ON December 17, 2016, two officers of the Special Branch of the Delhi Police walked into a basement at Nizamuddin where the journalist Bhasha Singh was giving a lecture on demonetisation. Their body language and attire at once set them apart from the crowd that had gathered there. They said they were on an assignment, and took notes. The next day, an officer attended Prof. Achin Vanaik’s lecture on New World Order at a similar gathering at Dwarka in the capital.
The presence of intelligence officers at public meetings and protests was not an unusual sight when the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) was in power at the Centre. But seeing them at neighbourhood discussion forums is a novelty. The presence of intelligence agents at such gatherings is perceived as a farman (dictatorial signifier) of trouble brewing. The brazen manner in which these agencies have been asserting their presence since 2014 is chilling.
“Snooping” by intelligence agencies is just one of the many ways in which ANHAD (Act Now For Harmony and Democracy), an organisation set up in the aftermath of the Gujarat pogrom of 2002, is being harassed. It was recently barred from receiving foreign funds, and its renewed Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (FCRA) licence was cancelled without any notice. Two Home Ministry and one Income Tax inquiries were ordered against ANHAD after Narendra Modi came to power at the Centre. It was not completely unexpected as the organisation had been targeted earlier too for its work in Gujarat, according to Shabnam Hashmi, who runs the trust. On March 20, 2016, ANHAD’s FCRA licence was renewed for a period of five years presumably because no discrepancy was found in its activities and its books of accounts were in order. But through a notice put up on the Ministry of Home Affairs’ (MHA) website dated December 15, the licence was cancelled citing “undesirable activities against public interest”. Earlier, domestic donors, who contributed more than Rs.10,000 to the organisation, received legal notices asking them to explain why they gave the money.
While this led to the harassment of donors, it also resulted in the collapse of ANHAD’s work with communities in Bihar, Kashmir and Mewat (Rajasthan). But it did not deter the organisation’s work against communalism, said Shabnam, who has remained a significant voice against the Sangh Parivar’s divisive agenda. “We have been targeted not for any technical issue but because we strongly oppose the ideology of hate. As far as the struggle to safeguard the Constitution of India is concerned, we don’t need funds for that and will continue to raise our voices,” she said. Shabnam has been attacked physically many times by goons, but she refuses to get cowed down by such forces because she feels “fascism breeds on fear”.
ANHAD is one of the seven non-governmental organisations (NGOs) whose FCRA licences were cancelled abruptly after they were renewed. The others are Greenpeace, the Navsarjan Trust, the Sabrang Trust and the Citizens for Peace and Justice run by Teesta Setalvad, the Marwar Muslim Education and Welfare Society, and the Rural Development Research Centre, Ahmedabad. In all, licences of 20,000 NGOs have been cancelled and those of 13,000 NGOs have been placed under scrutiny since the past year. Officials in the Foreign Division of the MHA are overburdened and not excited about checking receipts dating back to 2009. In private, they murmur whether there is any point to all this but reconcile to it because “it is a job”.
Analysing the case of ANHAD, former Additional Solicitor General of India Indira Jaising explained: “That is a different and curious case. The issue is not cancellation of registration but cancellation of a renewal of registration. There is no provision in law for this, that is why the MHA now says that it was ‘inadvertently renewed’. How laughable is that? Does it not show malintent?” Adverse intelligence inputs were cited as a reason for a relook into the activities of the NGOs, but Indira Jaising said that in a court of law, the authorities would be forced to disclose the reports.
Lawyers Collective, an NGO run by Indira Jaising, too, had its accounts frozen and was barred from receiving funds. On November 21, 2015, a show-cause notice appeared on the MHA website. Indira Jaising told Frontline : “It was never served on us. When we pointed this out, it was promptly taken down from the website. The formality of a procedure of inspection was gone through, after which the same show-cause notice was once again issued. What does this show? That the decision to cancel was first taken and then the procedure was gone through as a formality and the registration cancelled. That procedures can be manipulated to suit an outcome.”
It was no coincidence that the same day the lawyer Anand Grover was to file a petition in the Bombay High Court on behalf of the activist Harsh Mander, who was questioning the discharge of Amit Shah, who is now BJP president, as an accused in the murders of Sohrabuddin Sheikh, his wife Kauser Bi, and the prime witness Tulsiram Prajapati.
Opposing Modi and his cohorts seems to be the commonality running through many of the NGOs targeted. Teesta Setalvad, Shabnam Hashmi and Indira Jaising have all been thorns on the side of Modi and have vocally opposed his divisive politics. In 2002, Indira Jaising and Grover filed the only civil suit against Modi in the aftermath of the genocide in Gujarat representing three British citizens of Indian origin who were being victimised for being Muslims. Indira Jaising also fought and won the case for Priya Pillai, the Greenpeace activist who was offloaded from a plane to London. But Grover representing Yakub Memon (convicted over his involvement in the 1993 Mumbai serial blasts) on his mercy plea against the death penalty might have been the knockout blow. “This is where the cases we have done come into the picture. There is a personal agenda against us, we need to be punished for having accessed the law,” she said. All the NGOs have categorically maintained that they are being targeted for their political positions and not because the allegations themselves have any base.
Indira Jaising said: “Nothing could be more vague than the phrase ‘in public interest’. We have been told that the cancellation is in the public interest. What is the public interest is not disclosed to us. There are unsubstantiated allegations of funds not being properly maintained, but the punitive action is grossly disproportionate to the alleged improper maintenance of accounts. Our accounts have been frozen, we cannot receive any more funding. All for what? For not maintaining proper accounts? No civilised society can do this to its citizen.”
On being termed anti-national, Indira Jaising said it was the unkindest cut of all. “We have a track record going back 40 years working on issues of ending violence against women. We were the leaders in helping draft the Protection of Women Against Domestic Violence Act, we are currently engaged in working on the HIV Bill, we have argued cases for declaring Section 377 unconstitutional and succeeded in the High Court of Delhi, we have worked on the rights of transgender community successfully, we work on affordable health care cases and access to affordable medicines. Does this sound like anti-national work?”
What is happening now is an unprecedented assault on the freedom to form associations. It was part of a global trend where NGOs were seen as being anti-development, especially those speaking up against the government’s misplaced policies, said Kabir Dixit, a Supreme Court Advocate, who represented the Indian Social Action Forum (INSAF) in leading FCRA cases against the MHA. One of the cases challenging the constitutionality of some of the provisions of the Act is pending in the Supreme Court. The case raises the fundamental question of whether freedom of association even exists in India as a fundamental right of citizens. He describes the situation as tragi-comic and believes that the allegations will not stand in a court of law. “The government has repeatedly embarrassed itself by passing illegal and ultra vires orders betraying simultaneously a haste in acting against specific NGOs and a disregard for the prescribed statutory safeguards in the Act. It is difficult to believe that the officials implementing the provisions do not themselves understand the limitations on their powers. Which brings us to the obvious conclusion about the motive behind the witch-hunt. It is with that belief that we have repeatedly moved the courts and often seen success,” he said.
Even as civil society organisations term the FCRA a repressive and draconian law and call for its revocation, Indira Jaising has this to say: “The best of laws can be sabotaged by malintent by the enforcement agency. When the motive for taking action is political and extra-legal, the law becomes a proxy for achieving an extraneous object. All safeguards fail in this context. Foreign contribution is a financial matter, why is the intelligence agency involved in financial management? These matters should be within the remit of the Ministry of Finance, not the Ministry of Home Affairs.”