Whether they are nuclear scientists or involved in shipbuilding, at least 13 have died untimely deaths. It cannot be a coincidence, reports Kanhaiya Bhelari
Loknath Mahalingam

Loknath Mahalingam

It has now been three years since KK Josh and Abhish Shivam, two dynamic scientists met a mysterious death on 6 October 2013. Both hailed from Kerala. While Josh belonged to Kozhikode district, Shivam was from Ernakulum.

Josh was chief engine room artificer at the defence ministry’s shipbuilding centre at the Eastern Naval Command, Visakhapatnam. Shivam was chief engineer with INS Arihant, the country’s first nuclear-powered submarine in the same city. Both were in their thirties. Their bodies, reportedly with no external injuries, were recovered from the railway tracks in suspicious conditions.

Relatives of the deceased as well as the members of the Kerala Kala Samiti (KKS) are still demanding a high-level investigation into the deaths. But the Vizag police does not pay any heed. KV Vijay Kumar, president of KKS, Visakhapatnam, tells Tehelka over phone, “The police hurriedly dispatched family members of the two dead scientists to their respective villages after closing the case, with a file notation to the effect that it was an accidental incident.”

Reporters working for local dailies feel the police conclusion is unsubstantiated. One of them, on condition of anonymity, says, “There were no visible injuries on the bodies to show that the scientists had fallen under a passing train.” His finding is that the two had been attacked elsewhere and their bodies thrown near the tracks in order to hoodwink the investigating agency.Tehelka’s attempts to get information from Vizag’s police commissioner on the case proved futile.

These are not the only incidents of mysterious deaths of scientists. Since 2009, at least a dozen other scientists engaged in important, strategic fields have lost their lives in suspicious circumstances. In fact, the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) admits in response to the petition of Haryana-based RTI activist-cum-lawyer Rahul Sehrawat, admitted a year back that 11 nuclear scientists have met unnatural deaths.

To begin with, 47-year-old L Mahalingum, working as a senior scientist at Kaiga Atomic Power Station in Karwar, Karnataka, went for his usual morning walk on 8 June 2009 but never returned. Days later, the police recovered his highly decomposed body from the Kali river and had to conduct a DNA test to confirm his identity. The police insisted it was a case of suicide. However, they have not been able to close the case because the deceased’s younger brother has been regularly been calling the Karwar police station for the last seven years to know whether the police have found any fresh evidence. He suspects that his elder brother was murdered under a sinister design aimed at the nuclear programme of the country.

The police of Uttara Kannada, however, reject the suspicion. The police findings state that Mahalingam was suffering from severe heart disease and was upset due to a domestic quarrel. “On the day he killed himself, he left his wrist watch and mobile phone at home”, the finding points out.

Two young researchers of Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) — Partha Pritam Bag and Umang Singh — lost their lives in a mysterious fire that broke out in its modular lab on 30 December (which year?) Sources said that there was nothing inflammable in the lab and only the two researchers out of 10 of the chemistry group were present at that fateful time. “The fire finished everything in the lab. The two would have been saved had the fire extinguishers reached on time”, says a source attached with the BARC.

Uday Narayan Singh, Umang’s father, who lives in Mumbai, says, “Even today I do not know real reason for the death of my son, though the BARC men told me he died in the fire,” he says. Adding, “The doctors took my blood sample for DNA test to identify the body.” At that time, Singh had demanded a CBI probe . “Even today I am not convinced with the theory of the BARC officials and finding of the police that death of my son was accidental. He was killed.”

Umang and Partha

Umang and Partha

Partha Pritam Bag’s parents too hold a grudge that not a single BARC official came to their native village Narayanpur in Bengal’s South 24 Parganas district. Partha’s father Deo Prasad Bag says, “I was informed in the evening of 30 December by the BARC director that my 26-year-old son was charred to death. The official asked me to come to Mumbai to collect the body, which was beyond recognition.”
As a consequence, the bereaved parents and their relatives have resolved not to let their kids become scientists. “I urge the government to ensure tight protection to scientists so that they do not fall prey to unseen forces, like my son did,” he says.

Then there is the case of 48-year-old mechanical engineer at BARC, Mahadevan Padmanabhan Iyer, who was killed on 22 February 2010 at his staff quarters in Anand Bhavan, south Mumbai. Initially, the cause of death was presumed to be heart attack or suicide. But a postmortem confirmed that he was hit on the head with a blunt weapon, causing instant death. Till today, the killer has not been apprehended.

Another young scientist, Tirumala Prasad Tenka, aged 30, of the Raja Ramanna Centre for Advanced Technology (RRCAT),at Indore, Madhya Pradesh, was found hanging on 10 April 2010. Though the police concluded the case with a finding of suicide, the family members of the deceased are not convinced. Speaking to the local media, the deceased’s parents have requested the local administration to conduct a high-level enquiry into the death and bring the truth before the people.

