On August 2, the National Investigation Agency, the country’s premier anti-terror prosecutor, moved an application in the special court in Mumbai conducting the 2008 Malegaon blast trial asking for proceedings to be held in-camera. This means that only people involved in the case such as the accused, their lawyers and witnesses would be allowed inside the courtroom. This would also ensure that the media would be barred access to the proceedings.
The Malegaon blast, which left six dead and 100 injured when an explosive device strapped to a motorcycle went off near a mosque in the powerloom town in north Maharashtra, came to be popularly described as an instance of “Hindu terror”. Among the accused is Pragya Singh Thakur, now a Bharatiya Janata Party Lok Sabha member from Bhopal. The accused people had allegedly formed an organisation called Abhinav Bharat with an aim of converting India into a Hindu state. The blast is said to have been part of a larger conspiracy by Hindutva supporters to extract revenge for terror incidents allegedly orchestrated by Islamist groups.
The NIA said it had made its demand to keep the trial off-limits to the public because the facts of the case have a direct bearing on “communal harmony, national security and public order”. On August 5, a group of journalists moved court opposing the NIA’s demand.
It is not difficult to lift the veil and see the real reason for the NIA’s application.
The agency has consistently been accused of siding with the people accused in the case. In 2015, former prosecutor Rohini Salian even alleged that NIA officers had pressured her to go soft on Thakur and others. In May 2016, the agency, which took over the investigation in 2011, submitted a supplementary report that exonerated Thakur and several others, considerably weakening the case built by Maharashtra’s Anti-Terrorism Squad.
But the courts did not agree and went ahead and framed charges against Thakur and others. This has put the NIA in an embarrassing position: it will have to depend on the same evidence it dismissed in its investigation report to now prosecute the alleged offenders.
The demand to keep the proceedings in-camera seems to be an attempt to conceal this embarrassment. The application has also been moved before has been cross examined. If the NIA was indeed concerned with the trial causing a breach of peace, it had no reason to wait for eight months after the trial started in December to voice its concerns.
The petition for in-camera proceedings is a direct challenge to press freedom and the concept of transparency in the justice system. As the courts have pointed out many times in the past, justice must only be done, it has to be seen to be done in the eyes of the public. And for this, the media’s role as a watchdog is crucial.