A group of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer citizens, groups and organisations have written an open letter criticising the government’s decision to prosecute non-governmental organisation Lawyers Collective for allegedly violating the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act. It asked the Centre to stop harassing the organisation.
The Labia Collective, a Mumbai-based queer feminist group, uploaded the statement online and urged people to sign it in support. Those who signed the statement said the Lawyers Collective has been “a torchbearer in terms of the law, policy and judicial practice in the furtherance of constitutionalism and fundamental rights, especially of the most marginalised amongst us” for close to 40 years.
The CBI’s first information report, which was registered on June 18, named senior advocate Anand Grover, who is a director and trustee of the organisation, and unidentified office-bearers and functionaries of the NGO. Senior lawyer Indira Jaising, who is married to Grover, is a trustee and secretary. The FIR was filed on the basis of a complaint by the Ministry of Home Affairs, which has alleged discrepancies in Lawyers Collective’s utilisation of foreign aid.
The ministry has said Jaising received remunerations worth Rs 96.6 lakh from foreign contributions made to the organisation during her tenure as the additional solicitor general from 2009 to 2014. The ministry alleged that Jaising had violated the FCRA by “not seeking clearances from the government for receiving foreign contributions in the form of remuneration from the organisation and accepting foreign hospitality while visiting a foreign country”. However, Jaising has not been named as an accused.
Lawyers Collective has said the FIR has “no basis in fact and in law” and has been filed to target and silence its office bearers for the cases they have taken up in the past. In May, Jaising and Grover had alleged they were being victimised and penalised for speaking up against the procedure followed by the Supreme Court’s in-house committee that cleared Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi of sexual harassment charges.
The LGBTIQ citizens and groups called on the Centre to cease the harassment of Lawyers Collective and other human rights defenders, and urged it to withdraw the case against them. “We call upon all Queer groups and LGBTIQ+ individuals to step up in support of Lawyers Collective in this moment of precariousness and ensure that the current dispensation recognises that they are not standing alone. Let us make our voices heard loud and clear,” it added.
Here is the full text of their statement:
We, the undersigned, LGBTIQ citizens, groups, collectives, and organisations write this open letter to express our shock and dismay at the actions of the current dispensation attacking the Human Rights NGO Lawyers Collective and its office bearers.
The letter relates to the vicious abuse of the law by the Union Government as a method of harassing Human Rights defenders and effectively thwarting dissent. The Central Bureau of Investigation has filed an FIR - after a three-year delay - ostensibly because the Lawyers Collective is alleged to have violated provisions of the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (FCRA). Nothing could be further from the truth, as all the sources and uses of all funding have been open and entirely legal. Instead, it is the CBI, acting at the behest of the Union Government, that is using this false allegation to tie the hands of the Lawyers Collective.
The Lawyers Collective has, for close to 40 years, been a torchbearer in terms of the law, policy and judicial practice in the furtherance of Constitutionalism and Fundamental Rights, especially of the most marginalised amongst us. From its very inception soon after the Emergency of the late 1970s, the Lawyers Collective has been crucial in enabling marginalised communities in using the Law as a tool for social, economic and political justice. The work of the Collective has formed the backbone of the civil society and even the state’s response to challenges of gender equality, Violence Against Women, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, access to medicines and treatment and the rights of Sexual and Gender Minorities.
The Lawyers Collective has always advocated for the rights of marginalised groups in Indian society. Nowhere is this commitment to upholding the fundamental rights and liberties of all people more evident in the organisation’s commitment to the rights of LGBTIQ+ people. It was the Lawyer’s Collective that took up cudgels on behalf of LGBTIQ+ community individuals in 2001 when it filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) against Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) on behalf of the Naz Foundation (India) Trust. The work that the Collective put into the litigation over close to two decades, working to ensure that its strategies were informed by LGBTIQ+ activists, has been central to the very story of the movement against Section 377 of the IPC. Further, it was the Lawyers Collective that articulated the primary arguments that found a voice in the NALSA judgment that declared the right of self-determination of gender identity of Transgender people in India and obligation of positive discrimination on the state to redress the historical marginalisation of Transgender and other gender-variant citizens. In addition to these big cases, the Lawyers Collective has over the years supported innumerable LGBTIQ+ individuals in legal struggles, against violence by state and non-state actors alike, and has consistently been available in crisis intervention. The Lawyers Collective, through its cases, advocacy and campaigns has been central to the articulation of the rights of sexual and gender minorities and has given us a robust understanding of what second-class citizenship means.
Starting in 2003, the Lawyers Collective set a precedent in facilitating the participation of civil society in the drafting of an anti-discrimination legislation relating to public health. The Human Immunodeficiency Virus and Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (Prevention and Control) Act, 2017 would not have been possible without the consistent support provided by Lawyers Collective to people living with HIV and their networks and allies. They ensured that civil society inputs were given serious consideration by policymakers and lawmakers in the formulation of the Act. As communities bearing the burden of the HIV/AIDS epidemic disproportionately, we appreciate the hard work of the Lawyers Collective in this regard.
Over the last five years, we have seen the systematic attack on dissent, critical and rational thinking and the struggles of all sorts of minorities. This has been, for the large part, in contempt for the very notion of India enshrined in our Constitution. As various organs of the State come to be controlled by an exclusionary ideology, the role of the Law as a tool of social, economic and political justice, and the role of the Law and its officers in protecting Constitutionalism is more important than ever. It is at this point that we must stand strong against the attacks on civil society and on Human Rights Defenders. The Lawyers Collective, along with Indira Jaising and Anand Grover, has been at the forefront of protecting the fundamental rights and liberties of Indian citizens and ensuring that the Government is held accountable to the due process of law. They have represented those arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case; have represented victims in the fake encounter killing of Sohrabuddin Sheikh; Yakub Memon’s plea against the death penalty. They have consistently attempted to hold this government, which behaves as though beyond the law, to account. It is for this reason that the Union Government has sought to harness the coercive force of the law to prevent the Lawyers Collective from taking up cases that the Union Government sees as undermining its authoritarian hold over the country.
We call upon the Union Government and its instruments to cease the harassment of the Lawyers Collective and other Human Rights defenders and to withdraw the case against them.
We call upon all Queer groups and LGBTIQ+ individuals to step up in support of Lawyers Collective in this moment of precariousness and ensure that the current dispensation recognises that they are not standing alone. Let us make our voices heard loud and clear.
And to Lawyers Collective we say: Just as you have stood with us, encouraged us to demand our rights and worked tirelessly alongside us in our struggles, we stand by you at this moment, in solidarity and in rage.