Here are three things the Modi government has tried to do with the NIA bill.
"You can’t scare us,” Asaduddin Owaisi, president of All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, said as he read out his objections to the NIA (Amendment) Bill brought by the government to broaden the National Investigation Agency’s (NIA’s) powers, suggesting that the anti-terror agency has been targeting Muslims. Responding to his comment, Home Minister Amit Shah said, “I can’t do anything if you have fear in your mind”.
A verbal duel broke out, and the opposition, including the Congress, its ally, the Left and the Trinamool Congress, sided with Owaisi. The opposition’s main argument: the government is making India a ‘police state’ by empowering the NIA. However, after Shah insisted that the Lok Sabha speaker hold a vote on the legislation to see who supports terrorism and who opposes it, only six members voted against the bill.
So, what has made the bill controversial? What exactly has the Narendra Modi government tried to do with the NIA (Amendment) Bill?
The bill is aimed at bringing three major changes:
One, the bill expands the offences that fall within the NIA’s ambit. In simple terms, NIA can now investigate more types of cases. In the original act, brought by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government in 2008 after the 26/11 Mumbai attack, the anti-terror agency only had the authority to investigate offences under acts like the Atomic Energy Act, 1962, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967, the Weapons of Mass Destruction and their Delivery Systems (Prohibition of Unlawful Activities) Act, 2005, the Anti-Hijacking Act, 1982, among others.
After the amendment, the NIA can also look into offences related to human trafficking, counterfeit currency or bank notes, manufacture or sale of prohibited arms, cyber-terrorism, and offences under the Explosive Substances Act, 1908.
Permission to investigate cases under these acts will be helpful for the agency as these offences are often linked to terrorism. For example, the use of counterfeit notes is a common practice among terror groups. Now that it will be able to look into such cases, the agency can connect the dots and use it as evidence to support its case.
Two, the amendment seeks to expand the jurisdiction of the agency by giving it the muscle to investigate scheduled offences committed outside India “against the Indian citizens or affecting the interest of India”. Of course, the access that NIA will get to investigate offences in any other country will depend on the treaties that India has with the country in question and its domestic laws.
Once the amendment is in place, the agency will be able to register cases of offences committed outside India’s geographical boundaries and investigate them. The legal proceedings related to such cases will take place in a special court in Delhi.
This move will increase the NIA’s ability to investigate cases of terror as, in most cases, terror networks operate across borders. For example, the NIA has made many arrests in Tamil Nadu in the aftermath of the recent bombings in Sri Lanka. With this amendment, the agency, if it wants, can look for clues in Sri Lanka too, provided New Delhi and Colombo have an arrangement for the same.
According to N R Wassan, former acting chief of NIA and director general of the Bureau of Police Research and Development, Afghanistan was willing to help India after a terror attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul in October 2009, but the NIA was “not empowered to register a case, investigate and prosecute”.
“The NIA has been investigating fake-currency cases, it has cross country ramifications and is often linked to terrorism, its inclusion of the scheduled offence helps administratively,” another officer told Hindustan Times.
Three, under the original act, the Centre was allowed to constitute a special court for NIA trials. Now, sessions courts can be designated as special courts.
With the amendment, the Centre and the states will be able to designate sessions courts as special courts for trials in the cases being investigated by the NIA. The designation will be done in consultation with the chief justice of the high court of the respective state. If more than one special court is set up in an area, work will be divided between them by the senior-most judge.
This move, among other things, will significantly improve the speed of trials.