Homi Jhangir Bhabha
The death of Homi Jhangir Bhabha, Indian nuclear physicist, in 1966 is regarded a mystery by many. Dr. Bhabha had died in an air crash after he publicly said India could produce a nuclear device in a short time. The crash had reportedly taken place in the Swiss Alps near Mt. Blanc and no debris was ever found. Homi Bhabha’s death and theories around it surely borders on being just conspiracy theories, but there have been a spate of deaths in India’s nuclear and atomic energy sector which are worrying.
Between 2009 and 2013, at least 10 employees in department of atomic energy (DAE) lost their lives in murders and mysterious fires.[i] When Homi J Bhabha died on Air India Flight 101, which crashed in January 1966 near Mont Blanc in the Swiss Alps, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi called his untimely demise a blow to India. The tragic death of India’s foremost nuclear scientist came at a crucial time for India’s atomic energy programme, which was just taking off. Conspiracy theorists pointed to possible sabotage by the CIA, aimed at obstructing India’s nuclear programme.[ii]
On June 13 2009, India’s television channels reported the death of Lokanathan Mahalingam, a not-so-well-known nuclear scientist. Mahalingam was working for eight years in the Kaiga atomic power station, located in the South Indian State of Karnataka, situated close to Project Seabird, a major military base. The complex has been in operation only since March 2000, under the Nuclear Power Corporation of India. Kaiga has four of the eight nuclear reactors officially acknowledged as strategic and, therefore, placed outside the purview of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards before the conclusion of the “civilian nuclear cooperation agreement” with the US. Kaiga is close to India’s major naval base, INS Kadamba.
On June 8, 2009, L. Mahalingam, a 47-year-old senior scientific officer at the Kaiga Atomic Power Station in Karwar, Karnataka, went on a morning walk and never returned. Five days later, his decomposed body was found in the Kali River. As per reports, although police confirmed it as suicide, his family refused to believe the police’s theory.[iii]
Mahalingam’s body was found in the close-by Kali River which runs through a wooded area. He was said to have gone for a morning stroll and was missing ever since. His family says he did not carry money or his cell phone, while security guards on duty are quoted as saying that they never saw him leaving the campus. Some recall that he had done something similar, though without meeting the same fate, ten years ago. He was then working in the Kalpakkam power station, which has two of India’s strategic nuclear reactors outside the purview of IAEA safeguards. Then, too, he is said to have disappeared one day and returned home after a gap of five days.[iv]
Lokanathan Mahalingam’s mysterious death was largely ignored by the Indian media. However, 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.[v]
Lokanathan Mahalingam had access to some of the country’s most sensitive nuclear information and the government has ordered an inquiry into his disappearance. Colleagues said that Mr Mahalingam, who works in the simulator training division of the nuclear power plant, was an introvert with few friends but no enemies.
A manhunt was underway in the 1000 acres of dense forest of the Western Ghats that surrounds the Kaiga plant. Police played down the threat to classified information, but they did not rule out the possibility that Mr Mahalingam had been kidnapped by a group attempting to sabotage the plant.
With no breakthrough in cracking the mystery over the disappearance of Mahalingam, authorities had sought the assistance of the divers from the Naval base at Karwar, Seabird, to carry out the search operations. Intelligence officials along with CISF and local police had intensified the search operations to locate the scientific officer in the Kaiga generating station of the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL) associated with its training department. Personnel drawn from the CISF, district police and forest department had also intensified their joint operation and were combing the Kaiga forest before the body was found in the river. [vi]
The six-day search for scientist N Mahalingam ended on a tragic note. His body was found by naval divers near the Kaiga dam in the river Kali.
Distraught family members and relatives of nuclear scientist Lokanath Mahalingam were present outside Kaiga Project hospital in Karwar. A six-member team of doctors conducted the post-mortem on Mahalingam’s body, a day after it was fished from the river. The wife of Sri Mahalingam identified the body.[vii]
Thus, this is one of the most complicated and mysterious death cases of India’s nuclear scientists. However, according to reports, police sources said that it is still not clear whether he had accidentally fallen into the river or if it was an act of suicide or a murder.[viii]
Uma Narasimha Rao, aged 63 and a retired scientist of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), committed suicide at her house at Govandi owing to chronic depression. In a suicide note, she said none was to be blamed for her “extreme step.”
Though the police suspect she was suffering from depression, the victim’s colleagues said it did not seem so. [ix] 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.[x]
Another employee of the Nuclear Power Corporation India Ltd, Ravi Mule, went missing and was later declared murdered. His brother made his own efforts to investigate after police failed to make any headway.
