The acquittal of all the accused in the Mecca Masjid blast case shines the light on the National Investigation Agency (NIA), and the view is unimpressive. The organisation was formed after the Mumbai attacks, in response to two realities. One, that terrorism is agnostic to borders and jurisdictions, and therefore an agency with a nationwide footprint was needed to replicate strategies and successes at one location elsewhere. Two, the CBI, the famous “caged parrot”, had attained disreputability, and a national agency perceived to be above political pressures and other motives, and deserving of public trust, was required. However, the Mecca Masjid acquittals — the circumstances in which they played out, and the unanswered questions they leave behind — suggest that the NIA has not lived up to its promise.
In January, NIA chief Y C Modi claimed a 95 per cent conviction rate, but the numbers miss the point. These convictions included petty counterfeiting matters and Arms Act cases, the bread and butter of any enforcement agency. But the NIA was set up for the express purpose of addressing high-profile cases with wider political and geopolitical implications, such as the Mumbai attack.
It had performed well in that matter, working with agencies overseas and interrogating David Headley in the US. But from about 2014, it was clear that it would be unable to make a rigorous case in the Mecca Masjid matter. Notably, the agency had become controversial in 2015, after the NDA came to power at the Centre, following the revelation by former special prosecutor Rohini Salian that a superintendent of police of the NIA asked her to go easy on the Malegaon accused. The NIA was supposed to be the agency above such controversies, and immune to interference. On the contrary, it has laid itself open to the charge of attempting to interfere with due process.
In the Mecca Masjid case, the loss of evidence has contributed significantly to the outcome. But the perception that the agency showed little initiative to plug the loopholes has done more damage. A parliamentary committee pulled it up for similar lack of energy in 2017, when it dragged its feet on a probe in the Pathankot attack. In the present case, the phenomenon of witnesses turning hostile and the accused disowning testimony has drawn unfavourable attention. And the resignation of the judge who delivered the verdict, only two months before his retirement, is thought-provoking. Despite a fine beginning, today the NIA looks more like a new, unimproved CBI.