Isro spy case: Arrested, tortured, acquitted

Bengaluru businessman Sudhir Kumar Sharma, arraigned in the sensational ISRO spying case, tells the story of what he and his family went through.

There is nothing in the modest home that tells you of the family’s harrowing experience at the hands of the police, except for a copy of Rajasekharan Nair’s ‘Spies from Space: The Isro Frame-up’ that lies on the table.

But then they don’t really need reminding; Sudhir Kumar Sharma has lived with the burden of a wrongful accusation for two decades—one which turned his entire life upside down.

Sharma was a close friend of Isro scientist K Chandrasekhar, who was then India’s representative to Russian space agency Glavkosmos.

When Chandrasekhar was accused of selling Indian rocket-engine designs to a Maldivian national, Sharma was deemed guilty by association.

Now, battling stage four cancer, Sharma tells his story:

“Chandrashekar was a very good friend of mine. Once when he was coming back from Trivandrum, he found two Maldivian women—Fousiya Hasan and Mariam Rasheeda— facing some problem at the airport with the customs officials. He helped them.

“Since they were coming to Bengaluru, he started talking to them on the flight. That was when Fousiya told him she was trying to sort out a school admission for her daughter. She had been cheated by an agent of Rs 1 lakh earlier; he had run away with the money. They had collected money again and were going a second time. Their plight moved Chandrashekar and he told them he would get me to help them, as I was well-connected and knew a lot of people. When they reached, he called me to his house where I met the two ladies; for the first and the last time. He explained the situation to me and asked me to help them as they were guests in our country. I promised to help.”

School admission

Sharma then called a friend whose wife was the principal of a reputed school in Bengaluru. He sought a seat for the girl without and an exemption from donation. The admission was sorted out the next day.
The grateful Fousiya and Mariam conveyed their gratitude to Chandrashekar and told him they wanted to throw a small party for Sharma as a token of their appreciation.

Chandrashekar conveyed it to Sharma who politely declined, as he didn’t want to trouble them. It should have ended there. It didn’t.

Chandrashekar was arrested some time after that by the Kerala police in the now infamous ISRO spy case. From his diary and from the diaries of the two women, they found Sharma’s name and number.

“They interrogated the ladies who told them they had met me. The authorities kept asking them whether I knew Nambi Narayan and whether I was passing secret documents. The poor ladies were under duress but they said they were not aware of all that. They said I had only helped them with the admission,” says Sharma.

“Soon after, seven or eight men came to my two-bedroom MIG flat in Domlur. They asked me to accompany them to Trivandrum. They said some officers would meet me and I could come back. I was shocked and protested. How was I connected with a case involving the ISRO? I didn’t even know the full form of ISRO at that time. I told them I was a private businessman with factories in Bengaluru and Chennai, with 200 workers under me directly. They refused to listen. Then suddenly IGP Sibi Mathew and Dy IGP Baburaj, who were part of the team, said that they wanted to search the house. When I protested, they produced a court warrant. I had to let them in,” he says.

What followed was mayhem. The officers pulled out jewellery, money, clothes and even undergarments and threw everything on the floor. The search didn’t yield anything. Not content, they then demanded to see his factory.

“My factory was in Peenya. I told them the owners sit in City Market. Only my workers were there and I would lose my name if they went there in police uniform and all. But they insisted. When they reached the factory, Sibi, Baburaj and DSP Joshua were in front. When the workers came to ask what was going on, they started shouting at them. They said, ‘Bloody rascals, get out from here. We are going to arrest your contractor and we won’t leave you either. We know all of you are involved’,” recollects Sharma.


ALSO READ: How Isro case ruined Nambi Narayanan's life


No food, meds

The policemen couldn’t find anything there either. The next day, Siby Matthew and the others called him to the DRDO guest house, where they were staying. They illegally confined him there for two days, without food or medicine for his diabetes. The officers asked him to confess he was colluding with Chandrashekar and plotting against the country, Sharma says.

When he remained firm about his innocence, the officers relented and asked him to go to Kerala and sign some documents. They promised he was free to go as they were convinced he was innocent. The officers left the same day.

Non-stop watch

Sharma knew four or five men were surveilling every move of his and his family since then — wherever they went, whatever the time.

The rattled Sharma then contacted one of his close friends, Lakshman Raju (he died a few months ago) and asked him what to do. He put him in touch with Tomy Sebastian, a lawyer fighting his case since then. Sebastian advised Sharma to go to Kerala in accordance with the law.

