NIA, India’s only truly federal agency which has more powers than CBI
The recent country-wide raids on the Popular Front of India (PFI) by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) has once again put the spotlight on the agency created in 2008 mainly with an objective to investigate and prosecute terrorism related offences in any part of the country.
Over the years, NIA has investigated 463 cases which include high profile ones like the Elgar Parishad case, Malegaon 2008 blast case and the Ambani terror scare case, apart from many cases related to terror funding in Kashmir and cases from the naxal-affected areas.
The origin of NIA
In the wake of the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack, which shook the country, the then United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government decided to establish the NIA. In December 2008, former Union Home Minister P Chidambaram introduced the National Investigation Agency Bill.
Chidambaram had then said the agency would deal with only eight laws mentioned in the schedule and that a balance had been struck between the right of the State and duties of the Central government to investigate the more important cases.
As per the National Investigative Agency Bill and Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment Bill, NIA had concurrent jurisdiction which empowered it to probe terror attacks in any part of the country, covering offences, including challenge to the country’s sovereignty and integrity, bomb blasts, hijacking of aircraft and ships, attacks on nuclear installations.
The Bill was passed by the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha and the agency came into existence on December 31, 2008.
Headquartered in Delhi, the NIA has its branches in Hyderabad, Guwahati, Kochi, Lucknow, Mumbai, Kolkata, Raipur, Jammu, Chandigarh, Ranchi, Chennai, Imphal, Bengaluru and Patna.
The ground staff of the agency in the national capital could be drawn from existing central staff and security organisations while in the states, permanent deputation from the state police could be taken.
The Act made the NIA the only truly federal agency in the country, along the lines of the FBI in the United States, more powerful than the CBI. The Act gave the NIA powers to take suo motu cognisance of terror activities in any part of India and register a case, to enter any state without permission from the state government, and to investigate and arrest people.
Gathering more powers
NIA’s powers were further enhanced 11 years later when the 2019 NIA Amendment Act expanded the type of offences that the investigative body could investigate and prosecute. The agency can now investigate offences related to human trafficking, counterfeit currency, manufacture or sale of prohibited arms, cyber-terrorism, and offences under the Explosive Substances Act, 1908.
The amendment also enables the central government to designate sessions courts as special courts for NIA trials.
The amendment also allows the central government to constitute Special Courts to conduct trials of scheduled offences. Accordingly, the government has the power to designate Sessions Courts as Special Courts, after consulting with the Chief Justice of the concerned High Court. The Act also authorises the state governments to designate Special Courts.
Currently, there are 38 Special NIA Courts across the states and 7 across the Union Territories.
The Special Courts’ judges are appointed by the central government in consultation with the High Court Chief Justices of the area. The trials of the NIA Special Courts have precedence over the trial of the accused in any other case in any other court.
The amendment also empowers the NIA to probe terror attacks targeting Indians and Indian interests abroad. In April 2020, the NIA registered its first overseas case to probe the terror strike on a gurdwara in Afghanistan’s capital Kabul which had killed 27 people.
The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment (UAPA), also passed in 2019, allows an NIA officer to conduct raids, and seize properties that are suspected to be linked to terrorist activities without taking prior permission of the Director General of Police of a state. The investigating officer only requires sanction from the Director General of NIA.
In September 2020, the Centre empowered the NIA to also probe offences under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act that are connected to terror cases.
The law under which the agency operates extends to the whole of India and also applies to Indian citizens outside the country; persons in the service of the government wherever they are posted; persons on ships and aircraft registered in India wherever they may be; persons who commit a scheduled offence beyond India against the Indian citizen or affecting the interest of India.
Where the Central government finds that a scheduled offence has been committed at any place outside India to which this Act extends, it can also direct the NIA to register the case and take up investigation. While investigating any scheduled offence, the agency can also investigate any other offence which the accused is alleged to have committed if the offence is connected to the scheduled offence.
Dogged by controversies
The NIA has been in controversy almost since its inception. Under the Constitution, law and order is a state subject. There have been questions raised on how NIA is usurping state rights under the guise of fighting terror. In 2020, Chhattisgarh filed a case against the Act in the Supreme Court that the said Act violates Constitution.
In fact, in 2011, The Hindu accessed a US Embassy cable according to which the then home minister Chidambaram had told FBI Director Robert Mueller that NIA’s powers could be challenged in the courts as violating constitutional provisions on Centre-State relations.