While there has been substantial international media comment on the unnatural deaths of several scientists working in Iran’s nuclear program, similar attention has not been paid to the (much larger) number of unnatural deaths that have taken place of scientists and engineers working in India’s own nuclear program. The latest casualties were discovered on 7 October, when the bodies of K.K. Josh and Abhish Shivam were discovered near the railway tracks at Penduruthy near Vishakapatnam Naval Yard. The two were engineers connected with the building of India’s indigenous nuclear-powered submarine, Arihant. They had apparently been poisoned and their bodies placed on the tracks to make it seem like an accident. However, they were discovered by a passer-by before a train could pass over the bodies. In any other country, the murder of two engineers connected to a crucial strategic program would have created a media storm. However, the deaths of the two were passed off both by the media as well as by the Ministry of Defence as a routine accident, with only the ordinary police officer tasked with investigations into the cause of death. The inquiries went nowhere.
Scientists working in the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) have been particularly liable to “suicides” and murders, with several being reported during the past five years. In each case, the unnatural death in question gets passed off as either a suicide or an unexplained killing. This far, there has been no report of the police having identified any of the perpetrators of the murders of personnel whose brainpower has been crucial to the success of several key programs. On 23 February 2010, M. Iyer, an engineer at BARC, was found dead in his residence. The killer had used a duplicate key to enter the house and strangle the engineer in his sleep. Interestingly, efforts were made by some of the investigating police officers to pass the death off as a suicide. Finally, the Mumbai police decided to register a case of murder. However, as is usual in such cases, no arrests were made and the investigation ran into a stonewall. Forensics experts say that in all such unexplained deaths of scientists and engineers involved in the nuclear program, fingerprints are absent, as also other telltale clues that would assist the police in identifying the culprit. These indicate a high degree of professionalism behind the murders, such as can be found in top-flight intelligence agencies of the type that have been so successful in killing Iranian scientists and engineers active in that country’s nuclear program.
Unlike Iran, however, which now protects its key personnel, thus far the Government of India has not taken any appreciable steps to protect the lives of those active in core strategic programs relating to the country’s nuclear deterrent.
While it is true that at least one of the unnatural deaths — that of former BARC scientists Uma Rao on 29 April, 2011 — seems to be a case of suicide, the other suicide verdicts are challenged by the families of the deceased engineers and scientists, who say that there was no indication that their loved ones were contemplating such an extreme step. What is surprising is the inattention of the Government of India towards what many believe to be a systematic outside effort to slow down India’s march towards nuclear excellence by killing those involved in the process. Such a modus operandi differs from that followed in the case of the cryogenic engine scandal in 1994, when key scientists working on the program to develop an indigenous cryogenic engine were picked up by the Intelligence Bureau and the Kerala police on false charges of espionage, together with two Maldivian women. The Bill Clinton administration had sought to scupper the Russian sale of such engines to India, but Russian scientists friendly to India had secretly handed over blueprints relating to the making of such engines. This soon became known to the CIA, which is believed to have orchestrated the plan to paralyse the program by sending its key scientists to prison. Although the charges were found to be entirely false, that vindication took a decade to come about, and in the process, the Indian program was slowed down by an equivalent number of years. Thus far, none of the IB or Kerala police officers who acted as the apparent catspaw of a foreign intelligence agency in slapping false charges on key scientists has suffered even a minor punishment, much less be arraigned for treason.
According to the Government of India, over just a three-year period, there have been at least nine unnatural deaths of scientists and engineers at just BARC as well as the Kaiga nuclear facility, of which two have been categorised as suicide, with the rest unexplained in terms of bringing to book those responsible.
~ Madhav Nalapat