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S. Nambi Narayanan vs. Siby Mathews

INTRODUCTION

On a large scale, the media is equivalent to social influence. The media is society’s watchdog; it is its responsibility to become the voice of the unheard and underdogs. In our society, the judiciary also serves as a watchdog with the backhand of the Constitution. Thus, the media and the judiciary play complementary roles, with the same task and goal. Media trials jeopardize a fair trial, which, as a citizen, is everybody’s right. The media has time and again violated the principles of a fair trial by showing a distorted version of reality. Thereby, the fundamental principle of criminal trials: innocent until proven guilty, cannot be achieved in its true sense. One such media trial is the case of Nambi Narayanan. Nambi Narayanan, a renowned scientist who later receives one of the country’s highest honours, the Padma Bhushan, spends 25 years fighting allegations of spying and espionage. The film “Rocketry: The Nambi Effect” is a biopic of Nambi that depicts his unfortunate reality and struggles. Attempts have been made, through the medium of film, to restore the image that was once tainted in the public eye due to the use of the same broadcasting media.

FACTS

The story begins in October 1994, when a Maldivian woman named Mariam Rasheeda was arrested in Thiruvananthapuram on suspicion of overstaying her visa. Another Maldivian named Fousiya Hasan was also detained in connection with the former. They were later discovered to have ISRO rocket engine drawings. It was determined that the drawings were obtained illegally with the assistance of insiders. This is when the alleged scandal began to take shape. Names of ISRO scientists and other businessmen came up. Nambi Narayanan, a famous scientist and the then-director of ISRO’s cryogenic project, along with four other scientists and businessmen was arrested on the suspicion that the drawings were procured by them. He was detained by police for more than 50 days. But because there was insufficient evidence to prove his guilt, in January 1995, they were released on bail. It all started with a 3-centimetre-long news piece published in a vernacular paper, which was then carried on by a news agency called Mangalam, and it set the scene by creating a buzz around a non-existent story. As the story gained popularity, other news outlets such as Malayala Manorama and Mathrubhumi covered it. In April 1996, the CBI intervened and filed a report before the Kerala High Court, alleging that Nambi Narayanan had been falsely accused of espionage and that there was no evidence to back up the false accusations. The CBI’s report was upheld by the Kerala High Court, which dismissed all charges. Following the Supreme Court and NHRC orders, Nambi became eligible to file a claim against the Kerala state government for the damages, mental agony, and torture he withstood. The lawsuit was filed against individuals who were accused of giving substance to the conspiracy.

LEGAL ISSUES

  • Whether or not the Kerala government’s decision to forego disciplinary action against the erring police officer (SIT) correct? (Contention put forward by the petitioner)
  • Whether the High Court’s decision upholding the Kerala government order is correct or not?
  • Is the appellant entitled to compensation for the catastrophic effect on his ISRO service as a scientist and the devastation caused to his entire family’s peace?

OBSERVATIONS OF THE SUPREME COURT

“The Reputation of An Individual is An Insegregable Facet of His Right to Life with Dignity,”

The Supreme Court cited the above in lieu of Nambi Narayanan’s defamation claim. Chief Justice Dipak Mishra, Justice A M Khanwilkar, and Justice D Y Chandrachud were among the judges hearing the appeal. The CBI report exonerated the accused of all blame and determined that no information was passed to a third party, proving that the allegations were without merit. The Supreme Court formed a committee to investigate the officials involved in the phoney espionage case and, if found guilty, to prosecute them. The essence of fundamental rights, including the right to liberty and dignity enshrined in the constitution, were grossly violated. The court took into consideration the appellant’s physical, social, and psychological distress. It demanded that the police adhere strictly to the procedure and not infringe on the offender’s constitutional and fundamental rights of any person.[1] Using the precedent set in the case of Subramanian Swamy vs. Union of India, the Hon’ble Supreme Court reiterated that “the right to reputation is a constituent of a fundamental right under Article 21 of the Constitution.” It is a fundamental right of every individual.”[2]

