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The Rediff Special/ Sheela Bhatt

Our MPs blocked the NIA 8 months ago

December 17, 2008

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Many Indians see the terror attacks on Mumbai as a catalyst for change. If not a bigger change, they feel it will at least change the way India will handle terrorism.

But do they really believe the promises of elected politicians, on whom the onus lies, that internal security will improve. How does one know that the bills for tougher terror laws and a federal agency that were unveiled in Delhi [Images] on Tuesday is not a quick-fix job?

The Congress is now jubilant after electoral victories and is smug that it has pulled the terrorism rug from right under the Bharatiya Janata Party's feet. The fear of losing Muslim votes has reduced considerably and the party is leading the verbal onslaught on Pakistan.

The Congress wants us to believe that things have changed overnight. Home Minister P Chidambaram, drafted in as a replacement for Shivraj Patil, wants us to believe that there is a sense of urgency and things will move fast. To prove the point, the Cabinet has cleared the proposal for a National Investigating Agency.

On Tuesday, the government introduced a Bill to set up a National Investigation Agency and legislation to strengthen existing laws against terror in the Lok Sabha.

The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment Bill aims at strengthening the arrangements for speedy investigation, prosecution and trial of cases related to terrorism.

The same Congress party that repealed the Prevention of Terrorism [Images] Act because it was draconian is now ready to tighten the relevant laws that would allow secret recording of telephone conversations as evidence, in-camera trials and time-bound special courts to deal with terror cases. The proposed agency will take a long time to come into being because Indian states will need to pass the same law with a three-fourth majorities.

This is the same central anti-terror outfit that has been proposed, debated and put aside many times before. But the Mumbai attacks have brought to the forefront all that is wrong with Indian infrastructure to deal with national security. And now that a general election is around the corner and the people have lost their patience, one finds New Delhi is moving.

In September, Mahendra Kumawat, then the special secretary in the home ministry, had spoken to rediff.com about the need for such an agency.

Asked if India needs a federal agency to deal with terrorism, Kumawat had said: "The federal agency should have jurisdiction across the country. States and their police forces will not be able to deal with offences of this nature which have national and international linkages. We need an outfit that can investigate outside the country also, that should have resources matching the problem, that has a good database of these criminals and that has well-trained, motivated and sincere people who can work on a long-term basis. They should take it as a mission in life to deal with terrorism."

Do the requirements laid out by Kumawat sound familiar? Of course, India already has one such agency and it is called the Central Bureau of Investigation.

On March 11, a report was tabled in Parliament on the working of the CBI. This document of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel (the CBI falls under its monitoring jurisdiction), Public Grievances and Justice's 24th report on the working of the CBI is an eye-opener and is available on Parliament's Web site.

External Link: Read the full parliamentary report here

Most important is the fact that the committee that disapproved of any such new agency had members from all the parties that are now backing the new NIA: It was headed by Congress member of the Rajya Sabha Dr E M Sudarsana Natchiappan. Amongst others, Dr Abhishek Manu Singhvi of the Congress and Bal Apte of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Tariq Anwar of the Nationalist Congress Party, lawyer Ram Jethmalani and former bureaucrat Dr P C Alexander and former chairman, National Minority Commission Tarlochan Singh were its members.

From the Lok Sabha, more than a dozen members participated. This included actor Raj Babbar, the Congress's N Y Hanumanthappa and the BJP's experienced parliamentarians like Harin Pathak.

This committee was against creating a new agency and said the solution lay in revamping the CBI.

That committee's contention was that the CBI has been given many cases under political consideration. Though the state police are capable of investigating these cases, the CBI was brought into the picture, it said. The committee felt this increased the workload of the already overburdened CBI. It noted the expansion of the CBI's mandate has not been accompanied by expansion and augmentation of its infrastructure and resources.

The report further said: 'The committee takes note of demands raised from various quarters that an all-India agency should be created for tackling corruption, transnational and organised crime and terrorism. The committee is of the opinion that the creation of more and more agencies would -- apart from involving more resources which are already scarce -- lead to overlapping of jurisdictions, conflict of interests, underutilisation of human resources and lack of synergy, which would be detrimental to the cause of our criminal justice system. Furthermore, huge expenditure that will be incurred for the creation of massive infrastructure and allied facilities all over the country may not give the desired results. In view of the above, the committee is of the unanimous opinion that the need of the hour is to strengthen the CBI in terms of legal mandate, infrastructure and resources.'

No one is even advocating the case for the CBI, which is often seen as politicised, is not above board and whose record speaks for itself. In 438 cases, charges have not been framed even after 10 years. Where it gets even murkier is that the proposed NIA will select policemen from the same resource pool which mans the CBI.

The report on the CBI reveals that the number of people recruited in the Indian Police Service has drastically come down over the years and as a result the states found it difficult to spare the services of young officers to the CBI.

Apart from that, for the last seven years, the government has put in place an optimisation scheme, under which two-thirds of regular recruited posts in any government department should be abolished for the sake of economy. The CBI has for long been urging the government to exempt it from the scheme.

The committee said that attention must be paid to the prevention and management of terrorist threats and attacks at a time when India faces the grave challenge of terrorism. 'This would also involve ensuring conviction in such cases without delay,' the committee said, adding, 'The committee strongly feels that the CBI is the organisation which is equipped for such operations, investigation and prosecution. Therefore, the committee recommends that a separate anti-terrorism division should be created in the CBI and that highly advanced training and infrastructure/equipments should be provided to them.'

Similarly, while it is now said that the NIA will be on the lines of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, the committee had nine months ago said that the CBI had to be converted on the lines of the FBI.

A senior CBI officer told rediff.com, "Having an unaccountable agency in a liberal democratic country is an oxymoron. And to have an unaccountable agency that happens to be the lead agency in the struggle against the most serious threat to national security at present will only lead to passing the buck and blame games with every passing disaster."

"I do not intend to sound cynical, but I must confess to you that knowing how our intelligence agencies operate, I have frequently wondered why we have had fewer terrorist strikes than we should have actually had."

Therefore, India's biggest problem is that our babus, be it in suits or khakis, are not accountable.

Chidambaram, a lawyer, has worked overnight and revamped the draft of the new National Investigating agency that was already ready. "Under pressure from corporate houses, this government will certainly work faster, but Chidambaram as home minister will have to ensure that intelligence gathering would form an integral part of the other inter-related operational and investigative functions of the same agency," a senior CBI officer said.

At a time when the Indian democratic machinery is giving birth to one more mammoth bureaucratic structure, there is a need to debate what went wrong with the CBI and other agencies.


The Rediff Specials


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