In his words: “I was scared but Lakshman and Tomy accompanied me. We were followed by the policemen till the airport and once we reached Trivandrum, another surveillance team began shadowing us. We stayed at Pankaj Hotel near the secretariat. As soon as we reached, I called the police station. An inspector called Yogesh (part of the interrogation team who had come to Bengaluru) picked up and I told him I had come to the city. He asked me to wait for a day as an officer was coming from Delhi. He would be the one to take my statement.

The same night, they called my wife and told her that I was absconding from the hotel. They threatened her and told her she and my children would also be arrested. She was alone at home and panicked. But she told them she had spoken to me just ten minutes before and I was very much at the hotel. Nobody called me that night.

In the morning, five or six uniformed personnel came and took me to the station, after telling Tomy that they would drop me back in an hour. At the station, I sat on a bench all day and night without food and water. Nobody approached me.”


ALSO READ: Isro spy case: SC awards Rs 50 lakh to ex-scientist


At guest house

Next day they arrested Sharma. On the pretext of taking him to the officers, they took him to court and produced him there. From there, they took him into custody. That is when the torture began.

“They took me to a guest house and hit and kicked me, beat me with a cane. They asked me to say I had met Nambi Narayan and Raman Srivastav. I had to tell them where I got the ISRO documents and to which Pakistani agent I had sold them. They said they would help me if I told the truth. But I hadn’t even heard any of these names till then. For 72 hours they didn’t allow me to sit and went on torturing me. But since I hadn’t done anything wrong, I did not bow down. I took the beatings. To this day I can’t walk properly,” an emotional Sharma says.

On December 4, the CBI came into the picture and Sharma and the others were handed over to them. They checked his factories and took statements from his workers and friends. An officer asked him, “Mr Sharma, where are you in the story? Why the hell have you been arrested?”

Hostile owner

After 50 days in jail, Sharma was released on bail. However, the legal battles and the trauma would continue.

“When I came back, the Bengaluru owner asked me to leave the factory since he didn’t want a contractor with such a charge against his name. The factory owner in Chennai stood by me. My wife made numerous trips to Kerala in connection with the case. My older daughters were left in the care of relatives. Our youngest daughter Monisha, only two at that time, would accompany her mother to the hearings and meet me,” says Sharma. To pay for the legal battle, Sharma sold his two cars and bought a second-hand Kinetic Honda, while his wife sold her jewellery.

Trauma at school

His two daughters, 10 and 12 at that time, were studying at a reputed school in Indiranagar. They were tormented by other students and even teachers who called them ‘daughters of a traitor.’ A  teacher once called them and said their father’s fingernails had been removed by the police. The girls came back crying and refused to go back to the school after that.

Army family’s anguish

Monisha Sharma, the youngest daughter of the Sharmas, recounts how the incident shaped their family.

“Sometimes we travelled by taxi from Bengaluru to Kerala. The officials would shift my father from one place to another without informing the family. We would ask the taxi driver to drive to wherever he was lodged. Sometimes the driver would be so exhausted my mother would drive the taxi herself.

It was never something we spoke about. After the incident, my father panicked whenever he saw a police jeep. It was difficult for him to go back to the places and clubs he used to frequent once. People didn’t want to associate with him and would leave the room when they saw him enter. Both my paternal and maternal grandfather were in the defence forces. So something like this was a huge blow to them too. My dad’s father died in 1995, before the Supreme Court verdict which absolved my father of all the charges. So he didn’t get to see his son’s name being cleared. This is a burden that my family has carried since then.We have lived with decades of trauma. We hope the judicial system will right the wrongs against my father and give him what he deserves. Business-wise he took a hit and it took him years to pay off the loans he had borrowed from friends and family.”

 

All innocent

The Isro case broke in 1994. All accused were acquitted in 2018. Chandrasekhar, one of the main accused, died in Bengaluru just hours before the Supreme Court exonerated him of all charges. Sharma, also acquitted, is now 62, battling cancer.


ALSO READ: Former scientist dies before the verdict


Defamation suit

Sharma filed a suit in 1998, after a court said he had been falsely accused, against the government of Kerala and others, including top policemen. He sought damages of Rs 55 lakh. The case hasn’t moved much, he told Metrolife.

 

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Isro spy case: Arrested, tortured, acquitted

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