BENGALURU—Twenty-four years after he was wrongly arrested as one of the six accused in the "ISRO spying" case, and battling terminal cancer, SK Sharma sees hope in the Supreme Court's decision to award Rs 50 lakh to compensate former Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) scientist, Nambi Narayanan, for the mental agony the latter endured in the 1994 espionage case.
"I want that the public should get a clear picture of me, that I am not a spy or anything, I'm a simple man," Sharma said, as he lay propped up on a couch in his modest home. A favourable verdict could also help pay for his treatment, and allow him to repay loans accrued over a quarter century of being falsely labelled a traitor, and anti-national.
In 1994, Sharma was 34-years-old, a prosperous labour contractor employing over 200 people in two different factories. His wife Kiran was 31, and the couple had three young daughters aged between two and 10. His tax records from the time (as quoted in court records) state that he earned over Rs 50 lakh in 1994-95, and the family had friends amongst Bengaluru's wealthy and well-connected — one of whom was ISRO scientist K Chandrasekhar, who was India's representative to Russian space agency Glavkosmos.
That comfortable world would fall apart when Chandrasekhar was arrested on the suspicion of selling Indian rocket-engine designs to a Maldivian national and the police deemed Sharma guilty by association.
Sharma was acquitted by the Supreme Court in 1998, and awarded a token compensation of Rs 1 lakh, but he and his family never recovered from the shock of the arrest, the humiliation of being branded a traitor in the national press, and the collapse of his family business. That year he filed a defamation case against the Kerala government and police—a case that is still being heard in the Kerala High Court.
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Today, as Sharma struggles to pay for palliative care to ease the pain of his cancer, he hopes that the Supreme Court order in Narayanan's case will finally make clear to everyone who treated him with suspicion, and abandoned him as his difficulties mounted, that he is an innocent and honourable man.
The ISRO case is an illustration of how innocent lives are destroyed by a hysteria against supposed "traitors" and "anti-nationals", whipped up by a sensationalist media eager to amplify the false claims of the police.
The Sequence of Events
In October 1994, Mariam Rasheeda of Maldives was arrested for allegedly obtaining secret drawings of ISRO rocket engines to sell to Pakistan. In November that year, Nambi Narayanan, from the cryogenics department of ISRO, was arrested along with ISRO deputy director D Sasikumaran, and also Chandrasekhar, India's Representative to Russian space agency Glavkosmos. Another Maldivian national, Fousiya Hasan, a friend of Rasheeda's, was also arrested.
"Chandrasekhar was my friend from before marriage, his marriage or my marriage, we are friends," Sharma said, adding that Chandrasekhar had introduced him to Hasan.
As Sharma paused to have an Ultracet painkiller and recover his strength, his youngest daughter, Monisha, who is now 26, gave HuffPost India more details.
"Chandrasekhar uncle told my father that there are these two women from Maldives, and one of them is trying to get admission in this school for her child. She was already cheated, by an agent who had promised to help," Monisha said.
"He knew my father knows the principal of the school, so my father said okay, sure, I will introduce you to this person, and he did, and they were given admission, without any donation," she added. "That is how he knew these two women."
On 21 November 1994, Sharma was arrested and, as per his defamation suit's court records, he was illegally detained in the Defence Research and Development Organisation Transit House in Bengaluru, where he was questioned for two days without being allowed to see his family. He alleged that he was mistreated and abused in this period.
He was then told to travel to Trivandrum to make a statement to the police about the case, but when he reached there, no one met him. He had to extend his stay in the city for several days before the police arrested him and took him into custody, instead of taking a statement, according to his court records.
"They did not let me sit for days, kicked and slapped. They gave me the third degree," Sharma said, his voice breaking with emotion."It is something that is difficult to explain."
He was kept in jail for about three months, before being released on bail. The legal battle and the toll on him and his family would continue for the rest of his life.
In April 1996, the CBI filed a report before a Kerala court, saying the case was false. The Court discharged the accused, but a reinvestigation followed, which was challenged by Chandrasekhar. However, the High Court of Kerala dismissed the challenge, which was then finally quashed by the Supreme Court in 1998.
