Nambi Narayanan
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This article has been written by Priyamvada Singh, from School of Law, Galgotias University. Here, she makes a case study of SN Narayan v. Siby Mathews, and answers whether reputation is a part of a person’s fundamental right to life.


On 22nd February 2020, R. Madhavan posted the official trailer of his latest film: Rocketry: The Nambi Effect. The trailer was well received by both the audience and the critics, and Madhavan said it was a biographical film about Nambi Narayanan and the famous case of S. Nambi Narayanan vs Siby Mathews & Others etc. (2018).

Who is Nambi?

In this article, we shall try to find out who Nambi is, and why his story deserves the big screen.

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Nambi Narayan

Nambi or S. Nambi Narayan is a Padma Bhushan awardee and an Indian scientist and aerospace engineer. Born on 12th December 1941, Nambi was in charge of the cryogenics division at the Indian Space Research Organisation, where he was a much revered senior official. In 1994, he was charged with the serious crime of espionage. The case against him was dropped two years later in 1996, by the Central Bureau of Investigation, for the want of evidence. Further, the Apex Court let him free with dignity 2 years later, in 1998.

Early life and career

A native of Tamil Nadu, Nambi was an upper-caste Brahmin who studied in Kanyakumari and went to complete his degree in Masters of Technology at the College of Engineering, Thiruvananthapuram. He enrolled himself so he could be hired by Vikram Sarabhai at the Indian Space Research Organisation, of which Sarabhai was the chairman. After getting noticed, Mr. Sarabhai offered him leave for his education at one of the Ivy League colleges in the USA. Consequently, NASA offered Nambi a fellowship, and he also got admission to the prestigious Princeton University. 

Nambi studied chemical rocket propulsion there and created a record by completing his masters in merely 10 months. Needless to say, the administration noticed his intelligence and offered him a job in the United States. However, Nambi’s homeland was calling him back. He refused to take the job and returned to India.

At a time when the ISRO was dependent on solid propellants in rocketry, Nambi returned with knowledge in liquid propellants. He proved to be a great asset to the organization, and in turn to the country.

In the 1970s, APJ Abdul Kalam was working on solid motors, which Nambi joined. He introduced the liquid fuel rocket technology to the Indian rocketry scene. For this, he was provided with an incentive by the then ISRO chairman Satish Dhawan, who saw the spark in his ideas. Eventually, India saw the first successful thrust engine in 1975.

The case


Oct 1994: Two Maldivian nationals arrested in Thiruvananthapuram for allegedly obtaining secret drawings of ISRO rocket engines to sell to Pakistan.

Nov: Nambi Narayanan, director of the cryogenic project at ISRO, arrested along with four others.

Jan 1995: All the scientists are released on bail.

Apr 1996: The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) asserts before the Kerala High Court that the espionage case is false and there was no evidence to support the charges.

May: Court discharges all accused.

May 1998: Supreme Court awards compensation of ₹1 lakh to Mr. Narayanan and others. The brunt of the compensation has to be borne by the Kerala government by vicarious liability.

Apr 1999: Mr. Narayanan approaches the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) claiming compensation from the state for the mental agony and torture suffered by him.

Mar 2001: NHRC awards an interim compensation of ₹10 lakh, asks the state to pay damages; government challenges the order.

Sep 2012: HC directs the state to pay ₹10 lakh to Mr. Narayanan. The state fails to comply.

May 3, 2018: Three-judge bench comprising Chief Justice Dipak Misra, Justices A.M. Khanwilkar and D.Y. Chandrachud say they are considering awarding Mr. Narayanan a compensation of ₹75 lakh and restoring his reputation.

May 8: SC says it is considering asking the Kerala government to re-investigate the role of SIT officers in the case.

May 9: SC says Mr. Narayanan has faced a dent in his reputation due to “malafide prosecution” and Kerala government cannot evade “vicarious liability” to grant him compensation.

Jul 10: SC reserves verdict on the plea; CBI tells SC it is ready for a Supreme Court-monitored probe into the allegations by Narayanan.

Sep 14: SC awards ₹50 lakh compensation to 76-year-old Mr. Narayanan for being subjected to mental cruelty in the ISRO spy case. The government pays him 1.3 crore instead.

Background of the case

Cryogenic fuels are those fuels that require very low temperatures to keep them in a liquid state. 

In 1992, India agreed to pay Russia a hefty sum of Rs. 235 Crores, for transfer of technology on how to produce such cryogenic fuel-based engines. It was further decided that Russia shall provide two such engines in working condition, along with the technology. But the then President of the United States of America, George Bush decided to write to Russia about his objections considering the same. The President of Russia at that time was Boris Yeltsin, and he feared getting blacklisted by the G5 group, so he refused to provide the technology to India. The United States had seemingly won this war of monopoly.

Giving another attempt at the battle, India proposed a plan which stated that no formal transfer of technology would be done, and four cryogenic engines shall be fabricated. The plan was set in motion, however, amidst the spy scandal that was laid around Nambi in 1994, which is explained later, it failed to materialize and bring desired results.

Espionage charges

In 1994,  intelligence officials arrested two Maldivian women, Mariam Rasheeda and Fauzia Hassan, for overstaying their visa in India, and alleged they were spies. Then, through them the officials reached Nambi. However, nothing in Nambi’s house was found out of the ordinary, and the police officers returned empty-handed of evidence.

