ISRO's Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota. Source: AP
India’s space ambitions that have risen to dizzying heights after the launch of the Mars probe are likely to come to terms with gravity soon. Sceptical? Here’s a reality check.
According to former rocket scientist Nambi Narayanan, who has been exonerated of spying charges by the Supreme Court, India’s space exploration programme is still reeling under the impact of the indiscriminate arrestsmade under highly dubious charges.
In 1994 key scientists engaged in India’s indigenous cryogenic engine were arrested by the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and the Kerala Police on charges of espionage. The most serious allegation was that they had fallen into a honey trap set up by a foreign intelligence agency – supposedly Pakistan’s.
Back then nobody in the media asked this simple question? Why would India’s leading scientists fall for two very ordinary looking women? If a honey trap was really employed to penetrate the top secret cryogenic programme, wouldn’t the foreign agents arrange some real honeys instead of overly fat femmes?
What really happened?
When investigations lead to a dead end, one has to look for the motives. Who benefits from the failure of the cryogenic programme, which will power India’s heavyweight rocket, the GSLV? Clearly not Pakistan, which is not in a position to compete with India in space. Also, after achieving nuclear parity with India, it does not feel existentially threatened enough to take on India in all areas.
In this backdrop, Narayanan’s allegation that the United States wanted to stunt India’s space programme deserves to be looked into. According to the scientist, his arrest was part of an agenda of the United States accomplished by the CIA conniving with rogue IB agents.
One of them says Narayanan was Rattan Sehgal, who was the IB’s counter intelligence chief and was associated with the ISRO investigation. Sehgal was later caught red-handed by the then IB chief Arun Bhagath. He was accused of having worked for the CIA, which led to his unceremonious exit from the IB in November 1996.
India’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), which finally investigated the case, discovered a really bizarre detail from the case diary of the Kerala Police. The CBI in its report noted that all those working on cryogenic engine development in ISRO – including the Russian scientists who were helping India – had been made accused. Charges were also slapped against Ural Aviation, the airline which brought Russian cryogenic engines and other relevant items to India.
Narayanan says Kerala Police officer Siby Mathews had a definite plan that all persons working for development of cryogenic engine technology should be arrested to demoralise them. That was the reason why he was arrested in November 1994 without conducting any search of his office or residence and also without seizure of any incriminating evidence from him.
The rocket that came in from the cold
The popular narrative is that in 1991 Russia had agreed to transfer cryogenic technology to India but the United States – anxious to prevent India from developing a powerful rocket with possible military applications – intervened and forced their man, President Boris Yeltsin, to backtrack on the deal.
With Russia then firmly in the Western camp, India realised there were limits to cooperation with Moscow as long as Yeltsin was at the helm. However, the two sides did not allow the issue to become a sticking point.
New Delhi-based Institute for Defence Studies & Analysis says the two sides reached a compromise solution, “whereby Russia was to withhold from passing on to India those elements of technology that could be used for dual purposes. But the technology not considered dual purpose was to be transferred”.
However, according to columnist and investigative journalist Madhav Nalapat, although the Bill Clinton administration had sought to scupper the Russian sale of cryogenic engines to India, “Russian scientists friendly to India had secretly handed over blueprints relating to the making of such engines”.
“This soon became known to the CIA, which is believed to have orchestrated the plan to paralyse the program by sending its key scientists to prison,” says Nalapat. “Although the charges were found to be entirely false, that vindication took a decade to come about, and in the process, the Indian programme was slowed down by an equivalent number of years.”
The cryogenic team wasn’t the last to be systematically targeted. Last month the bodies of K.K. Josh and Abhish Shivam were discovered near the railway tracks at Penduruthy near Vishakapatnam Naval Yard. The two were engineers connected with the building of India’s indigenous nuclear-powered submarine, Arihant.
Earlier, in February 2010, M. Iyer, an engineer at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) was found dead in his residence. Iyer was strangled in his sleep. For those not in the loop, BARC is the top secret facility where India’s nuclear warheads are produced.
Nalapat says according to the Government of India, over just a three-year period, there have been at least nine unnatural deaths of scientists and engineers at just BARC as well as the Kaiga nuclear facility in southern India.
In fact, if you go further in the past, the death of the father of the Indian atomic programme, Homi Bhabha, in a plane crash over the Alps is equally mysterious. So is the death of pioneering space scientist Vikram Sarabhai at the age of 52.
High stakes game
The Mars mission is a sideshow – a mere $75 million roll of the dice. Less spectacular but vastly more important is the planned launch of the GSLV in December. The GSLV is the granddaddy of India’s rocket arsenal. Compare this: while the much hyped Mars probe, Mangalyaan, is carrying an instrument package weighing just 15 kg, the GSLV is designed to carry Indian astronauts to the moon in the early 2020s. The heavy lift rocket is also needed to launch the next generation of India’s spy satellites, which ideally should not be launched from foreign shores.
Now check this out. The Mars mission took just 15 months to launch after it was green-lighted. The GSLV project on the other hand has taken over three decades and yet according to Narayanan it has been a stubborn disaster. When you join the dots….the finger of suspicion points only in one direction.
Unlike Iran, which has provided round the clock security to its top nuclear scientists after five of them were murdered (perhaps by Israel) India does not even offer its personnel working on strategic projects even token protection.
With the vast array of brain power at its disposal it is India that’s most likely to deliver the next Sputnik moments. Whether it is Mars, moon or the asteroids, ISRO has planned more spectacular rendezvous for the near future, culminating in a manned moon landing.
On the other hand, reeling under severe budgetary pressures, some of the established powers might not welcome India’s arrival on what they consider has been their turf for over more than half a century. Considering the stakes involved, the least India should do is ramp up protection for its key scientists.
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