Mystery deaths of nuke scientists

Behind the high walls of secrecy surrounding the Indian nuclear establishment lies discomforting and unexplained trails of an unusually large number of scientists dying. Whatever little that has filtered through layers of confidentiality on the number of scientists dying prematurely is more than enough to raise eyebrows and questions the functioning of the least talked about institution of India.

Years of efforts by a few individuals, who have even knocked on the doors of the judiciary to get to the bottom of what some see as a crises, have yielded little result. In fact, it has the makings of a potboiler -– individuals, who only have a whiff of the mystery deaths, trying to ferret out the truth. And perhaps, in the process, also putting themselves in danger.

Public Interest Litigation

Ashwin Mehta, a Mumbai-based lawyer, is one such individual who has been following up on the deaths of a large number Indian nuclear scientists over the last few years through a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) based on RTI replies received by activist Chetan Kothari in 2010. Yet, there is not much headway. While the police have closed some or most cases, there has been no closure of even one case of suspicious death.

Kothari got replies from a number of atomic organisations including Heavy Water Plant, Department of Atomic Energy, the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics and other bodies. On the basis of the replies, the petitioner averred that the nuclear scientific community has been plagued by suicides, unexplained deaths and sabotage but those incidents have gone mostly underreported in the country. The unusually high number of casualties cannot even fall in the realm of occupational hazard.

The glimpse of the problem was reflected in the government's answer to a question in Parliament last year – April 5 – on the unnatural and mysterious deaths of scientists. The government told Parliament – the question had been raised in the Lok Sabha – that two scientists committed suicide at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre between January 2012 and December 2016 and in both the cases personal reasons were cited as the cause of these unnatural deaths.

But giving further details, the government said that in the last 20 years, 71 suicides took place in BARC. It means that around four scientists on an average commit suicide in BARC in a year. Between 2008 and 2013, two scientists were also murdered.

However, it was apparent from the question that concerns about the deaths were spreading even though the government was not willing to acknowledge this in public. The question was: “Whether 197 nuclear scientists of 32 centres have died allegedly under mysterious conditions between the years 1995 and 2015 and if so, the details thereof, year-wise and the reasons therefore.”

The question showed there was a mismatch between what was being suggested about the number of mysterious deaths and what was available with the government in its records.

The government argued that these figures are much lower than the national average and also stated that the police investigation or the conviction reports in these cases was not available with the Department of Atomic Energy. The national average of suicide in India between 1987 and 2007 was 7.9 to 10.3 per 100,000. A comparison between suicides by scientists with the national average does not reflect the true picture. Some could describe the efforts to draw a parallel between the two as puerile.

Asked about the steps taken to protect scientists, the government said security awareness programmes are carried out in nuclear installations and residential townships and sensitive cases are probed with the help of police and intelligence  bureau.

Deaths at BARC

But in his petition, Mehta has singled out BARC where most of the unnatural deaths have taken place. “In each case, the unnatural death in question gets passed off as either a suicide or an unexplained killing,” said the petition adding that, “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 program.”

Demanding a Special Investigation Team  (SIT) to probe these cases, the petitioner highlighted several deaths that are begging answers.

The list is long. The petition mentioned two engineers – KK Joshi and Abhish Shivam – working on the nuclear submarine project whose bodies were found on the railway tracks by workers. They had not been hit by a train.

There is another sensational death, that of Lokanathan Mahalingam. He disappeared after going for a morning walk and his body was later recovered.

“The fact that no secret and sensitive documents were reported to be found near his body led the case to being treated lightly, and no serious investigations was conducted. But Mahalingam was a veteran scientist who had decades of experience behind him, and it seems highly improbable that he would be someone to commit suicide because he was unable to handle stress and work pressure,” said the petition.

The petition goes on to claim that families of many dead engineers and scientists have challenged the suicide theories.

Talking about the absence of urgency in dealing with these cases, the petition said that, “Surprisingly, it is the Pakistani establishment and its think tanks that seem more worried about what is happening to our scientists. Pakistan online forums are abuzz with discussions on what may be going wrong here in India.” The petitioner said that the previous government was not taking the matter seriously.

The petition also raises questions about the way these cases are being investigated by the police and the tendency to the urgency in declaring these deaths as “unexplained”. A case in point is death of BARC engineer M. Padmanabhan Iyer who died in 2010, said the petition.

Iyer was found with internal haemorrhaging to his skull and a police officer said the death was the result of a “kinky experiment”.

“After a preliminary look-in, the police couldn’t work out how Iyer had suffered internal injuries while not displaying any cuts or bruises and investigations fizzled out,” said the petition that also quoted forensic experts claiming that in the cases involving deaths of scientists and engineers, fingerprints are absent.

“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 programme.”

“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,” the petition said.

The government has been challenging these facts. It has maintained that radiation in nuclear plants is below permissible levels and adequate healthcare is provided to the employees. It claimed that the claims by the petitioners are exaggerated. But the court sought more details from the government to substantiate its claims.

These cases need to be probed  as India’s nuclear programme has  withstood scrutiny. India has maintained that its nuclear safety record is impeccable, a fact that has been acknowledged internationally.  The country has a vast network with Nuclear Power Corporation Limited running 21 nuclear power reactors with a total installed capacity of 5780 MWe.

Conspiracy theory

The Indian nuclear establishment is not new to the conspiracy theories about the death of its scientists. The father of India’s nuclear programme, Homi Jehangir Bhabha, died in an air crash near Mont Blanc on January 24, 1966 while on his way to Vienna for a conference. There were many conspiracy theories surrounding his death including the one that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was behind the crash to sabotage the Indian nuclear programme. There were reports of recovery of important documents about the nuclear programme at the crash site as late as 2012.  The last word on this has not been heard yet. When a Swiss climber discovered the remains of a mysterious air crash in Mont Blanc recently, the conspiracy theories were revived. Daniel Roche, the climber, who has the curious hobby of investigating aircraft crash sites, claimed that he came across the remains of the Air India crash either from 1966 or from 1950.

The government might claim that the suicide rate among nuclear scientists is below the national average but the high number continues to be a cause of concern.

The petition further notes, “The most pressing issue isn’t who might be behind the murders, but that the Indian government’s apathy is potentially putting their high-value staff at even greater risk. Currently, these scientists, who are crucial to the development of India's nuclear programmes, whether for energy or security, have absolutely no protection at all, which is quite amusing for people who are in such a sensitive programme.”

“The Government of India is certainly not taking this matter seriously, and that is both saddening and deeply disturbing from a national security perspective. As the new government is in place, it is important that this neglected issue is directed by this honourable court to be looked into very seriously by the Respondents and remedial steps must be taken forthwith,” the petition adds.

Targeting nuclear scientists is a well-known phenomenon in the international intelligence circuit. Iran was hit by a spate of killings of its scientists as attempts were made to sabotage its nuclear programme. Iran claimed that between 2010 and 2012, it lost four scientists to what it termed as a programme of assassinations allegedly masterminded by Israeli intelligence agency Mossad. Iran took a stern measure and sentenced to death a person suspected to have given the information about the scientists to Mossad operatives.

There is a case in India for launching an investigation into the deaths that have taken place over the last several years. There are reasons for India's adversaries to sabotage the nuclear programme which has a strong civil and military component.

Columnist: 
Gautam Datt