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Mainstream, VOL LX No 35 New Delhi, August 20, 2022

How disastrous yellow journalism is | Sukumaran C.V.

Friday 19 August 2022, by Sukumaran C.V.


From the very beginning of the ISRO spy case in October 1994, I considered it as rubbish. But when I read recently Nambi Narayanan’s autobiography Ready to Fire: How India and I Survived the ISRO Spy Case which details the trajectory of both the space experiments of India and the scientist’s traumatic experience of being arrested, terming him as spy, and tortured by the Kerala Police and the IB officials, who knew nothing about rocketry, I was aghast to see the stupidity and criminality of the Kerala Police, the lack of basic minimum inteligence in the so called IB (Intelligence Bureau) officials and their dirty ways of torturing the accused, and the depth of yellow journalism of the Malayalam newspapers.

"When a majority of Malayalam newspapers eagerly bought half-baked police stories and cooked up their own," incriminating a brilliant scientist and two innocent Maldivian women, the newspapers were helping to bury truth and spreading falsehood as news. The Maldivian woman Mariam Rasheeda was arrested under the Foreigners Act by Mr. Vijayan, a Special Branch Inspector of the Kerala Police, on October 24, 1994 only because she snubbed his sexual advances. "Mariam, in an interview to Savy Magazine, said Vijayan made sexual advances to her when she went to inform him about the need for an extended stay in Trivandrum. She snubbed him. This was probably the reason, she alleged, that he has fixed her." (Ready to Fire: How India and I Survived the ISRO Spy Case, Chapter 29—The Real Conspiracy).

"Thaniniram, a paper known for its yellow journalism, had broken the story of Mariam’s arrest and followed up it with stories linking her to ISRO." Fauziya Hassan, another Maldivian woman was also arrested and the Kerala Police and the IB fabricated a spy ring involving Nambi Narayanan, the ISRO scientist who was associated with developing the liquid propulsion/cryogenic engine for PSLV (Polar Satellite Launching Vehicle) and who has never even seen the Maldivian women.

Nambi Narayanan was arrested on November 30, 1994. He says: "It was 3 December 1994. By now I had been standing for more than thirty hours, without food or water. Just when I thought that the last of the devils had gone, a bald man walked in. ...Something told me that this man was not from IB, and could probably be from R&AW, the external intelligence agency. He turned to one of the IB men who had accompanied him, and said something in Hindi which I deciphered thus: ’You are playing with fire.’"

"After thirty hours of standing sleepless, I collapsed. Someone took me to the bed where I lay unconscious, but they thought I had passed out. The rest was all a mental haze, names floating in a stream of incoherent voices in and out of my bruised mind. That’s when I first heard the name Sreekumar, who later identified as that of a deputy director of the Kerala unit of IB."

"I am not sure how much time elapsed before I opened my eyes to see just one person in the room...I could make out that he was a doctor....He inspected me and found my legs swollen, the skin at the knees bruised and virtually bleeding. I was bleeding. This was not from the beating—that was all on the head, neck and torso—but because of thirty hours of standing."(Chapter 5—Thirty Hours).

The crux of the spy case was that Nambi Narayanan sold drawings of India’s cryogenic engine to Pakistan. And that is quite absurd because nobody can make a rocket out of the drawings and India didn’t have a cryogenic engine at the time. See how third rate and unintelligent the IB is, through Nambi Narayanan words: "The IB men asked how many times I had been to Pakistan. I said I have travelled to virtually every country, but not Pakistan...Further questions exposed their pre-determined plot to link me to Pakistan.

’Who is your best friend?’


’No, no. We want the name of a Muslim friend.’

I started seeing the plot.

’APJ Abdul Kalam.’

The first blow from one of the men standing behind me caught me off guard. I struggled to keep my balance, and braced for more torture....
’When did you first meet Mohammed Aslam of Pakistan?’

Now, what was this, I wondered.

’Who is Mohammed Aslam?’

’Don’t act. We know you are good at acting.’

’Honestly, I don’t know any Aslam.’

’Mohammed Aslam is a well-known nuclear scientist from Pakistan. He came to India and struck a deal with you for rocket technology in 1985. Now accept it.’
I shook my head.

’I don’t know any Mohammed Aslam. But I want to know why Pakistan would send a nuclear scientist to get rocket technology. What’s the connection here? If India wants to espionage on Pakistan, would it send APJ Abdul Kalam or U R Rao? Wouldn’t it be safer to send an unknown person? Does your story make sense to yourself?’
It was now getting to me that these intelligence bureau men with visibly low intelligence had woven a story on an imaginary case of spying, but it was riddled with holes. They were seeking information to add muscle to that weak skeleton, with basic information about our working style and contacts. They wanted names, incidents and connections between them. They were constantly amending their story of fiction, and, in fact, I was inadvertently helping them to make these changes to make their version a slightly less absurd one. I decided to stop clarifying and educating these morons, and stick to bare answers."

