name of officials or their relatives involved or associated with the case. All of these transactions took place in 2004 and 2008, according to the petition. According to Vijayan, the people named in the land deeds could be benamis of a “bureaucrat, politician or an officer in the Administration of Justice who helped Nambi Narayan in the ISRO espionage case to get favourable orders.”

One purchase deed shows a transaction of 5.25 acres of land in July 2004 in the name of Anjali Srivastava, the wife of Raman Srivastava, a former director general of the Kerala police’s south zone and police advisor to the chief minister of Kerala from 2017 to February 2021. Narayanan was the power of attorney holder of Anjali. Another document dated 1 January 2008 shows the sale of 6.13 acres of land in the name of Anjali, executed by Narayanan.

Raman Srivastava was one of the most controversial names in the ISRO espionage case. He outranked the members of the SIT (headed by Mathews) that had been set up to probe the case. According to an IB report on one of the suspects, Srivastava was in charge of “necessary protection” and “transportation of documents.” While Srivastava was never arrested in the case, news of his alleged involvement had considerable influence on the state’s electoral fortunes. Vijayan’s petition requests the CBI to investigate the circumstances that led to the registration of the deeds, as Srivastava was “alleged to be involved in the ISRO case.”

One set of land documents, according to the petition, shows transaction of land between Narayanan and the late Rajendranath Kaul, who was the former joint director of the CBI. According to the petition, Kaul was the Deputy Inspector General of police in charge of Chennai when the ISRO controversy was playing out. The CBI Kerala unit functioned under Chennai at the time. A deed for 10.39 acres of land was “executed by Sri. Nambi Narayanan, Power of Attorney holder of Rajendranath Kaul,” in 2008, the petition said. (In 2004, a total of  24.27 acres was purchased in the name of Kaul and of this 15.73 acres was sold in 2008—all done with Narayanan and Sankara Kumar as the power of attorney holders.) In his latest petition, Vijayan has said there exists land records for property that dates back to April 1995. The petition claims that the land transfer deed dated 14 May 1995 was executed by the “binamis” of Narayanan for the benefit of Kaul. The CBI was investigating the ISRO case and another case filed under the Prevention of Corruption Act against the accused during that time. Vijayan argues that the “bribe through” the 1995 land deed was “very fatal and for that reason alone the ISRO case ended up with the filing of a closure report … prematurely without an in-depth investigation.”

The petition also raises a shocking allegation that could have huge implications for past as well as current investigations into the case. KV Harivalsan is a former superintendent of police in the CBI. On 5 December 1994, the CBI had registered a separate case against Narayanan, Sasikumaran and other suspects. According to an order of the CBI court in the matter (dated 30 December 1996,) Harivalsan, who was with CBI’s Cochin branch at that time, had filed the FIR and investigated the case.  One encumbrance certificate dated 18 January 2008 for the sale of 9.27 acres of land in the name of Syamala Devi shows Narayanan as one of the executants. The petition states that Syamala Devi is the “elder sister of Sri K.V Harivalsan.”  Previous records, according to the petition, shows a sale deed for 29.42 acres of land that was executed in the name of Syamala Devi on 7 May 1996 by the “benamis of Sri. Nambi Narayanan.” The petition draws attention to the fact that Harivalsan had filed a report requesting discharge of five out of the six accused in the corruption case over a month after this, on 21 June 1996.

The documents include a land deed, dated 23 July 2004, for ten acres whose claimant is named NM Saseendran Nair. The deed was executed by Narayanan, among others. The petition alleges that “it is suspected that the said NM Sasidharan Nair is a binami of P Madhusoodanan Nair.”

PM Nair, a former deputy inspector general, was the supervisory officer in the CBI who took charge of the ISRO case. In the course of my reporting last year, he had spoken to me about how the CBI had handled the case. According to him, the core team consisted of up to four investigators and, whenever a lead had to be investigated in a different state, they would just call CBI officials in that state instead of going there themselves. A CBI official who was part of the investigation and asked not to be named told me that he did not think any “solid investigation” had been done by the CBI in the ISRO case. His team was suddenly told to drop the analysis within two months of the CBI taking over the investigation. Meanwhile, Nair told me that “all the so-called evidence created by the Kerala police investigation team and the IB was concocted.”

Another certificate of encumbrance dated 8 February 2008, for 8.88 acres of land in the name of Saseendran Nair, also shows Narayanan as holding the power of attorney.

The accused are yet to know about the contents of the Jain commission report. The Thiruvananthapuram District Court, while hearing the anticipatory-bail plea on 15 July, asked the CBI to submit the commission’s report before it in a sealed cover. Rasheeda and Hassan have approached the court to challenge the anticipatory-bail plea of Mathews and KK Joshua. The court has, however, granted bail to both officials. In her petition, Rasheeda has accused Vijayan of sexual harassment and IB officials of torture. Vijayan’s anticipatory bail is pending before the court.

The petition states that the DK Jain commission had given an opportunity for the accused officials to present their side. “Unfortunately none of the Police Officers under allegations of duty lapses in ISRO case including the Petitioner herein were summoned nor were given any opportunity to produce incriminating documents/ records substantiating the falsity of allegations leveled against the officers of the Kerala Police,” Vijayan’s petition said. The land deeds turns the spotlight back on the CBI officials who investigated the case.