Space Secrets

How the CBI killed India’s biggest espionage case

The first rocket in India was carried on a cycle as there was no road to the rocket launching station in the Thumba area of Thiruvananthapuram. courtesy vikram sarabhai archives / nehru foundation for development
01 November, 2020


IN DECEMBER 1994, MK Dhar, the joint director of the Intelligence Bureau, was travelling with Vijaya Rama Rao, the director of the Central Bureau of Investigation, on a special flight from Delhi to Thiruvananthapuram. Rao and other CBI officials were on their way to formally take over the investigation of a sensational espionage case that had taken political and media discussions in south India by storm.

The case involved the suspected transfer of space technology and information about India’s defence establishments in Bangalore to foreign nationals with links to Pakistan and Russia. At the centre were six suspects: two Maldivian women named Mariam Rasheeda and Fauziyya Hassan, two businessmen named K Chandrasekhar and SK Sharma, and, most controversially, two scientists from the Indian Space Research Organisation, S Nambi Narayanan and D Sasikumaran. From mid October that year, as the IB and the Kerala police had worked to build a picture of the alleged espionage network, these names began to be leaked to the media. Since the scandal involved a massive security breach and was spread out across many states and several foreign countries, the Kerala government decided to transfer the case to the CBI.

The flight was to halt at Nagpur for refuelling. But as the plane was flying over Bhopal, Rao was called into the cockpit to receive a phone call from Delhi. When he returned to his seat, Rao announced that there was a change in plan. The flight would now be refuelling at Bangalore instead, since he had to attend an important meeting there. Rao then huddled with his officers. Dhar watched this with curiosity—there was a “sudden change” in Rao’s demeanour, he wrote in his 2005 autobiography, Open Secrets.