Interview with J Rajasekharan, author of "Classified: Hidden Truths in the ISRO Spy Story"
on Feb 17, 2022
J. Rajasekharan Nair is a winner of K.K. Birla Foundation Fellowship in Journalism and was the Kerala correspondent of MAGNA group of magazines.
His association with the ISRO espionage case was both as a journalist and a human rights activist.
He was the first to report that the espionage story was a cock-and-bull story fabricated by CIA through its moles in IB to abort ISRO’s clandestine operation to illegally acquire cryogenic technology from Russia.
He accessed telex messages between Glavkosmos, the Russian space agency, and KELTEC in Kerala, about a clandestine operation to transfer cryogenic rocket technology to ISRO, circumventing Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR).
He interviewed all the accused and filed more than half-a-dozen reports exposing the ISRO espionage story at a time when the media was celebrating the spy story.
He had to face two defamation cases from a police officer. He won both.
As a human rights activist, he approached National Human Rights Commission and Kerala State Women’s Commission, seeking justice for the Maldivian women trapped in the case.
The genesis of the Special Leave Petition (SLP) on which the Supreme Court ordered Rs. 50 Lakh to S. Nambi Narayanan in 2018 is the Original Petition (OP) I had filed before the Kerala High Court.
He was also the Chairman of an NGO that worked among sex workers, HIV+ves, LGBT, and the mentally ill.
1. What are your views on ISRO as an organization?
ISRO’s first Mission Statement, quoted on its website, is “Design and development of launch vehicles and related technologies for providing access to space.”
Let us see what ISRO has achieved with respect to this mission.
ISRO has three launch vehicle-related technologies; solid, liquid, and cryogenic. It bought the solid propellant technology from Sud-Aviation in 1967 (two years before ISRO was formed; when it was Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station-TERLS) and liquid technology ten years later, from Ariane, both in France.
ISRO tried to get the cryogenic technology from Russia. But it didn’t work out. ISRO claims it has developed cryogenic engine indigenously. It questions our prudence because it took 17 years for ISRO to develop the Vikas engine from the French Viking after ISRO acquired the technology from Ariane. Besides, ISRO technocrats had spent nearly 135 man-years in France as part of acquiring the technology. Compared to liquid technology, cryogenic technology is much more complicated.
The untold secret behind the indigenously developed cryogenic engine would tell volumes if ISRO come out with a White paper on the illegal reverse espionage to transfer cryogenic technology from Glavkosmos in Russia to ISRO after the agreement to legally transfer the technology was scrapped by Russia owing to the US pressure.
The fact is that ISRO has not done any original research with respect to its first Mission Statement but has only excelled in the art of Reverse Engineering, which is the glorified techno-language for copying. In reverse Engineering, you often have limited knowledge about the engineering methods that went into creating the product.
Juxtapose this reality with the first Mission Statement of ISRO and you would get a better picture of the real achievements of ISRO if you are ready to read beyond the PR reports on ISRO that appear regularly in the media.
There should be social auditing of the activities of ISRO.
2. ISRO has done some remarkable work in the past so do you think your book will tarnish this image?
Through my book, I have only called a spade a spade; one of the first lessons I learnt 37 years ago while doing my Masters in Journalism. I had to write the book because ISRO is not ready to acknowledge its criminal mistake of giving permission to its team of technocrats to illegally transfer cryogenic rocket technology from Glavkosmos (in Russia) to ISRO using clandestine methods. Later when the CIA planted an absurd spy story that Indian cryogenic rocket technology had been spied to Pakistan by certain ISRO technocrats, ISRO kept an intriguing and criminal silence and didn’t come out with a statement that ISRO didn’t have cryogenic technology in 1994 when it was alleged to have been spied to Pakistan. Instead, ISRO allowed its honor to be trampled on the street by IB, Kerala Police, and the media.
Had the Chairman of ISRO convened a press conference in the first week of November 1994 and told the nation that the spy story was a technical impossibility – something we expect any officer of substance and prudence would do—the spy story would not have spread like wildfire.
ISRO owes an apology to the nation first for allowing its technocrats to go for the illegal reverse espionage and then for not busting the spy story on day one itself.
We are a people with a lot of Holy Cows where the Holy Cows can do any damn thing and go scot-free and its actions should go unquestioned, but the one who questions it runs the risk of being branded a traitor or being unpatriotic.
3. You have shared different scenarios of the spy story in the book. Where did you get all the unfiltered information from?
More than 70 % of the materials I have used in the book are available in the public domain. I have quoted more than 85 documents; all available in the public domain. The point is that the media, instead of reporting the facts based on documents, had have been regurgitating what was being fed to them; 27 years back by the IB and Kerala Police, and now by CBI and S. Nambi Narayanan.
