Leaders in the opposition say they voted in favour of the amendments because voting against the ‘anti-terror’ clauses could provide fodder to the BJP.

NIA amendments Bill Why the opposition raised objections but voted for it anyway
news NIA Monday, July 22, 2019 - 17:08

The Lok Sabha cleared the National Investigation Agency (NIA) Bill last week, arming the central agency – created in the wake of the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks – with more powers. The opposition, including the Congress and DMK, are facing criticism for voting in favour of the Bill, despite raising objections to the amendments during the debate in the Lok Sabha. Asked for a reason for the way they voted, opposition leaders tell TNM that any other decision on their part would have given the BJP an excuse to brand them as being ‘pro-terror’. 

Among other issues, the NIA has been accused of targeting minorities, especially Muslim youth, in addition to infringing upon the rights of the police in states. While parties including the Congress, DMK, CPI(M) and AIMIM laid out their arguments against the Bill, only six MPs – including AIMIM chief Asaduddin Owaisi, Left MPs and an MP belonging to the National Conference – voted against the amendments on July 15 in the Lok Sabha. 

The NIA Amendments Bill, which now awaits Presidential ascent after being passed unopposed in the Rajya Sabha, was amended to include three key provisions. The amendment adds width to the schedule of crimes that the agency can investigate, including human trafficking, counterfeit currency, manufacture or sale of prohibited arms, cyber-terrorism, and offences under the Explosive Substances Act. Secondly, it extends the NIA's jurisdiction outside India, subject however to international treaties and domestic laws of the concerned foreign nation. Third, the Bill allows for the constitution of special courts by the Centre in order to conduct trials.

During the debates in the Lok Sabha, Union Home Minister Amit Shah justified the amendments, saying, “If the country does not vouch for the efficiency of the NIA, how will it hold any standing globally? Both Houses need to prove to the world and the terrorists that we are united in this fight.”

Objections of the Opposition 

The NIA was created in 2008 by the UPA government, in the aftermath of the Mumbai terror attacks, and therefore, politically, the opposition aligned with the Congress couldn’t bring in any objections in the Parliament. However, with regard to the amendments, the opposition brought in three main questions: 

1. Should sessions courts be turned into special courts for NIA investigations? 

2. Should the government be pushing for widening the ambit of the NIA when there are doubts in people’s minds about the objectivity of the organisation? 

3. Without defining the meaning of ‘terrorist’, should these amendments be brought in?

DMK MP A Raja argued, “All criminal laws must be secular, except the civil law and the personal law with regard to marriage, adoption etc. So, the apprehension which was expressed at the time of enactment of the Bill was that this Bill should not be looked through the communal prism. I want to know from the hon. Minister, how many cases were filed; how many persons were convicted; and how many people were of a particular community or particular religion in order to avoid the clouds, since there is an apprehension because of the change in political entity in this House,” adding, “I am not accusing you. But it is the duty of the government to remove such a cloud that they will not look at it through the communal prism.”

Congress MP Manish Tiwari further contended that the amendments, when read with other acts, amounted to the creation of a police state. “The Amendment Bill puts Section 66F of the Information Technology Act into the Schedule listing offences. Section 66F deals with cyber terrorism. My submission is that we do not have a Data Protection Act or the definition of terrorism. Even in the UAPA, Section 15 defines the ‘terrorist act’ only and it does not define ‘terrorism’. Even till today, there is no laid procedure that at what point of time does an act of violence actually become a terrorist act. How do you designate an act of violence as a terrorist act? These are very fundamental legal questions which need to be gone into,” he said. 

On the question of courts, CPI(M)'s Alappuzha MP AM Ariff termed it 'illogical' to turn sessions courts into special courts. “Our courts are already clogged with huge backlogs and it is illogical that now the government is adding more cases through the amendment to the NIA Act. Under the NIA Act, in spite of mandating special courts, all the Session courts have been designated as Special courts,” he said.

Owaisi’s objections 

Hyderabad MP and AIMIM chief Asaduddin Owaisi meanwhile also opposed the widening of the territorial ambit of the law, extending to foreign countries. “The concept of universal jurisdiction does apply only in cases of crime against humanity or genocide,” he said. 

Referring to clauses that could be misinterpreted, Owaisi said, “You say “affecting the interests of India”. You are creating a device for yourself to even bring in some people who write a blog against your ideology and your Party,” warning about misuse. 

Accusing the government machinery of being biased against minorities, he further said, “In administrative and constitutional law, we follow the rule that any power is coupled with responsibility. May I know from the hon. Minister, the responsibility of the Government towards the victims?I can quote you numerous examples. Regarding Samjhauta blast case, the judge said that the NIA could not even produce the CCTV footage of the Delhi Railway Station. May I know from the hon. Minister whether the Government will issue a letter of apology to the accused of Malegaon blast who were exonerated by the Courts of law?”

The ‘surprise’ vote

However, most opposition MPs who objected to the amendments ended up voting in favour of them. 

This was apparent after MP Asaduddin Owaisi sought a division of votes in the House (as opposed to a voice vote) which made it obvious that opposition parties, including the Congress, DMK, Trinamool, SP, and BSP voted in favour of the legislation. The Bill was passed in Lok Sabha 278 to 6.

The reason: Parties did not want to come across as being ‘pro-terror’. 

Speaking to TNM, one opposition party leader from Tamil Nadu said that opposing the Bill was not an option in any case since the NIA was a creation of the UPA in the wake of the Mumbai terror attacks. 

“Arming it with more teeth is not the issue; but we are opposed to the unchecked power that the BJP wields in doing so. So we fear the misuse of these powers and have let our concerns be recorded,” he said. 

One DMK-Congress coalition MP, on the condition of anonymity, hinted that the division of votes sought by MP Owaisi was an attempt to divide the opposition. “It is a political ploy for Amit Shah to encourage division of votes. When they are faced with an election tomorrow, they may as well say that the opposition does not want to take a stand against terrorism. The BJP has the majority in the House so it was bound to get passed anyway.”

The MP from Tamil Nadu adds that the opposition’s focus is now on the Centre’s proposed amendments to the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) which seeks to designate individuals as terrorists.

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