As early as in 2016, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Central government made clear its intention to act against non-governmental organisations it believed were inconvenient. Senior leaders made a slew of statements accusing some NGOs of acting against India’s interests – and using foreign funding to do so. The registrations of approximately 10,000 NGOs were cancelled, barring them from receiving funds from overseas. Many of them worked in areas like the environment, rural development and human rights, and some had challenged the government’s positions in crucial cases.
Three years later, the Lawyers Collective, a human rights NGO led by veteran lawyers Indira Jaising and Anand Grover, has been subjected to penal action. On Wednesday, the Central Bureau of Investigation filed a first information report against the group for allegedly violating the Prevention of Money Laundering Act.
The Central Bureau of Investigation is reported to have claimed that the NGO “participated in political activities, diversion or misuse of foreign contributions, and their use on air travels, draft legislation meetings and dharnas”. The collective has denied the charges. There was no bar on it from being remunerated for its work, it said.
The action comes at a time when Indira Jaising is at the forefront of the case involving a sexual harassment complaint against the Chief Justice of India, Ranjan Gogoi. Over the decades, the collective has fought sensitive matters, including the Sohrabuddin fake encounter case in Gujarat, in which Union Home Minister Amit Shah was a main accused until he was discharged in 2014.
Jaising has accused the Centre of vendetta and has said that the collective will challenge the charges in court.
It is nobody’s argument that those who violate the law should go unpunished. If the Lawyers’ Collective has indeed violated the rules, it is the state’s duty to act against it. However, the fact that this appears to be a selective action is worrying. Neither the Centre nor the Central Bureau of Investigation has revealed what follow up action has been taken against the thousands of other NGOs whose licenses have been cancelled in recent years. The authorities have also failed to explain why they took three years to proceed against the Lawyers Collective.
Unless there is transparency in the case, it will be difficult for the Centre to defend itself against the charges that it is targeting a group has challenged the interests of some very powerful people.