The Deadliest Job in Research

You would think that running simulations on computers would run no greater risk than tunnel carpel from poor keyboard design but Indian nuclear scientists risk bombing, poisoning, etc which are classified as natural deaths by Indian police.

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.

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.”

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.”

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