Is the NIA Actively Working to Keep Aseemanand Out of Jail?

NIA officials from Hyderabad have said that they received orders from the headquarters not to appeal Aseemanand's bail.

New Delhi: In what appears to be an instance of sabotage, top officials of the highest investigative body, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) allegedly scuttled plans of its Hyderabad unit to challenge the bail granted to Aseemanand, the primary accused in the Mecca Masjid blast case. He was granted bail by a Hyderabad court on March 23.

On May 18, 2007, the explosion of a crude bomb, planted allegedly by the Hindutva organisation Abhinav Bharat, killed nine people and injured at least 58 when thousands of people had gathered for Friday namaz at the Mecca Masjid, considered to be one of the holiest Muslim shrines in India.

Aseemanand, who is the primary accused in a number of bomb blasts including Mecca Masjid, Ajmer, Samjhauta Express and Malegaon that occurred between 2005 and 2007, walked out of Chanchalguda jail on April 1 after the NIA chose not to challenge the trial court order of March 23.

According to an Indian Express report, senior NIA officials in New Delhi rejected a proposal made by its Hyderabad office to challenge the bail.

“There were sufficient grounds to challenge the bail order of Aseemanand and the High Court was at liberty to reject the agency’s move if there were no merits in the appeal. Among investigators, the opinion to appeal was very strong,” officials in Hyderabad, who spoke on condition of anonymity, were quoted as saying.

On April 8, NIA director-general Sharad Kumar, whose service extension is being seen as undue and has therefore become controversial, had not ruled out the possibility of the NIA challenging the order.

However, the statements of Hyderabad NIA officials indicate that the top officials gave clear orders asking them to not to pursue the matter further.

The newspaper report also mentions that the Hyderabad NIA officials fear that if the main accused Aseemanand alias Naba Kumar Sarkar is out of prison, he may try to influence witnesses and other evidence.

“For filing an appeal before the high court, we need sanction from our headquarters and a legal opinion. With Aseemanand having been released, the evidence in the case may get weakened,” the official told the Indian Express.

Aseemanand has agreed to surrender his passport and deposit a surety amount of Rs 1 lakh. He has also assured the court that he will not leave Hyderabad without its permission, which top NIA officials in New Delhi saw as reason enough to not challenge the bail.

This is not the first time the NIA has been alleged to have gone soft on Hindutva terror cases. The agency, which is handling at least seven Hindutva terror cases, in 2014 too had not challenged Aseemanand’s bail in the Samjhuata blasts case. In 2015, the special public prosecutor in the 2008 Malegaon bombings case, Rohini Salian, accused a top NIA official Suhas Warke of asking her to “go soft” against the primary accused, most of whom are from Abhinav Bharat.

Although the NIA has denied the allegation, the lackadaisical attitude shown by the NIA in pursuing Hindutva terror cases has dented the agency’s credibility to a great extent. Recently, the agency exonerated Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur, also an accused in many blasts, senior RSS leader Indresh Kumar, Ramesh Venkatrao Mahalkar and Rajendra alias Samandar (who is also an accused in Samjhauta Express train blast case and currently under judicial custody) of all charges against them in the Ajmer Dargah blast case. It cited “lack of evidence” while doing so. Similarly, the NIA has also been accused of sabotaging the Malegaon blast case.

Meanwhile, one of the most important links between these blasts cases, the Sunil Joshi murder case, which the National Investigation Agency fought for months on end to take over, was quietly shifted back to Madhya Pradesh after the agency said it found no evidence of terror in his murder. Joshi, who was recently found guilty of being one of the primary plotters of the Ajmer Dargah blasts, was mysteriously murdered in 2007 at Dewas, Madhya Pradesh even before the investigative agency could find him.

The accusation of NIA’s own officials against top leadership of the agency may further damage its credibility. Many of the critics of the BJP-led Union government have already been alleging that the investigative agencies have been acting like a “caged parrot” under the prime ministership of Narendra Modi, a charge that the Supreme Court and the BJP had made against investigative agencies when the UPA was in power.

Former Haryana SIT chief Vikash Narain Rai, who investigated the Samjhauta Blast case, has also criticised the NIA for pursuing Islamist angle even as all the evidence pointed to the involvement of Hindutva groups.

The bail will come as a shot in the arm for Aseemanand, who was recently acquitted in the Ajmer blast case too. However, NIA’s dilly-dallying in matters related to Hindutva militancy and its resultant failure to build solid cases will definitely be put into question. In most cases, the top security agency in the last three years has dismissed the earlier investigations done by state-level SITs. As a result, many of the primary accused like Aseemanand and Sadhvi Pragya have been having having an easy time different trial courts.