Police in Kamataka say they recovered the body of nuclear scientist Lokanathan Mahalingam from the Kali River. (Photo: The Mangalorean)
On June 13, India's television channels reported the death of Lokanathan Mahalingam, a not-so-well-known nuclear scientist. Very few viewers indeed recognized his smiling face, sporting a religious mark on the forehead, flashed on the screen fleetingly. What made the event noteworthy was the apparent mystery over his end.
Subsequently, the mainstream Indian media have chosen not to put the Mahalingam affair among their major headlines. Fully ten days after the first story, we have a brief report about the authorities citing a forensic laboratory finding to assert, with an air of finality, that it was a suicide. It had been officially declared and stressed that the scientist was carrying no nuclear secrets or sensitive documents.
Neighboring Pakistan, in predictable and pronounced contrast, is witnessing an attempt to keep the unsolved mystery alive. Interested quarters are trying to use the event to embarrass India. The context has made the tragedy a compelling temptation for some of them.
The report came right in the middle of developments that brought no delight to the camp of nuclear militarism in Pakistan. Questions were being raised, especially by allies in Washington and the Pentagon, about the safety and security of he country's nuclear weapons - its "crown jewels." The questions have become increasingly anxious, acquiring a new shrillness after the reported al-Qaeda threat to nuke the US with weapons captured from Pakistan.
The Indian scientist's death has inspired efforts to deflect such unwelcome international attention onto India. It has provided fresh ammunition to those campaigning against the "double standards" involved in the US-India nuclear deal and demanding a similar US pact with Pakistan. Forty-eight-year-old Mahalingam, the campaigners hope, can serve to take the focus of the counter-proliferation camp away from the famous Abdul Qadeer Khan, who was supposed to have retired after release from house detention in February but has resurfaced recently with a call against any rollback of the country's "patriotic" nuclear-weapon program.
All this, however, does not mean that Mahalingam's death was no mystery. It did raise questions, which deserved clear and cogent official answers but have not received any. The following are a few of the facts related to the case that need to be faced in India.
Mahalingam was working for eight years in the Kaiga atomic power station, located in the South Indian State of Karnataka. 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.
Mahalingam's body was found, presumably five days after his death, in the close-by Kali River which runs through a wooded area. He is said to have gone for a morning stroll and been missing since then. His family says he did not carry money or his cell phone, while security guards on duty are quoted as saying that 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.
Some Pakistani commentators attach particular importance to the fact that, in Kaiga, he was training young scientists and working in the simulator training division of the plant. In a newspaper article, Haleema Saadia of Islamabad's South Asian Strategic Stability Institute (SASSI) says: "A simulator is a precise replica of the control room of a nuclear power plant and the personnel working in that particular area are carefully chosen. The simulator control room mimics the situations and events taking place in the operational control room of a nuclear reactor."
She adds: "Personnel in the control room are highly experienced and have inside knowledge of all the operations taking place in the nuclear reactor. A slight mistake or a small error of judgment on their part can create havoc. These individuals are responsible for the safe operation of the nuclear reactor ..."
Among the many questions asked from Pakistan are: Why was Mahalingam's body cremated before the results of the DNA test, done at the insistence of his family who presumably feared foul play, were released? Why did the authorities rush to rule out murder when he did not even leave a suicide note?
Pakistani skeptics also recall that another Kaiga employee, Ravi Mule, was murdered and his body found outside the township some weeks before. They see these events as analogous to the reported killing of another Indian scientist, Anil Kumar Tiwari, then director of Uttaranchal Space Application Centre, in November 2006.
Analyses of the Mahalingam affair are accompanied by a series of articles by Pakistani experts seeking to extol the country's nuclear safety and security systems. The latest before me, a paper by Rabia Akhtar titled "Pakistan's Nuclear Assets - Safe and Secure," rubbishes alarming scenarios of nuclear theft as "mere Hollywood thrillers" and "unadulterated nonsense." She adds that Pakistan has "institutionalized its command and control structure," and adopted separate storage of "components and fissile material as an additional security measure."
Another Pakistani expert, associated with the country's nuclear-weapon program, however, is against carrying such claims too far. Brigadier (retired) Naeem Salik, formerly of the Strategic Plans Division at the Joint Staff Headquarters and later of Washington's Brookings Institution, considers "basically speculative" such statements as, for example, "warheads are stored in a disassembled state in more than one location," or "no warhead is attached to a delivery system," or "no delivery system is located in the same facility as the warhead parts." He adds such an assessment "conveys a state of operational unpreparedness (on Pakistan's part), which would be a very dangerous situation and seriously erode the credibility of our nuclear deterrence."
What matters to the peace movements in both India and Pakistan, more than any question raised over either Mahalingam or Abdul Qadeer Khan, is the existential threat that the nuclear arsenals and arms race of both the countries pose to the entire region.