Falling in Line

The National Investigation Agency’s loss of credibility

Officers of the National Investigation Agency collect evidence in the debris at a bomb blast site, in Hyderabad, on 22 February 2013. India’s investigative agencies had faced a steady decline in their professional standards and democratic accountability. In this environment some of the early investigations of the NIA evidenced a hard-nosed competence. AP Photo
30 June, 2022


THE SENIOR ADVOCATE A MARIARPUTHAM was all set for an important day in court. He was to appear in front of a division bench of the Supreme Court on 15 April 2015, representing the National Investigation Agency, India’s primary anti-terror task force, against five accused in one of the nation’s largest terror attacks. On 29 September 2008, during the Islamic holy month of Ramzan, two bombs concealed in a motorcycle had exploded in the Muslim-dominated town of Malegaon in north-western Maharashtra, killing six people and injuring more than a hundred. Another bomb had gone off on the same day, near a mosque in the Muslim-majority Sukka Bazaar area of Modasa, a town in Gujarat.

The accused were all members of a Hindu militant group called Abhinav Bharat, linked to several senior Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh leaders. By the time Mariarputham got up to address the judges on the case seven years later, Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party—the political wing of the RSS—had been in power at the centre for nearly a year. The argument that Mariarputham had prepared for court that day was interrupted.

The hearing pertained to a case filed by Pragya Singh Thakur and several other key accused in the case, challenging their trial under the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act—a stringent law against repeated unlawful activity. Thakur had previously been a national executive member of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the RSS’s student wing. For the prosecution, trying Thakur under the MCOCA was vital, as the law allowed confessions made to the police—which are otherwise inadmissible in court because of the possibility of being extracted by force—to be used as material against those accused. In their confessions, three of the accused claimed that Abhinav Bharat had collected a large stash of weapons and that Thakur had met the other members of the terror cell at a training camp in Pachmarhi, Madhya Pradesh, two years before the attack. The confessions were backed by witness statements, as well as audio and video recordings seized from the laptops of the accused.

Thakur’s bail would mean a major defeat for the NIA’s case, and the MCOCA was the primary tool to prevent it. Along with Aseemanand—a former national head of the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, the RSS’s tribal wing—Thakur was the most high-profile name tied to a string of seven bombings across five states, in 2007 and 2008, which the Abhinav Bharat network had allegedly executed, killing a total of 119 people, most of whom were Muslim. The bomb in the Malegaon blast had been left outside a mosque on a motorcycle registered under Thakur’s name. She had also allegedly attended training camps, in which she and other accused planned all the attacks and were trained in bomb-making and the use of weapons.