On the fateful day of 30 November 1994, few policemen came knocking on Nambi’s door- and asked him to follow them to the station. He was confused. They told him to sit at the front of the police jeep. Criminals are dumped at the back, he figured he was not under arrest. He went to the police station and sat at the bench for the better part of the day until he dozed off. He was woken up by a few officials who said he was under arrest for leaking ‘vital rocket information’ to Pakistan. Nambi was dazed.

Within 24 hours Nambi was presented in front of a magistrate. The magistrate asked him to confess to his crimes. After he refused, Nambi was sent to custody for 11 days. In total, Nambi was made to spend 50 days in judicial custody with a hardened serial killer. People joined in front of the station to shout slurs like ‘traitor’, ‘spy’ to him. He was made to go through third-degree torture. Handcuffed to a bed, slapped, beaten- Nambi was even made to stand for 30 hours to force him into confessing to his crimes, and falsely accuse higher officials of helping him through the espionage.

Two years later, in 1998, the charges were dropped when the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) decided to step in. However, Nambi had to leave his job of working at the cryogenics fuel motor and was forced to take up a desk job. The phony case had cost him his career, and the country with significant development in rocket science. Nambi retired in 2001.

In 1999, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) asserted that the government of Kerala had damaged Narayanan’s distinguished career in space research. The NHRC ordered the Kerala government to pay Nambi Rs. One Crore in damages of causing hurt to his reputation. The NHRC claimed that the government of Kerala was vicariously liable for the actions of its police officials. However, the Kerala High Court only agreed for a compensation of Rs. 10 Lakhs. Even after 11 years, a probe revealed that Nambi had not even been paid the 10 Lakh Rupees. Meanwhile, Siby Mathews, the official involved in the false implications was appointed as the Chief Information Commissioner of Kerala.

The Supreme Court while deciding the matter discussed the following points:

Violation of the right to life and liberty

The Constitution of India guarantees each citizen a fundamental Right to Life, under Article 21. This right has been, time and again expanded and broadened to include many elements of a human being’s life. The Apex Court bench, headed by Dipak Misra, expressed deep regret for the kind of treatment Mr. Nambi had to go through, given his eminence and knowledge. The Court went on to assert that the right to reputation is an inseparable part of the right to life, and is protected by the Constitution of India. An integral part of a person’s life is his reputation and self-respect, both of which were severely hampered in the instant case through mental, physical, and emotional torture by the false case thrust on Mr. Nambi without any satisfying evidence. 

Cruelty and torture

Citing the case of DK Basu v. State of West Bengal (1996), the court laid emphasis on the darkness of torture, and the effect it has on the psyche of the victim. It said that “‘Custodial torture’ is a naked violation of human dignity and degradation which destroys, to a very large extent, the individual personality. It is a calculated assault on human dignity and whenever human dignity is wounded, civilisation takes a step backward – flag of humanity must on each such occasion fly half-mast” Furthering on the topic of mental cruelty, the court mentioned the case of Joginder Kumar v. the State of Uttar Pradesh(1994), and asserted the need for balancing crime and human rights and making sure arrests and human rights go hand in hand too. 

Right to reputation

Citing another famous case of Kiran Bedi v. Committee of Inquiry & Anr.(1989), the Apex Court said that “The right to the enjoyment of a private reputation, unassailed by malicious slander is of ancient origin, and is necessary to human society. A good reputation is an element of personal security, and is protected by the Constitution equally with the right to the enjoyment of life, liberty, and property.” 

The Court called attention to the need of human beings to hold a good repute in the society, being the social animals they are. A man takes his reputation to the grave and it stays in the world way beyond after he has ceased to exist. The reputation of a person has been proven to be dear to him since time immemorial. Not just for self, but the person’s reputation also illuminates or casts a shadow over his family.

Thus, the reputation of a person is directly and proportionately related to the quality of his life. The right to life is a fundamental right guaranteed under the constitution, and the reputation of a person is an unmissable facet of the same. The right to the enjoyment of a private reputation, unassailed by malicious slander is of ancient origin and is necessary to human society. A good reputation is an element of personal security, and is protected by the Constitution equally with the right to the enjoyment of life, liberty, and property.

SC’s decision

Finally, in 2018, 24 years after the matter, the Apex Court awarded Nambi damages amounting to Rs. 50 Lakhs. However, this time, the order of payment came with a deadline. Eight weeks were prescribed to the government of Kerala for the full payment of the compensation, or the HC would have to face charges of contempt of court. The bench was headed by the Hon’ble Justice Dipak Misra. However, instead of brushing aside the order this time, the Kerala High Court decided to pay him double the amount in damages. Rs. 1.3 Crores were paid to him in compensation, and a probe committee was formed by the Supreme Court to find out the role of the Kerala Police in the false implication.

In 2019, Nambi was awarded the Padma Bhushan award.


The case is still far from over. Even though Nambi has been paid his damages monetarily, the past 24 years of his life can not be brought back at any cost. The country suffered great damage at the hands of the few police officials who decided to make Nambi fall prey to this conspiracy and put a major setback on India’s rocket mission. On one hand, a man was accosted with his family, career, reputation, and self-respect. On the other hand, the person who caused all this was let go scot-free for the reason of his superannuation. 

It is imperative that arbitrary use of power at the hands of the police be curbed at once. There must be a clear code for them to follow, and the lack of evidence must be taken seriously before subjecting a person to humiliation and torture, physically and socially. A learned man like Nambi certainly did not deserve that. He must be brought to justice, and be made sure that no one else suffers anything inhumane like this again.


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