Can a retired navy officer be branded a spy and jailed for possessing a PhD thesis? The answer is yes, if he had ruffled some wrong feathers of some eminent people. In the late 1980s, Buddhi Kota Subbarao, a retired captain of the Indian Navy was charged with espionage and jailed for 20 months. It took a long legal battle of five years, before the Bombay High Court acquitted him.
In 1976, the BARC (Bhabha Atomic Research Centre) at Trombay called in Subbrao as second-in-command for a team of Indian Navy officers and scientists. BARC was developing a nuclear submarine propulsion plant since 1971, and it included the naval group in the project. But when Subbarao raised doubts about the technical findings, the team had to drop the design in 1976.
Another design was developed, but it too, was dropped in 1978 after Subbarao pointed that it was not viable for naval application. Scientists at the BARC were naturally irked by such interference and for their next design, they decided to bypass the naval team.
BARC directly submitted the third design to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1980. Not only this, but the scientists also wanted Rs 150 crore to build a prototype of their third design. Mrs Gandhi, however, directed the defence minister R Venkataraman, to seek technical opinion from Subbarao.
Subbarao’s report rejected BARC’s third design, because yet again, he specified that the design failed to meet the safety standards followed by the nuclear navies globally. This led to the cancellation of the project by the PM. The burn for BARC was that Mrs Gandhi challenged it to disprove Subbarao’s claims. Backed by the Indian Navy, Subbarao developed his own design and submitted to the PMO in 1982.
BARC scientists got unhappy when the PM insisted that the atomic centre build a prototype based on Subbarao’s nuclear submarine design. Dr Raja Ramanna, the BARC director declined the possibility, stating a naval officer’s design could not be followed.
Shortly after, Subbarao was retracted from the nuclear submarine project. However, the navy man got into academics and wrote a doctorate thesis. He was awarded a PhD by the IIT Bombay in 1985 for his thesis ‘Nuclear Power Plant Modelling and Design Multivariable Control Approach’.
In 1987, Subbarao took voluntary retirement and readied himself for an academic visit to the USA. Around this time, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, offered the post of technical head of the nuclear submarine project. Subbarao suggested that a Selection Committee be formed for fair play to scrutinise the candidature of BARC scientists for the post as well.
On May 30, 1988 when Subbarao reached the Sahar International Airport to travel to USA for his academic visit, he was detained by the police. He was charged with trying to smuggle secret documents out of the country under the Official Secrets Act and the Atomic Energy Act, although the papers were of his PhD thesis.
The court case dragged on for five years, in which time Subbarao spent his time in studying law. Finally, in October 1991, the Bombay High Court passed Subbarao’s acquittal orders. The order was later supported by the Supreme Court.
Subbrao was given a clean chit, but by then, he already had spent 5 years in the jail, and his reputation was tarnished.