New Delhi: Lawyers Collective, a trust founded by noted lawyers Indira Jaising and Anand Grover, has hit out at the Narendra Modi-led government for running a sinister campaign against it by selectively leaking confidential information pertaining to an enquiry initiated by the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (FCRA) Wing under the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) into its funding and functioning.
In a statement, Lawyers Collective has stated that “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.”
Speaking to The Wire, Jaising said she had even spoken about the issue to Home Minister Rajnath Singh and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley in December and again earlier this month, and also brought to their notice how a joint secretary-level official was probably behind the selective leaks. However, while they assured her they would look into the matter, the selective targeting has continued, she said.
On why it was being targeted, the Lawyers Collective has said in its statement that “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.”
“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,” it added.
Elaborating on the issue, the statement also details how, “in the last one year, the MHA has cancelled [the] FCRA registration of over 15, 000 NGOs in the country.” But, it said, 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.”
Refuting the allegations of violations of the FCRA and the misuse of funds, the trust, which has for over three decades taken up issues of human rights and justice that are often unpopular with, or disliked by the political establishment, stated that the foreign contributions received by it have only been used for the purposes for which the money was received.
It said the accusation of paying volunteers to hold dharnas was “absolutely misconstrued and baseless” as there was no bar in the FCRA on supporting community mobilization or dharnas that are the very heart of a democratic society.
On the allegation that Lawyers Collective had received foreign contributions during 2009-2014 when she, as its trustee, was serving as the additional solicitor general, Jaising asserted that she 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,” she argued.
Jaising, who also wrote a detailed letter of protest to Union home secretary Rajiv Mehrishi on Thursday, said 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.
In the letter she listed a number of instances where the proceedings in the matter and even incorrect information were selectively leaked to the media.
She mentioned the “publication of news about [a] ‘show cause notice’ which was never issued.” The article, the noted lawyer said, had appeared in the online edition of The Hindu on November 20, 2015. It stated that “The MHA said they had sent a notice to the Lawyers Collective and have asked them to furnish details about all the foreign contributions they received from organisations like the Ford Foundation and the Open Society Foundation. The notice was served on November 5, 2015.” The following day, on November 21, she said an updated version of the article appeared online which claimed that “The Hindu had a copy of the notice sent to the Lawyers Collective on 5.11.2015”.
But on December 11, Jaising told Mehrishi that the MHA clarified in a reply to Lawyers Collective that “… no show cause notice… has been issued to the Lawyers Collective by this ministry till date and this ministry categorically denies its involvement and responsibility to the news item published.”
Jaising has claimed that the publicity given to this purported show cause notice was thus just a “malafide attempt to discredit and defame LC and its chief functionaries in the press and the media.”
She also insisted that the “disclosure of inspection of accounts, (was) contrary to law” and pointed out that in an article on January 27, The Hindu had reported: “A senior Home Ministry official said: We had sent the firm a questionnaire and asked it to respond. It asked for three extensions and we gave it too. Last week, a Home Ministry team inspected the accounts of the firm at its office in Mumbai and Delhi. Based on our findings, we will decide on the future course of action.” The report also mentioned that Jaising had filed a reply with the ministry and gave the official’s response stating, “We were not satisfied with the response and we wanted to cross-check certain facts. That’s why we inspected the accounts.”
In her complaint to the Mehrishi, Jaising accused officials of briefing the media on the subject. “This despite the statutory requirement under section 20 of the FCRA being that information from audit/inspection ‘shall be kept confidential and shall not be disclosed except for the purposes of the Act’,” she said, charging that there was a “deliberate attempt to conduct a trial by media”.
Buttressing her argument, she said Lawyers Collective had on March 3 received a letter from the MHA dated February 29 along with the observations or findings of the inspection team. “Even as we were in in the process of replying to the observations within the stipulated period, in accordance with the law, information about the inspection had been deliberately leaked to certain journalists, who are hounding LC for a response,” she wrote, adding that one of them called her late on March 7 night asking her for her reaction.
Stating that Lawyers Collective has come to know that large sections of the media have been given “unauthorised access” to the observations and findings of the inspection team, Jaising has urged Mehrishi to “prevent any unlawful dissemination and publication of the said report”. She has also asked him to take action against officers who have been selectively leaking the case reports.
She informed Mehrishi about a particular joint secretary who she suspected was feeding news to journalists in order to create prejudice and hostility against Lawyers Collective.
Jaising said the Economic Times had also carried a story on Thursday based on information which was confidential in nature. The report alleged violations of the FCRA by the Lawyers Collective based on “observations ” made by the MHA that were confidential in nature, she said.
She said the report also mentioned that “Indira Jaising’s advocacy firm, Lawyers Collective, has been served another notice under Section 23 of FCRA by the Ministry of Home Affairs, this time after an inspection of its records and accounts was carried out”. The report went on to add that “Lawyers Collective has been given 30 days to reply to the latest notice from the day it was issued, that is February 29. The organisation was earlier served a notice on November 5, 2015, when MHA had sought details of its bank accounts and foreign contributions it received since inception.”
Jaising said it was unfortunate that the same unsubstantiated allegations of the notice being served on November 5 were being leveled time and again despite repeated complaints by Lawyers Collective. “Till date no notice has been served on LC by MHA or any other Ministry, but the leaks to the media about alleged notice continue unabated,” she said.
Jaising told The Wire that like many other NGOs, Lawyers Collective had only received a questionnaire with 32 questions in November. “Since November 2015, we have had exchanges, correspondence and communication with the FCRA Wing (Monitoring Unit) of the MHA in relation to the foreign contribution received by us. We had submitted a detailed reply on January 4 along with annexures to the standard questionnaire sent by MHA and had our books of accounts inspected by a team of officers authorized by the MHA from January 19 to 23, 2016 at our Mumbai office. We are now in the process of replying to the observations made by the inspection team in their note vide an MHA letter dated February 29, 2016.
The observations were received by LC on March 3, with a month’s time to reply to them. “But even before we could reply, a second round of targeted attacks began,” she said.
Jaising said she is now contemplating lodging complaints with the Press Council of India and the Broadcasting Authority of India in the matter. “My point is the media should not carry “leaks” from the ministry but should insist that information is shared with the media through a proper press release of the Government of India, especially when there is a law which prevents the government form sharing confidential information which is to be used only for the purpose of the act,” she said.