At the same time, I got certain confidential materials that gave the role of the then Director of IB in the spy case through an officer in CBI who was a member of the team that investigated the spy case for 18 months. One day in 1996, after CBI had submitted the Closure Report before the CJM, Ernakulum, stating the spy case was false and baseless; I met the CBI officer at the airport on his way back to Delhi. I asked him whether he could give me copies of the Confidential Reports CBI had sent to the Union Home Ministry and the Kerala Government listing out the lapses on the part of the IB and Kerala Police, respectively. He asked rudely, “how dare you ask me that?” I replied, “It is one way how Journalists get documents. We don’t create documents.” He said he wouldn’t do it. But after two weeks, I got the documents. He had mailed it to another person whom he knew well, which, in turn, reached me.
The whole issue of the ISRO spy case and its multi-layered structure is so clear to me that it took only 30 days for me to write CLASSIFIED: HIDDEN TRUTHS IN THE ISRO SPY STORY.
4. Share briefly about the reverse espionage chapter in the book?
800-1/50 was a bilateral agreement signed between Glavkosmos, the Russian space agency, and ISRO on 18 January 1991 (when Russia was a part of the Soviet Union). It envisaged a supply of three cryogenic stages, KVD-1, built by the Isayev Design Bureau, and the transfer of cryogenic rocket technology to ISRO for Rs 235 crore.
But owing to the US pressure in the aftermath of the disintegration of the USSR (the US said it would cancel its 24 billion Dollars aid package if Russia didn’t cancel the technology transfer clause), Russia cancelled the agreement on 20 July 1993 invoking Force Majeure. A new agreement for purchase of cryogenic engines without the technology transfer clause was signed by the two parties in January 1994. The first cryogenic engine as per the second agreement was to reach ISRO in 1996.
But certain top brass in both ISRO and Glavkosmos decided to hoodwink the US. They worked out a two-pronged strategy. One was to directly transfer materials, as part of technology transfer, from Glavkosmos to ISRO, illegally, but with the full connivance of the Indian and Russian space agencies. While S. Nambi Narayanan was the go-getter from ISRO Alexei Vasin was the man from the Glavkosmos side. However, Glavkosmos was not ready to effect doorstep delivery, which it wanted ISRO to do. S. Nambi Narayanan contacted Air India. But Air India refused to carry the materials for want of legally valid documents. Nambi Narayanan then contracted with Url aviation, a Russian airliner, to do the job. Though there are five airports in Moscow, where Glavkosmos is located, it was not possible to airlift the materials without the US agencies coming to know of the illegal act. So, the materials were transported to Tashkent International airport by road, travelling more than 3300 km., and from there airlifted in Url Aviation that came from Moscow, and was then flown to Thiruvananthapuram. Url thus made three flights. It couldn’t make the fourth because by that time the spy case had hit the headlines. The fact that Url discontinued the operation halfway through and ISRO didn’t claim compensation from Url for stopping the transportation halfway through tell volumes that the whole operation was illegal.
The second method was to use KELTEC, a Kerala government fabricating unit in Thiruvananthapuram, as a conduit for the transfer of cryogenic technology from Glavkosmos to ISRO. The idea was to entrust the job of fabricating cryogenic engines with KELTEC as an offshore agreement for which Glavkosmos will have to transfer the technology to KELTEC. Grounds were prepared to transfer the technology from KELTEC to ISRO, thus outwitting the provisions of the amended MTCR of which Russia was a signatory at that point in time.
5. What are some myths and lies that were spread regarding the espionage case?
The first lie was that ISRO was a defence organization and S. Nambi Narayanan and D. Sasikumaran, both technocrats of ISRO, had spied the cryogenic missile technology to Pakistan using Url aviation and bundles and bundles of documents had reached the enemy.
The lie in this is that ISRO is not a defence organization and does not manufacture missiles. Moreover, there is nothing like cryogenic missile technology because no country uses cryogenic fuel in missiles for obvious reasons. Moreover, ISRO didn’t have cryogenic technology in 1994.
The second lie was that the ISRO technocrats had a business tie-up with Alexei Vasin of Glavkosmos to sell documents of Vikas engine to Vasin who would, in turn, sell it to many third world nations, including Pakistan.
The fact is that Vikas engine, using liquid propulsion, is ISRO’s indigenously developed engine from the French Viking. Since Glavkosmos had a better liquid engine developed before the French Viking, why should Alexei Vasin go for this circumlocutory path if he wanted to make business by selling documents? Moreover, who needs these documents when the technology is available in the open market for a price?
6. Karl Marx wrote in 1852. “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” How did the CBI prove this statement?
In the fifth paragraph of its confidential report sent to the Chief Secretary, Government of Kerala, on 3 June 1996 listing out the serious lapses on the part of certain officers in Kerala Police, CBI accused the Kerala Police of not registering the espionage case much earlier (than 13 November 1994, the date on which the espionage case was registered by Kerala Police). The report reads: Despite the lingering suspicions about the conduct of Rasheeda and Fauziya harboured by Kerala Police and the IB officials, and the fact that the local press was playing up the issue and even the name of Raman Srivastava, IGP, was also being linked up with this episode, no immediate steps were taken by the Kerala Police to register a case under the Official Secrets Act and effect the arrest of accused persons.