According to the "ignorant, scheming IB sleuths," Nambi Narayanan "had worked in tandem to smuggle out rocket drawings from ISRO to hand it over to Pakistan through the Maldivian women" and the Malayalam newspapers cooked up dirty stories connecting the "spy" women and the innocent Nambi Narayanan. The Malayalam newspaper that was in the forefront to cook up spy "activities" that "threatened national security" was the CPIM mouthpiece Desabhimani.

The Oommen Chandy-led Antony faction of the Congress used the fictitious spy case to topple the UDF government of K Karunakaran. The faction, with A K Antony’s Man Friday Oommen Chandy in the vanguard, "constituted a crack team that kept feeding Malayalam journalists’ imaginary tales of the spy case."

And the interesting factor is that they, including the CPIM and its mouthpiece Deshabhimani were helping the American spy agency CIA’s clandestine efforts to thwart India’s barging "into the commercial satellite launch market with high competent prices (as less as half an American launch) if it acquired cryogenic technology."

Nambi Narayanan was instrumental in striking a deal with the USSR to transfer cryogenic engines and technology to India in January 1991. He says in the 24th chapter under the subtitle ’Cryogenic and the Chilling Effect’: "We signed the Russian deal on 18 January 1991. Under this, Glavkosmos was to give us four KVD-1 engines and transfer the technology. For this Russian engineers were to work with us for the transfer of ’know-why’ besides giving us drawings, mock-up models, instruments and materials to build the engine...Four engines from the stockpile were peanuts for the Russians, though now they were in a severe financial crisis because of the plunging rouble. We were amazed to realise that Glavkosmos had made and stocked some 252 KVD-1 engines. Here was India, gasping at the idea of developing a cryogenic engine, and there was Russia, the pioneering space super power, in whose warehouses scores of cryogenic rocket engines were gathering dust."

But the USSR ceased to exist in December 1991. And " turned out that a weakened Russia was struggling to withstand pressure from the U.S. to cancel the cryogenic contract with India" and "the U.S. had brought the Russia-India cryogenic engine pact under the Missile Technology Control Regime. This was ridiculous as cryogenic engines were not used for making missiles. Moreover, the U.S. itself had agreed to supply us cryogenic engines; when India rejected the costly deal with General Dynamics Corporation and decided to sign the deal with the Russian Glavkosmos, transfer of cryogenic engine and technology became a threat to world peace!"

"American spies were all over Russia, trying to sniff out everything related to the India-Russia deal" and even if the U.S. succeeded to undermine the technology transfer, with the help of the Russian technocrat Dunayev, Nambi Narayanan brought the cryogenic consignments. "[M]uch to the chagrin of the U.S.," the Russian Ural Airlines brought the voluminous documents and hardware to India.

"Of the four scheduled consignments from Moscow, three had landed in Trivandrum between 23 January and 17 July 1994. The last one was to come in December 1994. However, before that the ISRO spy case was fabricated."

Nambi Narayanan points to the IB joint director Retan Sehgal who was sacked for having nine unauthorised and clandestine meetings with Timothy Long, the CIA station chief in Delhi and his deputy Susan Brown, between 19 September and 31 October 1996. He says that "the ISRO spy case started a few months after Sehgal joined the IB from the Ministry of External Affairs and ended around the same time he was chucked out of the IB."

The greatest irony in the ISRO spy case is that it is the CPIM mouthpiece Desabhimani, which finds faults with the American imperialism and CIA, the U.S. spy agency, for whatever wrongs happen under the sun, played the game of the same imperialism beautifully by continuously publishing utter nonsense and rubbish as spy news incriminating innocent people including two Maldivian women and helped ruin the career of a brilliant scientist and thwart, as the U.S. imperialism wished, India’s entry into commercial satellite launching!! The conspiracy was hatched by "some foreign hands to delay, if not prevent, India from entering the commercial satellite launch market." It means that the intention of the ISRO spy case was to thwart the space aspirations of India. And the Malayalam newspapers which bayed for the blood of a scientist who was hard working to make India a space power were shouting full throat in the belief that they were "exposing" espionage in favour of the national interest!!! Actually there were neither spies nor espionage. All those nasty things were the imagination of the yellow journalists "in a land of total literacy where Malayalam papers are the self appointed evangelists of information and intellectualism."