On February 23, 2010, M Iyer, an engineer working with the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, was found dead in his residence. Police investigations reached a dead end, with forensic experts declaring, as in all cases of unexplained deaths of scientists and engineers involved with the nuclear programme, that there were no fingerprints or clues that could help the police identify the culprits.[xi]
‘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 hemorrhaging 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.
However, as is usual in such cases, no arrests were made and the investigation ended in a standstill. Forensics experts say that in all such unexplained deaths of scientists and engineers involved in the nuclear programme, 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 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.[xii]
KK Joshi and Abhish Shivam
As the latest in this long list, KK Joshi and Abhish Shivam, engineers on the indigenous nuclear-powered submarine INS Arihant, were found dead on railway tracks in Visakhapatnam in October 2013. Though police maintain they found no suspicious marks on the bodies, reports say the men were not crushed by a train. This resulted in their families alleging that that they could have been killed elsewhere before being placed on the railway tracks to make the deaths look like a suicide. The deaths were later dismissed as a routine death.
Umang Singh and Partha Pratim Bag
Two young researchers, Umang Singh and Partha Pratim Bag, were burnt to death in a mysterious fire in the modular lab of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre’s (BARC) radiation and photochemistry department on December 30th 2009. Reports say that there was nothing inflammable in the lab, which deepened the mystery. To this day, neither Umang’s family nor Partha’s family know the exact cause of the fire.
Mohammad Mustafa, 24, a scientist at the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research, Kalpakkam (IGCAR) was found dead in his quarters at Kalpakkam with his wrists slashed in 2012. According to an IANS report, the police officer who investigated this case had confirmed that though they had recovered a death note written by Mustafa, they didn’t find any reason for a suicide.[xiii]
A 27-year-old Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) scientist allegedly committed suicide at Trombay in suburban Mumbai. Titus Pal was found hanging from the ventilator of her flat on the 14th floor of Niligiri building on the BARC campus. Pal’s father Subrato (57) told cops that his daughter was alright when she left Kolkata and reached Mumbai and resumed work around 10 am on 3 March. She killed herself the same evening. Pal allegedly ended her life three days after she celebrated her birthday with her family at Kolkata. The matter came to light after she didn’t respond to her father’s phone call.[xiv]
A senior scientist with the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics (SINP) in Salt Lake died in a hospital after allegedly consuming mercuric chloride the previous day. Police said Dalia Nayek (35), who worked with the chemistry department as an associate professor, was rushed to hospital by her neighbors who heard her loud cry shortly after she had returned from work. Nayek’s friends reportedly found her flat’s door open and she told them she had just consumed mercuric chloride.
Though the police suspect she was suffering from depression, the victim’s colleagues said it did not seem so. “Dalia was a fun-loving person and an efficient scientist. We did not find any depression in her,” said a colleague. Hailing from Asansol, Nayek had been living in the Meghnad Saha Housing Complex since 2005, when she joined SINP as a chemical scientist. She was single and lived alone. Nayek was lately doing research work on radio-active materials.[xv]
At BARC, five scientists committed suicide:
Avdesh Chandra a scientist at BARC committed suicide by hanging in 2000.
Ashutosh Sharma and Soumik Chowdhary scientists, committed suicide by hanging in 2010.
Akshay P Chavan, an employee, allegedly committed suicide by jumping from the balcony of his flat in April 2010.
Subhash Sonawane, a tradesman of the waste management division, was suspected to have committed suicide in April 2010. According to BARC officials, Sonawane was undergoing treatment for schizophrenia. His body was recovered from a well in Mumbai’s Anushakti Nagar.
A slew of suicides has been witnessed in other DAE centers as well.
In 2008, Jaswant Rao, an assistant mechanical engineer in Indian Rare Earths, was suspected to have taken his life.
A year later, Tirumala Prasad Tenka, a scientist with the Raja Ramanna Centre for Advanced Technology at Indore, hung himself at his residence. In a suicide note he had alleged abuse by seniors.[xvi]
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. Abhish Shivam, 33 was a chief engineer working at INS Arihant, India’s first nuclear-powered submarine. KK Joshi, 34 was chief engine room artificer (CERA) at Shipbuilding Centre, a unit of ministry of Defence at the Eastern Naval Command (ENC).
G K Kumaravel, an Arjun tank developer died in a car crash.
HAL Chief Test Pilot, Squadron Leader (Retd) Baldev Singh was involved with the LCA Programme from 1990 onwards, and was deputed to the Aeronautical Development Agency for this purpose. On the LCA programme he worked extensively on the development and flight testing of the flight control laws of the Light Combat aircraft. He carried out the flight evaluation of these flight control laws at the Real Time simulator at BAE Wharton in the UK followed by the flight evaluation of these control laws on the F-16, Lear Jet and NT-33 aircraft in the US.
Scientists working at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre 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.[xvii]
(Research contributed by Tasneem Sharief)