The history was a tragedy because, through this statement, CBI paraded its ignorance of Section 13 (3) and (5) of the Indian Official Secrets Act (IOS Act), 1923 that prevents either Kerala Police or CBI from registering or investigating a case under the Act without a complaint in writing by the appropriate government (in the case of ISRO, it is the Central government) reaching the competent Magistrate, who can take cognizance of the offence.
Twenty-five years later, when the same CBI filed FIR against eighteen persons, including seven officers in Kerala Police, before the CJM, Thiruvananthapuram, for arresting S. Nambi Narayanan in the ISRO espionage case under the Indian Officials Secrets Act, 1923, it allowed history to repeat as farce.
The CBI team that investigated the espionage case for 18 months ( from December 1994) and submitted its closure report stating that the case was false and baseless, didn’t hint at any foreign hand behind the spy scandal. But the new CBI team that is yet to arrest a person or interrogate the accused had stated before Kerala High Court on 29 July 2021 that Pakistan was behind the espionage case.
Now, which of the CBI teams—the first or the second—is a pack of jokers?
7. Could you share some of the unknown facts about S. Nambi Narayanan?
There are many pieces of information I know about S. Nambi Narayanan; some were told by him during our close association for nearly 15 years and even more, I had gathered through my sources. It is not fair on my part to divulge those pieces of information, which are personal.
But I can tell you a few which the general public should know.
1. S. Nambi Narayanan is one of the few persons in the world who adores Adolf Hitler.
2. He has the uncanny knack of telling lies unabashedly. He had done it even before the Supreme Court in his Special Leave Petition on which the Apex Court passed orders on 14 September 2018. I have listed out the lies that are tantamount to perjury in my book.
3. Both CPI (M) and BJP tried to field him as a candidate in the Thiruvananthapuram Lok Sabha constituency to defeat Shashi Tharoor, but he didn’t yield.
4. Don’t be surprised if S. Nambi Narayanan is the BJP candidate for the post of Indian President after the tenure of Ramnath Kovind.
8. What are the breakthroughs that occurred in the spy story?
I am the first Journalist to interview S. Nambi Narayanan. He told me ISRO was yet to acquire cryogenic technology alleged to have been spied to Pakistan by certain persons, including him. It was the first breakthrough because the media, quoting sources in Kerala Police and IB, were reporting about a crime that could not have happened.
Prof. Satish Dhawan, Prof. U.R. Rao, Prof. Yashpal, Prof. R. Narasimha, Prof. Chandrasekhar, and T.N. Seshan issued a public statement after the Supreme Court, in April 1998, had quashed Kerala government order to further investigate the ISRO spy case. One part of the statement reads: “The espionage case reveals that the country’s space programme, or for that matter other strategic programmes, may no longer be immune to outside interference.”
The statement hinted at some foreign hand behind the espionage case. The signatories were all men of eminence and it was naïve to think they were hinting at some foreign hand without any substance. It was then easy for me to identify the foreign hand as that of the US since the US was the only country that had openly expressed its displeasure over the proposed transfer of cryogenic technology to ISRO.
I got certain crucial documents accidentally. K. Chandrasekhar, one of the accused in the spy case, gave me photocopies of some telex messages between KELTEC and Glavkosmos to prove his credentials as the authorized agent of Glavkosmos. Some of these telex messages gave me a hint that there was an attempt for a clandestine operation between Glavkosmos and ISRO to transfer cryogenic rocket technology from Glavkosmos to ISRO outwitting the provisions of the amended MTCR. It was a big breakthrough that helped me to focus on the illegal and clandestine operations between Glavkosmos and ISRO that led to the CIA fabricating an absurd spy story.
Certain reports in The Christian Science Monitor and reports of discussion at the Russian Duma (parliament) gave me a better perception of the failed operation of reverse espionage.
9. How has the Indo-Russian relationship helped in the advancement of the Indian Space Research Organization?
India’s engagement with Russia in space relationships goes back to 1975, when the erstwhile Soviet Union helped in the launch of Aryabhata (India’s first satellite), from the Soyuz Launch Vehicle.
Even the second satellite Bhaskara was launched from the Soviet Union in 1979.
In 1984, the Soviets took Sq. Ldr Rakesh Sharma to fly on the Soyuz T-11 spaceship.
A major step in space cooperation was the ISRO-Glavkosmos agreement of 1991 to transfer cryogenic rocket technology to ISRO. However, Russia cancelled it in 1993.
Meanwhile, KELTEC and GLVKOSMOS worked out the proposal for a joint venture between Glavkosmos and KELTEC with equity participation and mobilization of balance financing necessary through public issues. The joint venture contemplated a Rs 1,000-million project. The project was stillborn in the aftermath of the espionage case.
In 2018, during Putin’s visit to India, an MoU was signed to enhance cooperation. Consequently, there has been a spurt in tied between the Russian State Space Corporation ‘Roscosmos’ and the ISRO in the human spaceflight programmes and satellite navigation.