The court applied the precedent set in DK Basu vs. State of West Bengal to the issue of torture in prison. The court emphasised the mental agony that a person experiences within the four walls of a police station or a lock-up in this case. Concerns were raised in this case because no complaint was filed regarding the custodial violence that occurred with Nambi. The court rules, however, that “whether it is physical assault or rape in police custody, the extent of trauma experienced by a person is beyond the purview of the law.[3] In its observations of the instant case, the court went on to state “We can direct compensation to be paid by persons involved in the investigation…We will require compensation from their properties…Let them sell their houses and pay. We are not concerned. We will clarify in our judgement order that his reputation was dented…by this judgement, his reputation is reinstated.”[4]

DECISION

In 2012, the High Court ordered the Kerala State Government to pay Mr Narayanan ten lakh rupees. Later that year, the Kerala Government ordered that the disciplinary action against the erring police officer be dropped (SIT). The respondents filed a writ petition in the High Court against Nambi Narayanan. The High Court upheld the Kerala government’s order to refrain from taking any disciplinary action against the erring SIT police officer, despite the CBI clearing the scientists of all blame. An Apex Court bench consisting of Dipak Mishra (then Chief Justice) and A.K. Khanwilkar heard the case. The Hon’ble Chief Justice Dipak Mishra delivered the decision at the time. The decision of the High Court was overturned by the Supreme Court. With the CBI report and other corroborating evidence in hand, the court ruled unequivocally that

  • Appropriate compensation must be awarded to compensate for the suffering, anxiety, and treatment that eroded the essence of life and liberty under Article 21[5] of the Constitution.
  • The court ordered the State of Kerala to pay Rs. 50 lakhs in compensation to the appellant under the authority granted by Section 357[6] of the CrPC. The state is required to pay the specified amount within eight weeks. The court quickly clarified that the appellant may proceed with the civil suit and seek additional compensation if so advised.[7]

RECENT DEVELOPMENTS

In 2018, when the judgement was given by the Hon’ble Supreme Court, it constituted a committee under the supervision of the former Supreme Court Judge, Justice DK Jain, to look into the conspirators of the case, including Siby Mathews, and to hold them accountable for their actions. The committee that led the investigation under the case titled, CBI vs. Siby Mathews[8], submitted its report in April 2021. Following an extensive investigation, the names of the other accused have emerged: former Gujarat DGP RB Sreekumar and PS Jayaprakash, both IB officials in 1994; and two former Kerala Police Officers, S. Vijayan and Thampi S. Durga for their roles in the conspiracy to implicate, arrest, and torture ISRO scientist Nambi Narayanan. The Kerala High Court had jurisdiction over the case. Following that, the Kerala High Court granted former police officers S. Vijayan and Thampi S. Durga interim anticipatory bail.    

CONCLUSION

The agonising journey that began in 1994 finally ended in 2018. After nearly two decades of fighting, the former scientist was finally vindicated. The media had left no stone unturned in ruining his image by bringing to life a fictitious and fabricated story, leaving him with nonbearing dignity. According to Paul Zacharia, a writer and veteran journalist who worked on the case, “it was impossible to work in the media at that time and not realise that this was a fraudulent case and that other news organisation could hardly claim ignorance of the facts as an excuse for their reportage.” The media, in essence, was the criminal here. The former ISRO scientist’s autobiography, “In the Orbit of Memories,” describes the scientific quest and Nambi’s early efforts in developing India’s first indigenous cryogenic engine, his life before the phoney espionage case, and his legal battle from Fight to Fairness. Nambi is still fighting, so the battle is far from over. It’s a rare sight to see someone falsely accused get justice in India, but Nambi’s persistence helped him clear his name. Hence, the saying goes right:

“Justice was delayed but delivered and determined.”

Author(s) Name: Jalak Jain (Faculty of Law, GLS University)

References:

[1] Nambi Narayanan vs. Siby Mathews [2018] CA [6637-6638 of 2018]

[2] Subramanain Swamy vs. Union of India [2014]

[3] Shri D.K. Basu, Ashok Johri vs State of Bengal, State of U.P [1996]

[4] Nambi Narayanan vs. Siby Mathews [2018] CA [6637-6638 of 2018]

[5] Constitution of India, 1950, art 21

[6] Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, s 357

[7] Nambi Narayanan vs. Siby Mathews [2018] CA [6637-6638 of 2018]

[8] CBI vs. Siby Mathews, SLP(crl) 4097/20222