Recently, the Union Home Ministry suspended noted NGO Lawyers Collective’s licence to receive foreign funds for six months. A public interest service organisation founded by activist lawyer Indira Jaising, the Home Ministry had issued a Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FRCA) violation notice against the NGO last year. It also directed the NGO to submit its reply within 30 days. Describing the move “motivated and mischievous”, her husband and well known senior lawyer Anand Grover, also a trustee of Lawyers’ Collective, while another well-known lawyer Vrinda Grover said “Indira Jaising and Anand Grover are being targeted for their fearless legal representation and advocacy of human rights.” Jaising is currently representing well-known social activist Teesta Setalvad in a foreign fund violation case against the latter’s Sabrang Trust and Citizens for Justice and Peace. Text of the statement by the Lawyers’ Collective:
The Lawyers Collective (LC) expresses its anger and outrage at reports of alleged violations of the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, 2010 (FCRA) made by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and circulated by sections of the press and denies the same. LC is a society and public trust registered under the law. LC was founded in 1981, “to protect the democratic rights of citizens guaranteed in the Constitution of India; to provide legal aid and advice; to convene seminars/discussions on legal issues and to campaign for law reforms, which will protect and extend the democratic and civil rights of the people.”
Over the last 35 years, LC has been carrying on its activities within the constitutional and legal framework as well as in accordance with the aims and objects stated in its Memorandum of Association. The impact of LC’s work has been tremendous and is recognised the world over, whether in drafting and monitoring the implementation of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 or in challenging discrimination against people living with HIV through cases like MX vs. ZY (Bombay High Court, 1997). LC’s legal team has been at the forefront of the battle against section 377, IPC that criminalises same-sex relations, the recognition of transgender identity and rights, as well as ensuring affordable medicines by preserving public health safeguards under section 3(d) the Patents Act, 1970, amongst others.
LC has also worked extensively with various Government departments, both at the Centre and in the States on laws, policies and programmes that protect Fundamental Rights and advance the Directive Principles of State Policy, as enshrined in the Indian Constitution. LC has been registered with the MHA for receiving foreign contribution since November 2000 and has been complying with the provisions of the FCRA through reporting, submission and maintenance of accounts. LC states that no notice under FCRA, whatsoever, has been issued to LC, either by MHA or any other Ministry.
What it has received till date is a standard questionnaire dated 5th November, 2015, an intimation for inspection of accounts dated 12th January, 2016 and observations/findings of the inspection team dated 29th February, 2016. Nonetheless, sections of the press have been reporting that LC has been served “show cause” notice for violating the FCRA. These reports first appeared in November 2015 and continue to be published till date. In its reply dated 11th December 2015, the MHA itself clarified that “… no show cause notice as mentioned in your letter dated 05.12.2015 has been issued to Lawyers Collective by this Ministry till date and this Ministry categorically denies its involvement and responsibility to the news item published.”
LC has fully cooperated with the MHA in providing information sought and in having our books of accounts examined by the inspection team deputed under the FCRA. We are in the process of replying to the observations made by the inspection team, which are totally unsustainable, both in fact and law, within the stipulated period of 30 days. While LC believes in the legal process, it appears that the authorities do not. Contrary to provisions under the FCRA that require information from audit/inspection to be kept confidential, certain officers at the MHA are going out of their way to leak observations of the inspection team, in order to create prejudice and hostility against the LC, even before the legal procedure for inquiry has concluded. In the last one year, the MHA has cancelled FCRA registration of over 15, 000 NGOs in the country. None of their accounts/details were made public, with the exception of Green Peace India and Sabrang Trust and Citizens for Justice and Peace and now, LC.
This deliberate and selective disclosure, contrary to the law, speaks volumes about the real motive and intent behind the entire exercise. LC plainly refutes allegations of violations of FCRA and misuse of funds. The foreign contribution received by LC has been used only for the purposes for which the money was received and in line with FCRA and the Rules thereunder. Our accounts are available in the public domain and can be accessed by anyone who wishes to do so. The accusation of paying volunteers to hold dharnas is absolutely misconstrued and baseless.
There is no bar in the FCRA on supporting community mobilization or dharnas, which are the very heart of a democratic society. Supporting people living with HIV with food and water, as they stand in the sun demanding protection of their rights is neither political nor illegal, as alleged. Nor is organizing and participating in conferences, which is one of the stated objectives of the organisation.
It has been alleged that LC received foreign contribution during 2009-2014 when its Trustee, Ms. Indira Jaising served as the Additional Solicitor General and that this amounts to a violation of FCRA. It is clarified that Ms. Jaising was not a “government servant or employee” as stipulated in section 3 of the FCRA. This is reconfirmed by the fact that the present Attorney General of India has sought and obtained permission to appear in the Supreme Court of India for private parties including the liquor lobby, which he could never have done if he was a government servant or employee as contemplated in law.
LC states that it engages in sensitization and advocacy with stakeholders including Members of Parliament (“MPs”) on the need for protection of rights of people living with HIV and other vulnerable groups. Interacting with MPs to make them aware of people‟s needs and concerns is a perfectly legitimate and constitutional activity. It does not amount to “lobbying”. Section 3 of the FCRA prohibits a “member of any legislature” and “political party” from receiving foreign contribution.
LC’s activities do not fall under any of those categories. It is no exaggeration to say that this is a deliberate and sustained effort to target and vilify LC and its chief functionaries, who are known for their commitment to human rights and liberal values, in the eyes of the public. For over three decades, LC has taken up issues of human rights and justice that are often unpopular with, or disliked by the political establishment of the day. It is no coincidence that in recent times, the founding trustees of LC – Ms Indira Jaising and Mr. Anand Grover, in the course of their professional duties as lawyers, have defended cases of Priya Pillai (Green Peace India), Teesta Setalvad and Yakub Memon that have caused discomfort to many in the current establishment.
Ms. Jaising also recently represented Sanjiv Bhatt, the IPS officer from Gujarat demanding an independent investigation by SIT into false and frivolous FIRs lodged against him in the State of Gujarat. There is no doubt that attempts to hound and malign LC is part of the larger clampdown on civil society voices that seek to preserve and protect shrinking democratic spaces in India and zealously guard civil liberties including the right to dissent. While LC will assist and cooperate with the authorities in implementing the FCRA, it will resist and respond to any unfair and unlawful acts to malign the organisation and its functionaries, who remain committed to advancing justice through constitutional means”.