Bill for more teeth to NIA gets LS nod amid protests
The Union government secured Lok Sabha’s approval on Monday for an amendment that gives the National Investigation Agency (NIA) more powers, following a fierce debate in which opposition lawmakers alleged the provisions had greater potential for misuse while ministers called the changes crucial in the fight against terrorism.
NIA was formed as a federal unit to investigate and prosecute cases of terrorism following the 2008 Mumbai attacks. The National Investigation Agency (Amendment) Bill, 2019, which will need Rajya Sabha clearance, will give the agency jurisdiction over several more crimes, allow it to investigate incidents that have taken place abroad, and attach properties of suspects without having to wait for local police.
“Let me make it clear the Modi government has no such intention [of misusing the law]. Its only goal is to finish off terrorism. We will also not look at the religion of the accused while taking action,” Union home minister Amit Shah said, responding to opposition members who said the law will be used to target minorities and political rivals.
The new crimes that NIA will be able to take up are those related to cyber terrorism, fake currency, hijacking, human trafficking and crimes involving nuclear facilities. The bill also gives the government power to set up special courts for NIA cases.
Shah replied to comparisons made between the bill and the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) 2002 – a law passed by the first National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government and repealed by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance in 2004 over similar allegations of misuse. “POTA brought in protection from terrorism, but it was repealed for vote-bank politics,” the home minister said. “There was such rise in terrorism between 2004 and 2008 that the UPA had to bring the NIA Bill,” Shah added.
The Opposition criticism was led by All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM) MP Assadduddin Owaisi, who pointed to acquittals of nine men, who were from the Muslim community, in the Malegaon blasts case 10 years after they were accused.
The Congress’s Manish Tewari said that there is a fear of the government trying to turn the country into a police state, and that the government could use it as a tool of “political vendetta”. “There is a fundamental problem when a law wants to empower a probe agency. The effects of this will outlast this government,” Tewari said.
NK Premachandran of the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP), opposing the bill, said that he agreed with Tewari’s concerns. “The minister should inform the House the number of people who are arrested, acquitted, convicted etc, under Bills such as POTA, Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) etc,” he said.
The bill was eventually passed after a division vote, called for by Owaisi and backed by Shah.
Secretary General Snehlata Shrivastava informed the Lower House that since the prescribed number of votes were unavailable, Rule 367 will apply, and members will have to vote on paper slips. The Bill got 278 votes in support and six against.
Congress floor leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhary said that the House should ask for a voice vote instead. “We are supporting the bill, it was our bill to begin with,” he said. In the previous UPA Cabinet, then home minister P Chidambaram had sought to empower NIA.
According to a former NIA official, the new powers were being sought since long. “Ability to investigate cases on foreign soil is a much-needed enabling provision,” said NR Wassan, the former acting chief of NIA and Director General of the Bureau of Police Research and Development.
One of the latest examples, he pointed out, was of the Easter bombings in Sri Lanka, where 11 Indians were killed. NIA did not investigate the case and had the role of assisting Sri Lankan officials. Another expert, however, questioned the need to add human trafficking to the list of cases. “Human trafficking is not always related to terrorism,” said former additional director of NIA Prakash Mishra, who retired as the Director General of the Central Reserve Police Force.