The malevolent acts of the Kerala Police and the IB to force the Maldivian woman Mariam Rasheeda to say Nambi Narayanan had passed on drawings of rockets to her for money are terribly atrocious. In the chapter (22) titled "Mariam Speaks to Me", Nambi Narayanan says: "At the end of our judicial custody we were taken to a court for extension of remand. This was done twice during my twenty-six day stay in Viyyur prison....It was during one such outing that Mariam Rasheeda spoke to me for the first time....

’I am sorry.’ Those were her first words.

Not interested in a conversation, I kept silent. She continued, in broken English, that she was innocent and knew that I was too.

’So why are you sorry?’ I said.

’They beat me, threatened me. And I had to say bad things about you.’
She was referring to her confession statement before officials of the Kerala Police and the IB. They tried several threats and finally she gave in when they said they would harm her daughter. The interrogators tutored her to say that I had passed on drawings of rockets to her for money, and this was video recorded.

Mariam said when they showed her my photograph she could not recognise me.
’They told me your name and asked me to utter it, but I couldn’t get it right. They made me try many times, but your name was still a tongue-twister for me. So one of them wrote your name on a paper, in big letters and held it above the video camera. I was asked to read out from the paper.....’

Under the subtitle "Torture" in the 27th Chapter titled "CBI Tears into Kerala Police, IB", it is said: ’Further, Ammini Kutty Amma, SI, who was on security duty of accused Rasheeda has stated that Rasheeda was not allowed to sleep during interrogation, which continued round the clock for about a week and she (Rasheeda) was kept standing. This SI had also stated that Rasheeda was threatened by IB officers that she would be stripped naked and made to lie on ice blocks and insects would be thrown on her body....Inspector Vijayan who started it all with the arrest of Mariam Rasheeda, himself admitted to the CBI that ’at the insistence of IB officers’ he threatened Mariam that ’she would be stripped naked by the interrogators and crabs would be put on her body while she would be made to lie naked on ice.’"

As Nambi Narayanan says, "...virtually every Malayalam newspaper was competing with each other churning out ’exclusive’ stories of spies, sex and rocketry—a deadly combination that would make any B-grade movie a super hit. Most of the Malayalam newspaper stories exposed the reporters’ total ignorance of technical matters....But when it came to Mariam Rasheeda, they all claimed to know everything from her anatomy to her bedroom behaviours. ...By and large the English newspapers and magazines refused to be carried away by the vernacular sensationalism." (Ready to Fire: How India and I Survived the ISRO Spy Case, Chapter 18—Media Trial)
The ISRO spy case reveals how evil and disastrous yellow journalism is.

PS: The former DGP of Gujarat, R B Sreekumar, is now accused of framing innocent persons in the communal riots that took place in Gujarat in 2002. Whether he did so or not should be proved in court, but that was exactly what he has done against the scientist Nambi Narayanan as the deputy director of the Kerala unit of the IB. And the reason that might have "motivated" him to crucify the innocent scientist doesn’t help us to see him as a person of uprightness. The reason is given below in the words of the scientist:

“Another interesting coincidence is that R B Sreekumar, Deputy Director, IB, Kerala unit, happened to be the CISF commandant in charge of security of ISRO’s VSSC (Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre) campus in Trivandrum many years earlier....There was no scope for much interaction between me and Sreekumar. VSSC was to recruit some mechanical engineers, and I was in the selection committee when one day Sreekumar walked into my room. He had a request to favourably consider the candidature of a woman. Going by selection guidelines, those who come with recommendations should be removed from the candidate list and should not be considered for the interview.

I did not follow this guideline since that may deny the job to a deserving candidate just because someone had come with a recommendation for him/her, sometimes without his/her knowledge. During such recruitment phases it was common to receive calls from ministers’ offices and such high places with recommendations. My practice was to listen to the requests, ignore them and select the candidates on merit. And that is how I treated Sreekumar’s request. Being the commandant of CISF, our prime sentinel, I listened to him courteously and told him that if the candidate is good she will make it. When the selection list was out, Sreekumar came to me again.

’You should’ve told me that you couldn’t get her the job,’ he said. Only then had I realised that the woman for whom he had recommended had not made to the selection list. I explained to Sreekumar that as a matter of policy we just hear people out, but don’t act on recommendations.

....He raised his voice. I raised mine. In normal circumstances, I should have reported to the CISF commandant about a "trespasser" in my room. Now, the trespasser was the CISF commandant. Even as I stood wondering who to call, Sreekumar walked to the door, but turned to me and issued this threat, ’You will pay for this.’
‘Get out,’ I shouted.

During my interrogation, Sreekumar would have enjoyed his petty revenge, but I am not sure if he knew the bigger conspiracy some of his masters were privy to." (Chapter 29—The Real Conspiracy)

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