Another nuclear scientist, Mohammad Mustafa, 24, was found dead with his wrists slashed at his quarters at Kalpakkam, Tamil Nadu, on 23 April 2012. A native of Kozhikode district, Mustafa had joined BARC in mid-2013. His close friends say that he seemed to be enjoying life, playing cricket during off-duty hours, and inviting them for lunch or dinner on holidays. “We are still in shock to hear from the police that he committed suicide”, says one of them.

Titus Pal, an unmarried 27-year-old female scientist, was alleged to have committed suicide on 4 March 2010 at the residential staff quarters where she has been living since she joined BARC in 2005. She had a cheerful personality and two days before her death rejoined duty after meeting her parents in Kolkata. Her wedding was to take place a few weeks later. She was in radio metallurgy but two week ago before her ‘unnatural’ death had been transferred to the radiochemistry department.

Another woman scientist named Uma Rao who worked in the BARC for 28 years, also allegedly committed suicide on 29 April 2011. She had been a biochemist in the food technology division of BARC where she was involved in research on irradiated foods and the carcinogenicity of environmental chemicals in mice, before moving to the public awareness division.

At 63, she was president of the Indian Women Scientists’ Association. She was reported to have been found unconscious by her maid in her tenth floor home in Mumbai suburb Govandi. Then assistant police commissioner Jalinider Khandagale informed the press that her son Anurag had called a doctor, who declared her dead.

She took voluntary retirement from BARC in 2006. As the president of the Indian Women Scientists’ Association, Rao used to coordinate science workshops and lectures for school students and teachers. “Only a few days back she had organised a workshop for the students. “We are really surprised to hear about her suicide. She was a very good friend, and worked with enthusiasm. We smell a rat behind her death,” says a member of the association.

He recalled that a few days ago she had written in the association’s newsletter that she would like to organise a science camp for girl students from SAARC countries, along with participants drawn from all states of India.

Replying to Tehelka’s query sent on 9 September, a DAE official said, “Many of the deaths are in the nature of suicide by the scientists on personal reasons, road accident or murder.” The reply further clarifies, “ All these cases of unnatural deaths have been investigated by the police and no case was categorised as mysterious. These suicides have nothing to do with their official activities or their sphere of research work. The DAE has an inbuilt and adequate security set-up in place for security of scientists at workplace and its residential townships”

Uma Rao

Uma Rao

The matter is not so easily buried, as the spate of ‘unnatural’ deaths of scientists has a long history, and stretches back to include the father of India’s nuclear programme, Homi J Bhabha. His mysterious death in a plane crash is still a matter of conjecture, but successive central governments have not thought fit to constitute a proper investigating team or engage an agency to trace the real causes behind his death.

“The politicians in power and out of power are unconcerned because episodes of scientists’ deaths would not be a vote catcher issue for them,” comments Vijay Kumar Gupta, a mechanical engineer working in a government department.

Of course, it is possible that researchers working at different BARC units faced harassment by senior scientists, but this too deserves investigation. In February 2015, a group of junior scientists of BARC, Mumbai, had sent a written complaint to Prime Minister Narendra Modi citing evidence of harassment and victimisation by their supervisors. One of the letter writers tells Tehelka, “I am still being subjected to management pressure and retaliation by seniors.” The complaint runs into 100 pages, comprising separate letters by individual scientists.

The Union government is not taking the issue of scientists’ death seriously, which is both saddening and deeply disturbing from the national security perspective. RTI activist Rahul Sehrawat filed several petitions asking what is being done to ensure the safety of scientists, apart from asking if the government is considering probing the ‘unnatural’ deaths of the scientists. “Till today, the PMO, has not replied,” he says.

The history of unnatural deaths dates back to 1966, when the father of India’s nuclear programme Homi J Bhabha died in an plane crash

Several other citizens who are worried about the nation’s security have written letters to different people who matter, holding important posts and positions across the country, demanding to constitute a SIT for the investigation into ‘unnatural’ deaths of scientists working on nuclear programmes and provide them proper security. One of the citizens is Gaurav Bhardwaj, who runs the website change.org.

While there is no special, serious attention towards the mysterious deaths of scientists on the part of the concerned department as well as successive governments, a clear case of breach of nuclear safety was discovered when some workers in the Kaiga Atomic Power Station found unusually high levels of radiation in their urine. The source of the radiation was said to be a water cooler used by the workers. The water was laced with triturated heavy water. Being a highly protected strategic material, tritium is accessible to very few authorised personnel. They have to pass through a controlled access system manned by the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF).

When news of the incident leaked, authorities in the nuclear establishment started saying that the tritium contamination was negligible and that the incident was minor. Then minister of state for science and technology Prithviraj Chavan also told the media that contaminating the water could only have been an insider job. Officials in Kaiga, too, say that some disgruntled employee may have contaminated the drinking water. In fact, all of them have been lying on the issue to hide the truth. A source reveals that there was no possibility under any circumstances of an employee being involved in the tritium contamination.

The incident took place six years ago. But shockingly, even today the plant authorities do not have clues about how the strategic material was available to mix with drinking water. No employee has been identified. http://www.tehelka.com/2016/10/why-are-our-scientists-dying-mysteriously/