The Indian government has placed the Ford Foundation on a watchlist for giving funds to activist Teesta Setalvad’s organisations, claiming that the money was used for anti-national activities. But the irony of that charge, Setalvad says, it is the Union government that contributed the largest amount of funds to one of her organisations.

The Ministry of Human Resource Development gave Rs 1.4 crore to Setalvad’s Sabrang Trust in 2011, outstripping the grant of Rs 1.2 crore made by the Ford Foundation to the organisation in 2009. Both these grants were for periods of around three years. Together, they account for about 80% of the total donations the Trust has received since it registered its account under the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act in 2007, Setalvad says.

In recent days, both the Gujarat and central governments have raised questions about Setalvad’s organisations, Sabrang Trust and Sabrang Communications and Publishing Private Limited, receiving funds from the Ford Foundation.

The Gujarat government wrote a letter to the Union Home Ministry on April 11, making a number of allegations over the funding. Besides claiming that the money was used almost entirely for office expenses, the letter stated, “By allowing [Sabrang Communications and Publishing Private Limited] to declare that serving and retired naval and Army officers are engaged in terror generation, Ford Foundation allowed defamation of Indian military.”

About a fortnight later, on April 23, the Ministry of Home Affairs asked the Reserve Bank of India to put all contributions from the Ford Foundation on its watchlist – ensuring that no funds from the Foundation can be routed to any Indian organisation until they have been approved by the Home Ministry. This is beyond an existing level of clearance required from the Department of Economic Affairs at the Union Finance Ministry.

The Home Ministry didn’t reply to an email questionnaire sent by Despite several attempts, Ford Foundation too did not reply to requests for comment.

Funds questioned

Apart from the general and undefined “anti-national activity” accusation, the Home Ministry might be specifically calling into question two sums of montey that the Ford Foundation transferred to Sabrang Communications and Publishing, which does not have an FCRA account, according to an unidentified ministry official quoted by the Times of India.

In 2004 and 2006, Sabrang Communications, which publishes a monthly journal called Communalism Combat, entered into a consultancy agreement with the Foundation “to address communalism and caste-based discrimination in India through active research, Web-based information dissemination, development of civil society networks and media strategies”. In 2004, it received Rs 40 lakh for two years, and in 2006, Rs 90 lakh for three years.

The funds were treated as income for the organisation and so the Sabrang Communications says it was eligible for them. According to the rules of the Foreign Contributions Regulations Act, Sabrang Communications, as a publisher, is ineligible for foreign grants. But it can receive foreign contributions as consultancy fees and salaries in the course of its business.

This was not a grant to which FCRA rules would apply, emphasised Setalvad, and was treated as salaried taxable income to the organisation. The Ford Foundation even deducted tax at source when transferring these amounts each year. Sabrang Communications, in turn, used the money during the normal course of its work, said Setalvad, including for documenting and publicising information relating to communal violence over the years in places such as Kandhamal, Delhi, Gujarat and Mumbai, and for advocacy projects.

Setalvad and her husband Javed Anand say they verified their eligibility for a consultancy agreement with the Foundation with an eminent lawyer in Mumbai at the time. They maintain the money was used for regular business of Sabrang Communications.

Officials from the Home Ministry, which supervises donations under the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act, inspected the accounts of Citizens for Justice and Peace and Sabrang Trust over six days from April 6. On the last day of inspection, they also gave them a standard FCRA questionnaire for Sabrang Communications, to which Setalvad and Anand declared their consultancy agreement. Setalvad says they said they would get back to her if anything irregular. As of now, the ministry has not yet communicated with her.

She flatly denies charges of carrying out “anti-national activities”.

“What has Citizens for Justice and Peace or Sabrang done wrong?” she asked. “We have done everything to strengthen the constitutional framework and the secular fundamentals of this country. How dare anyone say this is anti-national? Calling constitutional work anti-national is, I think, anti-national.”

Not so foreign

Setalvad and Javed Anand run three organisations. In 1993, after the Babri Masjid demolition and the Bombay riots, they started Sabrang Communications and Publishing. Sabrang Trust followed in 1995 as an advocacy group for communal harmony. Finally, in 2002, they started Citizens for Justice and Peace, a legal aid group for victims of communal violence, which handles the legal cases of the 2002 Gujarat riot victims.

Sabrang Trust and Citizens for Justice and Peace registered FCRA accounts in November 2007. Until then, all their donations came from Indian sources.

Citizens for Justice and Peace is mostly funded by local donors, Setalvad says. It received its first foreign contributions – Rs 18.71 lakh from two donors – in March 2009, for procuring two ambulances after the November 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai. Since 2010, around 20% of its funds, around Rs 80 lakh, have come from the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture, including a grant in January 2014. This is by far the largest of its foreign donations, she says. The rest, around Rs 4 crore, came from local donors, including the personal contributions of Board members of Citizens for Justice and Peace and family and friends.

For a project lasting from October 2009 to March 2013, Sabrang Trust received Rs 1.2 crore from the Ford Foundation as “tie-off support to strengthen [the trust’s] conflict resolution and peace building activities in Gujarat and Maharashtra”. These activities, Setalvad says, include organising peace building meetings and workshops, not centred on the Gujarat riots alone.

For instance, the Trust organised a workshop to advocate for the codification of Muslim Personal Law to reduce gender injustice. To commemorate 20 years of the 1992-’93 riots in Bombay, the Trust organised a workshop with activists working for justice for the victims of the 1984 riots in Delhi, Gujarat riots in 2002 and Khairlanji massacre in 2006. It also worked with the Maharashtra government to publicise its scholarship schemes for minority students.

Less than 20% of the foreign contributions to both organisations were used for office expenses, Setalvad says, much less than the FCRA-stipulated limit of 50%. She clarifies that no Ford Foundation grant is active at present.

Previous governments, both at the Centre and the Gujarat state, approved of the Sabrang Trust. In 2011, the Ministry of Human Resource Development granted it Rs 1.4 crore, outstripping the contribution of the Ford Foundation. The funds were given for expanding the activities of KHOJ–Education for a Plural India, an education initiative that addresses communal, caste, class and gender biases in schools. Sabrang Trust works with around 2,000 students in Gujarat and Maharashtra every year and builds supplementary material for their textbooks.

Credibility at stake

This is not the first time Setalvad has been targeted since Citizens for Justice and Peace took on the work of representing survivors of the Gujarat riots.

In fact, the Central government’s decision to closely examine her organisations’ funding stems from a case filed in January 2014 against Setalvad and Anand for alleged embezzlement of funds for a proposed museum at the Gulberg Society in Ahmedabad.

Since that case was registered, Setalvad and Anand say they have submitted over 20,000 documents to investigators from the crime branch of the Gujarat police. Despite it being a case of paperwork rather than subjective details, the Gujarat police still wants to interrogate them in custody. A plea for anticipatory bail is pending in the Supreme Court and their accounts remain frozen.

Apart from the Ford Foundation funds, according to media reports, the government might also examine the contribution of the Human Resources Development Ministry to Sabrang Trust. However, there has been no development on this since the reports appeared in March.

Setalvad alleges that there is a sustained campaign to discredit their work.

“The government wants to attack us at three levels,” she said. “One is to please their constituency. Second, any individuals or institutions who have donated to us might get scared off. And third, this campaign sends a strong message to others like us that this is what it means to have a majority of 292 under this regime.”

That does not mean they will stop their work, she says. “Our activities will continue irrespective of funding from this or that organisation.”