Indian nuclear scientists haven't had an easy time of it over the past decade. Not only has the scientific community been plagued by "suicides," unexplained deaths, and sabotage, but those incidents have gone mostly underreported in the country—diluting public interest and leaving the cases quickly cast off by police.
Last month, two high-ranking engineers—KK Josh and Abhish Shivam—on India's first nuclear-powered submarine were found on railway tracks by workers. They were pulled from the line before a train could crush them, but were already dead. No marks were found on the bodies, so it was clear they hadn't been hit by a moving train, and reports allege they were poisoned elsewhere before being placed on the tracks to make the deaths look either accidental or like a suicide. The media and the Ministry of Defence, however, described the incident as a routine accident and didn't investigate any further.
This is the latest in a long list of suspicious deaths. When nuclear scientist Lokanathan Mahalingam's body turned up in June of 2009, it was palmed off as a suicide and largely ignored by the Indian media. However, Pakistani outlets, perhaps unsurprisingly, given relations between the two countries, kept the story going, noting how quick authorities were to label the death a suicide considering no note was left.
Five years earlier, in the same forest where Mahalingham's body was eventually discovered, an armed group with sophisticated weaponry allegedly tried to abduct an official from India's Nuclear Power Corporation (NPC). He, however, managed to escape. Another NPC employee, Ravi Mule, had been murdered weeks before, with police failing to "make any headway" into his case and effectively leaving his family to investigate the crime. A couple of years later, in April of 2011, when the body of former scientist Uma Rao was found, investigators ruled the death as suicide, but family members contested the verdict, saying there had been no signs that Rao was suicidal.
Trombay, the site of India's first atomic reactor. (Photo via)
This seems to be a recurring theme with deaths in the community. Madhav Nalapat, one of the few journalists in India giving the cases any real attention, has been in close contact with the families of the recently deceased scientists left on the train tracks. "There was absolutely no kind of depression or any family problems that would lead to suicide," he told me over the phone.
If the deaths of those in the community aren't classed as suicide, they're generally labeled as "unexplained." A good example is the case of M Iyer, who was found with internal haemorrhaging to his skull—possibly the result of a "kinky experiment," according to a police officer. 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.
This label is essentially admission of defeat on the police force's part. Once the "unexplained" rubber stamp has been approved, government bodies don't tend to task the authorities with investigating further. This may be a necessity due to the stark lack of evidence available at the scene of the deaths—a feature that some suggest could indicate the work of professional killers—but if this is the case, why not bring in better trained detectives to investigate the cases? A spate of deaths in the nuclear scientific community would create a media storm and highly publicised police investigation in other countries, so why not India?
This inertia has led to great public dissatisfaction with the Indian police. "[The police] say it's an unsolved murder, that's all. Why doesn't it go higher? Perhaps to a specialist investigations unit?" Madhav asked. "These people were working on the submarine program, creating a reactor, and have either 'committed suicide' or been murdered. It's astonishing that this hasn't been seen as suspicious."
Perhaps, I suggested, this series of deaths is just the latest chapter in a long campaign aiming to derail India's nuclear and technological capabilities. Madhav agreed, "There is a clear pattern of this type of activity going on," he said.
The explosions that sunk INS Sindhurakshak – a submarine docked in Mumbai – in August of this year could have been deliberate, according to unnamed intelligence sources. And some have alleged that the CIA was behind the sabotage of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).
Of course, the deaths have caused fear and tension among those currently working on India's various nuclear projects. "[Whistleblowers] are getting scared of being involved in the nuclear industry in India," Madhav relayed to me. Their "families are getting very nervous about this" and "many of them leave for foreign countries and get other jobs."
There are parallels here with the numerous attacks on the Iranian nuclear scientist community. Five people associated with the country's nuclear programme have been targeted in the same way: men on motorcycles sticking magnetic bombs on to their cars and detonating them as they drive off. However, the Iranian government are incredibly vocal in condemning these acts—blaming the US and Israel—and at least give the appearance that they are actively investigating.
The same cannot be said for the Indian government. "India is not making any noise about the whole thing," Madhav explained. "People have just accepted the police version, [which describes these incidents] as normal kinds of death."
If the deaths do, in fact, turn out to be premeditated murders, deciding who's responsible is pure speculation at this point. Two authors have alleged that the US have dabbled in sabotaging the country's technological efforts in the past; China is in a constant soft-power battle with India; and the volatile relationship with Pakistan makes the country a prime suspect. "It could be any of them," Madhav said.
But 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 programes, whether for energy or security, have "absolutely no protection at all. Nothing, zero," Madhav told me. "Which is amazing for people who are in a such a sensitive program."