What followed was a decades-long struggle for the accused to restore their names, and to seek compensation for their financial hardships.
Being Accused In The Isro Spying Case Cost The Sharma Family—Financially And Socially
"We lost everything because of the spying case," Sharma said. "Our friends didn't stand by us, because the media was full of headlines calling me a traitor. Only my father, and my chartered accountant, who was a very close friend of the family, were there to help my wife, who had to make trip after trip to Kerala."
Kiran, his wife, sold her wedding ornaments to pay for legal fees, and each time Sharma was presented in court, his family disguised his appearance and covered the registration number of his car. "But there were still people throwing stones," Kiran said.
One of the factories, where he supplied labour, severed ties with him and business owners shunned him.
"We used to have two cars. We used to have a good place in society," Sharma said. "My wife, sold all her ornaments, sold both cars, I took one Kinetic scooter, second-hand, there was some loan of friends, for getting bail and all that, slowly I cleared all of that."
Police Surveillance And Court Visits Took A Toll On Family After Spying Allegations
Both Sharma and Kiran come from military families. Sharma's father was in the army, and his wife's father was from the Air Force. His father and Kiran's mother both died without seeing his name cleared — something that haunts the elderly couple to this day.
"People did not want to have anything to do with us, and my youngest daughter was too small, so I had to take her with me everywhere, which was also difficult," she said.
Monisha was still an infant, but her elder sisters were going to a good school in Indiranagar.
"Most of the children were Malayali. They used to read the news everyday, and they used to torture my daughters saying that 'today we have read in the paper that your father was taken to police custody, and his nails have been removed'," he said. "The girls used to cry and cry, and the moment I came from jail, the first complaint was that they don't want to continue this school."
Monisha Sharma doesn't remember much from that part of her life, except the words "case" and "court". But her mother said that she also had a lot of trouble adjusting to her father not being around.
"She was very fond of chocolates," Sharma said. "But when she was not seeing me at home, she stopped eating chocolates. She said I'll take from papa only. So, poor lady, she packed some chocolates and came to jail."
"And requested the jailer, that my husband, you allow him to meet my daughter, just for five minutes, and please tell him not to wear the jail dress," he continued. Father, mother and daughter had tears in their eyes, as he told the story.
Eventually, the authorities acceded to Sharma's request.
"They called me, and then I saw her and she started crying. My wife told me she is not taking chocolate or eating anything, so better you give it with your hand, then she will take," he said. "I gave her the packet, and gave her one or two chocolates, and she was very happy.
"The moment this happened, the jailer said 'time over, you can go back to your room'."
Rebuilding Their Life After The ISRO Spying Case Ended
With the business in shambles, the family took loans from friends, which took years to repay.
"It was very tough," his wife, Kiran said. "Of course, that thing was always in our mind, we were scared, stressed out, but we had to lead a life with the children. We had to put them for studies, this, that. It was tough, and for last six-seven years, he is suffering from health problems, one after the other."
Three years ago, Sharma was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. Twenty rounds of chemotherapy and 45 rounds of radiation therapy have not beaten back the disease.
"The doctor told me last we can try for one injection, which is about Rs 2.5 lakh, and every 15 days, you have to take one," he said. "This is the latest in the market, they want to try this, but because of money strain, I am unable to start. I don't know what to do. Now factory is also not there."
Despite the problems he faced though, Sharma doesn't hold what happened against Chandrasekhar, the ISRO scientist, who introduced him to Hasan, the Maldivian woman whose child he helped get admission.
"What can you do? He was also treated wrongly. I did not know Nambi before, but he became a very good friend too. I wanted to go meet Chandrasekhar, but I was not physically able to. If I feel better, I want to go meet his wife," he added.
"We raised our children and got them settled. We have done everything with great difficulty instead of lavishly, but we have done it. We also heard that the girl whose admission he did is well-settled now," Kiran Sharma said. "One child's life is made, which is a good thing. But we didn't know we would have to pay such a high price."