The Ministry of Home Affairs has suspended the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act licence of activist Harsh Mander’s think tank Centre for Equity Studies for 180 days.

Mander is a former Indian Administrative Service officer and the author of half a dozen books, including Locking Down the Poor and Partitions of the Heart: Unmaking the Idea of India. He is also one of the founders of the Centre for Equity Studies, an autonomous think tank engaged in advocating issues of social justice.

In an order on June 14, the ministry said that Mander has regularly been writing columns for newspapers such as The Indian Express, The Hindu, The Wire, the Hindustan Times, The Quint and Scroll.

Harsh Mander, trustee, has accepted foreign contribution amounting to Rs 12,64,671 during the financial year 2011-’12 to 2017-’18 as professional receipts/ payments from the FCRA account of the association [Centre for Equity Studies],” the order added. “This is in violation of Sections 3 and 8 of the Act and conditions of registration under Section 12(4)(a)(vi) of the Act.”

Registration under Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, or FCRA, is mandatory to receive foreign funds. The suspension of the licence makes the think tank ineligible to get fresh donations from abroad or use the existing foreign donations without the home ministry’s clearance.

Section 3 of the Act prohibits acceptance of foreign contributions by correspondents, columnists, cartoonists, editors, owners, printers and publishers of a registered newspaper. Section 8 of the Act states that organisations receiving foreign contributions must use them only for the purpose they are intended for.

Section 12(4)(a)(vi) of the Act prohibits the use of foreign contributions for personal gains or their diversion for undesirable purposes.

In its notice, the Ministry of Home Affairs claimed that Mander published columns with other persons, who were paid from the Centre for Equity Studies’ FCRA account.

“One such example is the article written in Scroll on August 6, 2018, by Harsh Mander, Anjali Bhardwaj and Amrita Johri,” the ministry said. “It is reported that Amrita Johri and Anjali Bhardwaj have been paid Rs 1,13,251, and Rs 25,64,550 from the FCRA account of the association.”

The ministry also accused the think tank of using foreign contributions to create and release reports authored by non-FCRA associations. It cited a 2020 report, Labouring Lives: Hunger and Despair Amid Lockdown, the think had produced in collaboration with the Delhi Research Group and Karwan-E-Mohabbat and was supported by Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, a German foundation.

Mander’s Karwan-e-Mohabbat is a people’s campaign for solidarity that reaches out to survivors of hate crimes and documents those stories.

The ministry also alleged that Mander’s think tank received foreign contributions from foreign donors “who have given funds specifically for the purposes which are beyond the objectives of the trust”.

“Utilization of foreign contribution for such purposes is likely to affect prejudicially the sovereignty and integrity of India,” it said.

The ministry added that scrutiny of the think tank’s annual returns showed that there is a financial mismatch and that it failed to reply to a questionnaire sent on March 3.

Action against Mander

In March, the home ministry had recommended a Central Bureau of Investigation inquiry against Mander’s non-governmental organisation Aman Biradari for alleged violation of foreign funding norms.

Previously, Mander had been under the scrutiny of the Enforcement Directorate in connection with money-laundering allegations. In September 2021, the agency conducted raids at his home in Delhi’s Vasant Kunj area, his office at the Centre for Equity Studies in the city’s Sarvodaya Enclave locality, and Umeed, a children’s home that his organisation runs in the Mehrauli neighbourhood.

A group of over 600 eminent persons had at the time said that the raids were part of the Centre’s use of government institutions to “threaten, intimidate and silence” its critics.

In October 2020, two children’s homes that Mander is associated with were raided by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights. The child rights body had alleged financial irregularities in the organisations associated with Mander and claimed that children from these homes were taken to protest sites.

It had also alleged that the Centre for Equity Studies had received “hefty funds” that were being used for “illicit activities like religious conversion”.