Famed rocket engine designer Nambi Narayanan

Tapan Misra

Poor is the nation that has no heroes, but poorer still is the nation that, having heroes, fails to remember and honour them – Marcus Tullius Cicero, Roman Republican senator of 1st century BC, statesman, philosopher, author. He was beheaded on the orders of Mark Anthony.

The country redeemed herself of guilt, to some extent, quarter of century after destruction of the bright career of famed rocket engine designer, Shri S Nambi Narayanan. He was falsely accused of betraying our country in the infamous ISRO spy scandal of 1994. He was awarded Padmabhushan very recently, he was given paltry compensation by Judiciary and now a biopic, “Rocketry : The Nambi Effect” on his ordeals and triumphs, is going to be released shortly, may be by second week of May.

A scientist, who lost all the reputations he assiduously built over three decades, in a few days, because of false accusation of passing on sensitive information to forign spies. I am sure, it was the handiwork of foreign agents, in cahoots with certain elements of state and central administration and police and undoubtedly aided by some of his close acquaintances. He fought a prolonged battle to uphold his innocence in public eyes, to get himself exonerated.

I remember, in early nineties, I used to visit VSSC quite often. I have seen the public anger at the ISRO spy scandal, given prominence with salacious reporting on the first pages of vernacular and national dailies at that time, month after month. In 1994, once my office car barely missed stone pelting by irate crowds on my way from Thiruvananthapuram airport to VSSC. People were angry at the ISROites, assuming all of them to be traitors.

Nambi Narayanan was involved in developing the Vikas engine, still the workhorse liquid engine of PSLV and GSLV. Vikas engine is based on the technology acquired from France under the ISRO-SEP agreement. Vikas project was established in 1974 with Dr AEM as Vikas Project Director. After the technology was acquired in 1980 Liquid Propulsion Projects LPP was established in VSSC with Dr AEM as Director LPP to develop liquid propulsion stages for ISRO launch vehicles. Nambinarayanan was a member of Vikas project and LPP.

When he was dragged into the spy scandal, he was also part of the team engaged in the development of cryo engine. When my experience matured about inner workings of ISRO, in the fag end of my career, I understood Nambi Narayanan’s contribution to indigenising critical space technologies. He became target of foreign agents and their cohorts hiding in our midst. After all, the best way to weaken a scientific organisation is to eliminate scientists, with proven track record of building new things in the country itself

Along with another ISRO scientist D Sasikumar, he was sent to police custody, subjected to inhuman torture to extract confession. I am sure, senior police officers would have enrolled themselves in the stratagem. The worst part was the indifference of his colleagues and bosses to his predicament. From my experience I know, when you badly need the support of your colleagues and bosses, including the top man, they will be the first to desert you, leaving you to fend for yourself. Instead of helping, they have perfected the art of ostracising you by whisper campaign and punishing those souls who dare come to your support. Unfortunately, in organisations like ours, we have concentrated on brains without bothering about whether it is supported by erect spines or not. Our approach has led to leadership deficiency when we need them the most.

I shudder at the thought of the infamy and calumny, the two ISRO scientists and their families were subjected to, at being branded as traitor. It is difficult to maintain sanity to fight for yourself under these circumstances.

Worst part of his situation was being drawn into vortex of circulation war, between two leading vernacular dailies and tug of war in internecine fight of ruling dispensation.

Further, the very long fight, he would have fought through legal labyrinth, would have been astonishingly inhuman, specially for someone with meagre pension to boast of and advancing age. The politicians and rulers would have been busy to protect the perpetrators of the crime, in order to save their own skins. In our country, you will find that the system does not stand beside the wronged but stand solidly behind the perpetrators. You start cursing yourself, why you at all stayed back from moving to greener pastures and green cards, just after you passed out starry eyed from colleges. However, even in the midst of all around hostility, you can spot a few helping souls here and there. They reinstill your belief in humanity.

I always have a great respect for Shri Nambinarayanan Sir. Not just because he was patriotic, not just because he made path breaking contributions to ISRO, but because he never lost his equanimity even in the face of tremendous ordeals he was forced into. He and his other ISRO colleague D Sasikumar, both of whom were roped in and were made accused in the espionage case, fought it, fought it determinedly against all odds, they fought the lonely battle with dignity.


Tapan Misra is a distinguished scientist. He has been Director Space Application Centre and Advisor in the Department of Space. He has many pioneering achievements to his credit and his contribution to India’s Space Programme and ISRO is second to none.


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