An ISRO scientist and imaginary tales of spies and lies

Ready To Fire: How India and I Survived The ISRO Spy Case is the unfortunate account of how a scientist was falsely implicated in an imaginary case of espionage. An extract:

Anil, the police constable who had first warned me of the bugging device in the room, stood there. ‘Tea or coffee, sir?’ he said, and I replied just ‘yes’. I don’t remember what he brought. I sipped the lukewarm drink, unable to taste it. Every bit of my body was paining. The joints were virtually immovable; the ache made me feel each and every muscle in my body.

‘They’ve all left,’ said Anil. ‘Do you want anything?’

I asked for a newspaper. I asked for an English newspaper since I couldn’t read Malayalam. Anil said I would not find anything about the spy case in the English newspapers—it was the forte of the Malayalam papers, this juicy developing story that made every rookie reporter an investigative journalist who unearthed a hidden strategy of espionage or equally important, the favourite positions of the Maldivian women in bed.

Two men came into the room. ‘Get dressed.’

I was in the same old brown shirt and trousers that I wore from home to the Vanchiyoor police station on 30 November 1994. It had been five days. I stood up, unsteady. When Anil came to support me, the men abused him. ‘You think he is your grandpa?’ they shouted. Anil scurried out.

One of the men told me the CBI was coming to interrogate me. Later, I came to know from some of the other accused that the IB men, before handing them over to the CBI, had asked them to repeat the tale they were told. Some of the accused, including the two Maldivian women had given ‘confession statements’ under duress, and the statements were videographed. I had the suspicion— which later proved true—that parts of my interrogation were also videographed, though without my consent or knowledge. I had refused to parrot their lines, and this man wanted to make a last ditch effort.

‘Before the CBI men question you, here is one more chance for you to tell the truth. What was your deal with Mariam Rasheeda?’

By now I was as tired as them of this game. ‘Is it a lie you want to record as a statement? Then record whatever you want and claim I’ve said it,’ I said.

One of them tried to be smart. ‘Mariam said that she knows you.’

‘Can you bring her here and make her say that?’ I challenged.

‘What will you do if she says that in front of you?’

‘I will slap her.’

They said they have in their custody a Pakistani who had corroborated what Sasi had confessed. They wanted a Muslim name from my mouth to be linked to the imaginary spy tale. I looked at the telephone that was, oddly, in the middle of the room. I knew it had a microphone or a recorder. These men were waiting for me to tell the tale the way they wanted. I decided to have some fun.

‘I was approached by one Habibullah in 1982,’ I started, and had the immediate attention of my interrogators. ‘Well, I think it was 1982 … that’s the year you wanted me to say, isn’t it?’

They were furious. The recording was being interrupted by the clarification. Every time I built up a tempo, I broke it seeking a clarification about a date. Or I just asked, ‘Is that what you wanted me to say?’ The officer who I understood to be from R&AW had joined the team midway through the tamasha, and whenever I played the trick he smirked, as if he was getting convinced of my innocence. I am yet to ask him if he knew the truth then.

At this point, someone dashed into the room and said: ‘Get ready, we have to move.’

Move where? I wondered. Pathankot? Kashmir? Are they going to finish me off?

The Panama smoker told the man who came with the message that he needed fifteen more minutes. ‘We are almost through. Please give us a little more time.’

He then turned to me and said with a sense of great urgency, ‘Behave and tell us the plot without breaking in the middle. If you do that, we will release you immediately. Or else you will be taken to hell for further investigation.’

My head was spinning, but I tried my best not to show any emotion. Any hell would be better than this, I told myself. The IB officer was yelling at me to talk. I realised that he was loyal to his masters, whoever that was. He wanted his concocted tale recorded in my voice to be presented to his bosses. I was not going to yield as I knew he did not have much time left to deal with me

Something told me that the IB’s role in this case was getting over, and that I would be handed over to, as one of the interrogators had said, the CBI. In about twenty minutes after his first entry, the messenger came running in again, shouting, ‘You know these fellows, they are here. They’ve already called thrice. If we do not move now, we have to face the consequences.’

‘Ok, let us move,’ said the IB man. Then, turning to me, he added, ‘Mr Nambi, please remember that you should tell your new interrogators more or less the same things we asked you to say. If you don’t, you are going to feel really bad about it.’

(Published from Ready To Fire: How India and I Survived The ISRO Spy Case by S Nambi Narayanan and Arun Ram with permission from Bloomsbury Publishing India)

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