New Delhi: Even the most jaded hacks had to admit the story sizzled — sex, missiles, two femme-fatales, honeytraps, Russian arms dealer, more sex, a plot to overthrow the Maldives government, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), and yet more sex.
The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) spy scandal of 1994, in time, would be established by the Supreme Court and Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to involve neither spies, nor sex, nor the slightest hint of scandal — but not before many lives were destroyed.
The sordid story of the ISRO investigation has come into the spotlight again, after last week’s arrest of former Gujarat Director General of Police (DGP) R.B. Sreekumar, along with human rights campaigner Teesta Setalvad. The arrests followed the Supreme Court saying their allegations of state involvement in the 2002 Gujarat massacres were made “with ulterior motives”.
For years now, Sreekumar’s supporters have cast him as an honest officer, committed to upholding his constitutional commitments to secularism and justice.
To the victims of the ISRO case — key among them Princeton-educated aerospace engineer Nambi Narayanan — Sreekumar was a malign agent, who fabricated evidence to settle a personal vendetta.
The ISRO investigation
The grandson of the eminent freedom fighter and journalist Balaramapuram G. Raman Pillai, Sreekumar was educated in Thiruvananthapuram, and joined the Indian Police Service (IPS) in 1971.
He served as Superintendent of Police in seven districts — including Ahmedabad — and earned two President’s Police Medals. From all accounts, Sreekumar had a good record. Barring a 1986 case of alleged custodial violence, in which he was discharged, he faced no controversy.
Five Kutch-border espionage cases that Sreekumar investigated drew the attention of then-Intelligence Bureau director H.A. Barari. A deputation to the Bureau followed in 1987.
The ISRO case broke in 1994, when Sreekumar was, along with C.M. Ravindran, among two deputy directors serving at the Bureau’s Kerala station, under joint director Mathew John.
Led by to-be Director General of Police Siby Mathews, Kerala investigators concluded that two Maldivian women, Mariam Rasheeda and Fousiya Hassan, engaged in a clandestine operation to steal Indian missile technology, together with K. Chandrasekhar, the representative of the Russian Glovkosmos space agency.
The two women, police alleged, had seduced Narayanan and his deputy, D. Sasikumaran, to obtain access to drawings of India’s Vikas rocket engine and hundreds of other classified documents.
Following a national furore, the case was transferred to the CBI — which soon determined the case didn’t have legs to stand on. The dates on which key conspiratorial meetings took place, for example, didn’t tally with the movements of the suspects and hotel records. Most importantly, there was nothing to show that any classified technology or documents had been stolen in the first place.
In 1998, the Supreme Court ended the investigation on the basis of the CBI’s findings. The accused were released. Narayanan would later win a pathbreaking Rs 50 lakh in damages from the Kerala government.
His career inside the Intelligence Bureau derailed by the scandal, Sreekumar returned to Gujarat in 2001. Following the riots in 2002, he emerged as a trenchant critic of now-Prime Minister Narendra Modi, submitting a series of affidavits to judicial and police investigators. Among other things, his affidavits claim the Gujarat authorities colluded in the anti-Muslim violence of 2002.
The government’s supporters suggest that Sreekumar may have acted thus in a bid to pressure it to protect him against prosecution in the ISRO case — but no evidence has surfaced to support that claim.
Sreekumar’s unresolved role
From former Intelligence Bureau officer K.V. Thomas’s granular eyewitness account of the ISRO case, it’s clear much of the Kerala Police case was put together at the behest of the Intelligence Bureau.
New Delhi-based intelligence officers, Thomas shows, played a leading part in putting together the story, tutoring the accused on the contents of videotaped confessional statements they were to make, and using pressure tactics like forcing Narayanan to strip to his underwear.
Exactly how much of a role Sreekumar had in these developments — or the part played by his colleagues Ravindran and John — remain unknown.
Thomas’ book contains suggestions that top officials in the Intelligence Bureau, like the late Moloy Dhar — who insisted the espionage case was true in his own book — may also have participated in crafting the conspiracy theory.
The Bureau did conduct an internal inquiry, records seen by ThePrint show. The Bureau’s officers argued that, as members of a clandestine service with no legal standing, they had no role in Kerala’s decision to prosecute the suspects. Top officials, including the Intelligence Bureau’s director D.C. Pathak, flatly refused to speak with the CBI.
For his part, Sreekumar told the CBI that he had only a peripheral role in the case because of other commitments, participating in the interrogation of Rasheeda for only two days. He also said he had no role in the making of the confessional videotapes and declined to offer an opinion on their contents.
Kerala, similarly, took no action against investigators. In 2011, the state government dropped all charges against police, who had been accused of fabricating evidence. Following Sreekumar’s voluntary retirement, Mathews was appointed DGP.
In 2013, the case flared up again, after now-Minister of State for External Affairs Meenakshi Lekhi accused Sreekumar of treason, arguing he had framed Narayanan at the behest of foreign agencies. Sreekumar responded by filing a defamation case, but the action was dropped after he chose not to pursue it.
“I came to know that he was arrested today for keeping on fabricating stories and trying to sensationalise them,” Narayanan said after news of Sreekumar’s arrest broke. “It is exactly what he did in my case.” Earlier, Narayanan had told the CBI that Sreekumar may have acted from personal malice after the scientist failed to secure one of his relatives a job. He also alleged that Sreekumar participated in beating him in custody.
For his part, Sreekumar has continued to insist that the investigation of the ISRO case was just, and claimed the CBI derailed a vital national-security investigation.
Last year, the CBI filed an FIR naming 18 police and Intelligence Bureau officers — including Sreekumar — for allegedly framing suspects. There’s still no clarity, though, on why top Intelligence Bureau officials in New Delhi supported their Kerala station’s effort to fabricate evidence — and then sought to stonewall CBI investigators.
Sreekumar might have had a personal score to settle, but that doesn’t explain the actions of the top Intelligence Bureau leadership.
Is R.B. Sreekumar, then, a principled whistleblower, or malign agent? The full truth, sadly, might never be known.
(Edited by Zinnia Ray Chaudhuri)