Human rights campaigners from South Africa are using Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to the country as an opportunity to demand his government stop hounding Lawyers' Collective, an Indian advocacy group. The organisations delivered an open letter to the Indian consulate on Thursday, adding their voices to the global calls for the Indian government to revoke its cancellation of the foreign-funding licence for the organisation co-founded by Indira Jaising.
"The below civil society organisations and individuals in South Africa are concerned with the protection of the space for civil society to operate freely in order to carry out their respective mandates concerning the advancement of fundamental human rights, public and private sector accountability and other public interest activities. These activities are critical to the protection of marginalised groups and the meaningful realisation of the provisions of the Constitution. The step taken against Lawyers Collective by the Union Ministry for Home Affairs in India is part of a wider clampdown on civil society around the world, including continued threats of such clampdowns in South Africa."
Lawyers' Collective is one of the most prominent civil rights organisations in the country, with a focus on providing legal assistance to the underprivileged. Co-founder Indira Jaisingh also gained prominence because she has represented Teesta Setalvad, an activist who has sought justice for victims of the 2002 Godhra riots, and Sanjiv Bhatt, a police officer who claims Prime Minister Narendra Modi should have been held culpable for the violence in the riots.
In March, the organisation received a notice from the Home Ministry asking it to explain an alleged misappropriation of funds received from abroad, with the ministry alleging that foreign donations were used for activities other than the ones they were collected for. On June 1, the government suspended the FCRA licence of Lawyers' Collective for 180 days, meaning it could no longer receive any donations from abroad. The government also said the organisation should justify why the suspension should not be made permanent.
"Lawyers Collective has been absolutely instrumental in ensuring that the environment that enables India to continue to be the Pharmacy of the Developing World is maintained, even in the face of serious external pressures on India to deviate from its historical pro-public health stance. Through its work, vulnerable people in both India and South Africa (among others) have had access to life-saving medicines that they would not otherwise have been able to afford.
In this context, we were shocked to hear that on 1 June 2016, the Union Ministry for Home Affairs suspended for 180 days the Lawyers Collective’s licence to receive foreign funding."— Open letter to Narendra Modi from South African organisations
The government's actions have caused uproar within the human rights advocacy community in India and abroad. Lawyers Collective called it a "deliberate and sustained effort to target and vilify" the organisation. In June, three special rapporteurs from the United Nations called on India to repeal the FCRA altogether, saying they were "alarmed that FCRA provisions are being used more and more to silence organisations involved in advocating civil, political, economic, social, environmental or cultural priorities, which may differ from those backed by the Government".
More than 450 people and organisations from 50 different countries also chimed in, demanding that Lawyers Collective be permitted to continue their work. The South African organisations, such as the Human Rights Institute of South Africa and the SOS Coalition, have also called for Modi – currently on a visit to the country – to reverse the government's actions against Lawyers' Collective.
"On the occasion of your visit to South Africa on 8 July 2016, the below signatories from South Africa join the global calls on the Prime Minister to immediately lift the suspension order against the Lawyers Collective and to make a public commitment to respect independent civil society organisations that play a critical role in advancing fundamental rights"