On Monday November 22, the Supreme Court issued notice in connection with an alleged case of espionage against former Gujarat Director General of Police (DGP) RB Sreekumar. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) had moved court against the grant of Anticipatory Bail to Sreekumar. The notice is returnable by November 29, 2021, when Sreekumar is expected to respond.
Brief background of the case
In 1994, allegations emerged in the media of transfer of certain confidential documents pertaining to India’s space programme to foreign countries by two scientists and four others, including two Maldivian women. Nambi Narayanan, who was the director of the cryogenic project at the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) at the time, was arrested along with the then ISRO Deputy Director D Sasikumaran by the Kerala Police.
Narayanan, who was eventually given a clean chit by the CBI, had alleged that the Kerala police had “fabricated” the case and falsely accused him. Narayanan reportedly accused Sreekumar of torturing him and falsifying records to implicate him. The CBI had named him in its FIR and charged Sreekumar, along with several other officials.
Sreekumar was booked under sections 120B (punishment for criminal conspiracy), 167 (Public servant framing an incorrect document with intent to cause injury), 218 (Public servant framing incorrect record or writing with intent to save person from punishment or property from forfeiture), 330 (Voluntarily causing hurt to extort confession), 323 (Punishment for voluntarily causing hurt), 348 (Wrongful confinement to extort confession), 477A (falsification of accounts) and 506 (punishment for criminal intimidation) of the Indian Penal Code.
Courts offer Sreekumar protection
Following this, the Gujarat High Court, on two occasions (July 20 and July 28, 2021), ordered the CBI to not arrest the 75-year-old former Director General of Police till July 29, 2021, until he had obtained anticipatory bail from the Kerala court.
Then on July 29, 2021, Justice K. Haripal of the Kerala High Court granted interim protection to former Gujarat DGP R B Sreekumar from arrest. Justice Haripal ordered that Sreekumar shall not be arrested till August 2, when the matter was posted for hearing before Justice Ashok Menon. He also tagged his plea with two other anticipatory bail applications pertaining to the same case.
At that time, Additional Solicitor General (ASG) S.V. Raju, appearing for the CBI, argued before the Kerala High Court that CBI strongly believed that Pakistan was involved in the case and that it was done to derail ISRO’s programme to develop a cryogenic engine. Therefore, bail should not be granted to Sreekumar and his co-accused. However, Sreekumar’s counsel argued that he wasn’t even present during Nambi Narayanan’s interrogation, and that Narayanan had already become an accused in the espionage case before Sreekumar became privy to the matter. The lawyer further apprised the court that the investigation was handled by a special investigation team and that Sreekumar was not part of the SIT and only assisted them on the request of the Kerala Police.
On August 13, the Kerala High Court granted anticipatory bail to all accused persons/petitioners in the case. These include – RB Sreekumar, two former Kerala Police officers S. Vijayan and Thampi S. Durga, and a retired IB official PS Jayaprakash.
The Kerala High Court, through its August 13 order, has ruled that there is not even a “scintilla of evidence regarding the petitioners being influenced by any foreign power so as to induce them to hatch a conspiracy to falsely implicate the Scientists of the ISRO with the intention to stall the activities of the ISRO with regard to the development of Cryogenic Engine.”
Justice Ashok Menon observed that unless there are specific materials regarding their involvement, prima facie, it cannot be said that they were acting against the interest of the country. He said that the concerns of the Kerala Police at that stage cannot be said to be without any basis, but ultimately it was found that “there is nothing in the accusation made against the offices and the investigation was dropped. The accused in the present crime should not be made to face a similar situation of being forced to undergo the ignominy of being incarcerated in the prison for interrogation at this old age after their retirement for an incident that took place a quarter of a century ago.”
The Bench further noted that there was no indication or material, apart from the rhetoric that a foreign power has a hand in persuading the petitioners. Therefore, it was ruled that the petitioners were entitled to the remedy of anticipatory bail. Justice Menon also said that the investigation was triggered by the apprehension of the Maldivian ladies who were overstaying their Visa.
The court also noted that during the investigation, the officers in the lower rank (such as some of the petitioners) found certain suspicious circumstances, as a result of which, they registered the crime and reported the matter to the higher authorities. Therefore, the Court accepted that the concerns of the petitioners/Kerala Police at that stage cannot be said to be “without any basis.”
The CBI then moved Supreme Court against the grant of this bail.
RB Sreekumar: A decorated officer and whistle-blower
At the time of the incident at ISRO, Sreekumar was posted as the Deputy Director of the Intelligence Bureau (IB) in Thiruvananthapuram, and then promoted as Inspector General of Police (IGP) in the IB, and remained in the post till July 2000 before being repatriated to the Gujarat cadre. In 1999, he was even awarded the President’s medal for meritorious service.
It is noteworthy that R.B Sreekumar, a 1971 batch IPS officer remains one of the key whistle-blowers who exposed the high-level State complicity behind the Gujarat carnage of 2002. At that time, he was Additional Director General of Police. He had filed affidavits before the Nanavati Commission investigating the Gujarat carnage and also made a presentation before JM Lyngdoh, who was the Chief Election Commissioner at that time.