The Nambi Conspiracy – How Politicians and Vested Interests denied India its Cryogenic Engine

| Balaji Subramanian
“I would like to emphasize that security can be endangered not only from outside but also from within. That is why we must be second to none in the application of advanced technologies to the real problems of man and the society” - Dr Vikram Sarabhai 

These ominous words of the father of the Indian space program Vikram Sarabhai came true on 30th Nov 1994. It was on this day Indian space ambition suffered one of its massive setbacks when Nambi Narayanan, the top scientist in the field of cryogenic engine technology which would have enabled India to launch heavier satellites into orbit, was falsely implicated. The sad irony was Narayanan and his team were very close to perfecting the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) that could hoist payloads to the geosynchronous transfer orbit.

Recently, there has been a spate of films made in India based on real-life events as the nation is now tired of movies that lack substance. The film on Dr Nambi Narayanan hits the theaters at a time when many false charges made against individuals seem to have fallen by the wayside. However, it remains to be seen if this film ‘Rocketry: The Nambi Effect’ starring R Madhavan as Dr Nambi Narayanan will end up being another creative overreach. This author back in April 2020, had written an article on India’s space program and how some foreign powers with the support of their Indian pawns/sellout managed to sabotage our progress. This was done to ensure we were never to become independent in rocket technology and always remain dependent.

To ensure that India continues to remain dependent, India’s top rocket Scientist of India Nambi Narayan who was working in ISRO was falsely implicated on the charges of espionage and was arrested by the Intelligence Bureau and Kerala Police for selling important drawings and documents related to the cryogenic engine to Pakistan nuclear scientist Mohammad Aslam via two Maldivian women. After his arrest, Narayanan along with fellow scientist D Sasi Kumaran, who was serving as the Deputy Director of the cryogenic technology division of the ISRO with the responsibility of technology transfer from Russia was interrogated by now disgraced Kerala IB Director RB Srikumar and Director General of Kerala Police Sibi Mathews. 

What transpired after their arrest was a nightmare as both these scientists were physically tortured by intelligence agencies. On the outside, the media was calling him anti-national and his effigies were burned. Overnight this scientist who had dedicated his life to space research became the most hated person in India.

Men like Nambi Narayanan are one of the rare breeds who believe in nation-building having been inspired by the likes of Vikram Sarabhai, Homi Baba, and Dr Satish Dhawan who helped India become a nuclear power.

The torture was so intense that even when he pleaded that how can someone make a cryogenic engine just by drawings, it fell on deaf ears. Both the scientists were kept in jail without bail for 50 days during which time they were physically and mentally tortured and the police did everything to rob them of their dignity and rights. The police beat him mercilessly and Nambi was forced to stand for days without any food. If that was not enough he was deprived of sleep and was further humiliated by being kept naked. To elucidate his confession, the police put chili powder into his anus.

Later the police arrested two Maldivian women who were forced to confess the crime that Nambi sold drawings of the engine to Pakistan. Ironically, Pakistan which created its own space agency the Pakistan Space & Upper Atmosphere Research Commission a few years before ISRO was formed has never managed to put even one Satellite in orbit by its own rocket. Most Indians who are academically gifted make a beeline for the West and maybe one cannot blame them for doing that since they received better opportunities there. However, men like Nambi Narayanan are one of the rare breeds who believe in nation-building having been inspired by the likes of Vikram Sarabhai, Homi Baba, and Dr Satish Dhawan who helped India become a nuclear power.

Nambi Narayanan could have been one of the stars of NASA, but he chose Ma Bharati. After completing his master’s from Princeton University in chemical rocket propulsion he returned to India with expertise in liquid propulsion when India was still using solid propellants. The fact is that Narayanan introduced the liquid fuel rocket technology in India as early as the 1970s. There is a theory that the whole ISRO spy episode was due to political infighting between two Congress politicians. Then there is also the hand of the United States, which had just won the cold war against the Soviet Union in the 1990s.

When the Soviet Union disintegrated, India was negotiating a deal to purchase its cryogenic engines. In 1992, India signed an agreement with Russia for the transfer of technology to develop cryogenic fuel-based engines. However, US President George H. W. Bush put pressure on Russia against the transfer of technology and threatened to blacklist an economically weak Russia. Consequently, its leader Boris Yeltsin relented to the pressure and denied the transfer of technology to India.

Nambi Narayanan wanted India to be 'Atmanirbhar' when it came to rocket technology and the history of Indian space exploration would have been a lot different if not for politicians orchestrating a conspiracy that took India decades behind in this race and an important technology got delayed and our progress was denied. 

The reality was that the US wanted to sell India the same cryogenic engine for a much higher amount with a rider that there will be no transfer of technology. This implied that India will always be dependent on the US. It cannot be ruled out that the US did everything in its power to deny and delay India’s quest for a cryogenic rocket engine. Many people may not know that Namabi Narayanan was forced to name APJ Abdul Kalam to create a perfect link with Pakistan but he never named anyone. Brian Harvey, in his book “Russia in Space: A Failed Frontier” writes: “India objected strongly to the American actions, pointing out that high-powered hydrogen-fuelled upper stages which took a long time to prepare were of little military value”.

Nambi Narayanan wanted to carry forward the dream of Vikram Sarabhai who said, “Our space program was built in measure and not due to the glamour associated with space activities. We do not have the fantasy of competing with the economically advanced nations in the exploration of the Moon or the planets or manned space flight. But we are convinced that if we are to play a meaningful role nationally, and in the community of nations, we must be second to none in the application of advanced technologies to the real problems of man and society, which we find in our country.”

Nambi Narayanan wanted India to be ‘Atmanirbhar’ when it came to rocket technology and the history of Indian space exploration would have been a lot different if not for politicians orchestrating a conspiracy that took India decades behind in this race and an important technology got delayed and our progress was denied.

Greek Philosopher Plutarch said, “It is part of a good man to do great and noble deeds, though he risks everything”. Nambi Narayanan spent every living moment for the betterment of his country but was betrayed by those who took thirty pieces of silver.

(The author is a freelance writer and has published articles on defence and strategic affairs. He tweets @LaxmanShriram78. Views expressed are author’s own)

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2 Comments

  • RAVI GOPALAN

    Stringent similar punishment should have been instituted against policemen who tortured great scientist mere compensation and award is only an eye wash. police officers should receive similar torture then only they will realize the pain of common man

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