Backgrounder: The Modi government’s campaign against the Lawyers Collective
Watch Stephen Lewis’ commentary on the Indira Jaising and Anand Grover case here.
In 2016, the Indian government suspended and then cancelled the Lawyers Collective’s license to receive overseas donations under the Foreign Contributions (Regulation) Act (FCRA). The government said that foreign funds the Lawyers Collective received were being used for “political purposes”. The Lawyers Collective has challenged the cancellation of the license in the High Court of Bombay and the case is still pending. Since January 2017, the Lawyers Collective has only been able to use domestic funds for its operations.
The FCRA regulates the acceptance of foreign funds by associations and NGOs and requires these groups to report to the government on how overseas donations are used. More than 10,000 civil society groups in India have had their licenses to receive foreign funds under the FCRA cancelled or suspended for “violations” since Prime Minister Modi took office in 2014. This includes Greenpeace India and Citizens for Justice and Peace, an organization fighting for justice for Muslim victims of violence in Gujarat. The government has claimed that licenses have been revoked for groups that have been involved in ”anti-national” work.
In May 2019, an organization called “Lawyers Voice” petitioned the Indian Supreme Court to seek criminal prosecution against the Lawyers Collective for misusing foreign funds for “activities against the nation”. The Supreme Court, headed by Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi, then issued a notice to the Lawyers Collective requiring them to respond to the allegations. Lawyers Collective president Anand Grover and founding secretary Indira Jaising stated that “Lawyers Voice” is backed by Modi’s party, the BJP, and that this action was directly linked to Jaising’s strong criticism of the exoneration of Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi from sexual harassment allegations only days before. The recent attacks on Jaising and Grover have been linked to this criticism, as well as for speaking out against the Modi government.
On June 13, India’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) issued a criminal case against the Lawyers Collective including charges of criminal conspiracy and criminal breach of trust under the Indian Penal Code, the FCRA, and the Prevention of Corruption Act. Anand Grover, as the president of the Lawyers Collective, is listed as the accused. Many of the criminal offences listed carry a minimum prison sentence. Indira Jaising is not an accused, but her name is mentioned in the police investigation report.
On July 11, the CBI conducted surprise raids on the Lawyers Collective offices and Anand Grover and Indira Jaising's offices and home. The CBI claimed the raid related to its investigation into foreign funding of the Lawyers Collective, which began in 2016. The Lawyers Collective issued a statement on July 12, stating that the CBI’s actions were “unwarranted, illegal, and amount to gross abuse of the process of law”. It states that despite thousands of NGOs having their FCRA licenses cancelled, the Lawyers Collective is the only group to have faced criminal prosecution: “The Lawyers Collective has been targeted because of the nature of cases that Ms. Jaising and Mr. Grover have taken up in their professional capacity, including those against the leading figures of the ruling dispensation in various sensitive cases”.
History of work
Anand Grover and Indira Jaising are both acclaimed human rights lawyers in India and internationally. They formed the Lawyers Collective together in 1981. Both Jaising and Grover have represented many individuals who have been targeted by the Modi government, including Jaising’s recent advocacy for Greenpeace activist Priya Pillai. They have long been involved in sensitive human rights cases including representing the victims of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, and in mass evacuation cases.
Indira Jaising is one of the leading women’s rights lawyers in India. She was the first woman to be designated a Senior Advocate by the High Court of Bombay. She was elected to represent India on The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women Committee (CEDAW) and served in that capacity from 2009 to 2014. Jaising was one of the chief architects of India’s domestic violence law, enacted in 2005, and has won several cases relating to discrimination against women including on inheritance rights, divorce, equal pay, and sexual harassment. In 2017 she led a UN mission to investigate human rights abuses against Rohingya in Myanmar. In 2018, she was ranked 20 in Fortune’s list of 50 World’s Greatest Leaders.
Anand Grover served as United Nations Special Rapporteur on Right to Health from 2008 to 2014. He is currently a Commissioner on the Global Commission on Drug Policy, and on the UNAIDS Reference Group on HIV and Human Rights. As a senior advocate in India, Anand Grover is well known for his work on access to medicines. In 2008, he won a landmark Supreme Court case against Novartis, which set a precedent for the patent status of antiretroviral drugs in India so that certain drugs were ineligible for patenting. He also won another case against Novartis in 2013 representing cancer patients, in which the company lost its appeal for a patent. He has argued many cases relating to the rights of people living with HIV, including the rights of sex workers and the first case in India relating to HIV and employment law. Grover was instrumental in the overturning of Section 377 of the Constitution, which decriminalized homosexuality. He represented the Naz Foundation, which brought the original challenge in 2001, and fought that case for 17 years until winning in 2018.
There has been widespread coverage of the criminal charges and raids against the Lawyers Collective in Indian media. Here is a selection:
June 18: the Business Standard reports on the criminal charges against Grover (before the raids occurred).
June 20: Anoo Bhuyan in The Wire writes of Jaising and Grover’s contributions to Indian society over a collective 80 years in response to criminal charges laid.
July 11: NDTV covers the raids, giving a detailed account of the accusations and Jaising’s response.
July 11: The Hindu reports on the raids, noting that Grover is accused of spending foreign funds when he appeared in the 2013 Novartis case in the Supreme Court. Also features video of Jaising reacting to the raids, stating she and Grover were being targeted for their human rights work.
July 11: Reuters reports on the raids. This appears to be the only international wire service that ran the story.
July 12: The Times of India reports on the raids.
Support for the Lawyers Collective
2016 -- FCRA license revoked
In June 2016, three UN Special Rapporteurs (on freedom of expression, freedom of association, and on human rights defenders) urged the government of India to reinstate the Lawyers Collective’s FCRA license and called for the Act’s repeal. They argued the FCRA is being used to “silence organizations” working to defend human rights. The special rapporteurs stated that they were “alarmed by reports that the suspension was politically motivated and was aimed at intimidating, delegitimising and silencing Lawyers Collective for their litigation and criticism of the Government’s policies”.
In July 2016, over 400 human rights experts and civil society leaders from over 50 countries wrote to Prime Minister Modi, demanding that he intervene to reinstate the Lawyers Collective FCRA license. The group wrote under the umbrella of the “Lawyers Collective International Solidarity Campaign”. South African Constitutional Court Judge Justice Edwin Cameron also wrote to Modi in the same vein that month.
2019 -- criminal charges laid and raids conducted
On June 24, AIDAN (All-India Drug Action Network) condemned the charges against the Lawyers Collective, drawing attention to Grover’s legacy as a UN Special Rapporteur and stating it was a “draconian attempt” to threaten “human rights advocates in India to desist from fighting for human rights”.
Amnesty International India and Human Rights Watch issued a statement on June 26, dismissing the “dubious” criminal charges against the Lawyers Collective.
Nearly 400 women’s rights activists and civil society members wrote a statement in solidarity and support for the Lawyers Collective after criminal charges were laid, drawing attention to Ms. Jaising’s protests in the case against Chief Justice Gogoi.
On July 11 (the day of the raids), the International Commission of Jurists issued a statement demanding that the Indian authorities “stop harassment” of the Lawyers Collective and repeal the FCRA, which it argues silences dissent in India.
The Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales also condemned the raids on July 11, stating that they formed “a pattern of harassment and intimidation directed against civil society” and reiterated its call for the repeal of the FCRA.
A group of Opposition MPs in India wrote to Prime Minister Modi on July 11 condemning the raids as “a brute show of intimidation and gross abuse of power”.
Citizens for Justice and Peace, another NGO that has been targeted by the Indian government, issued a statement in solidarity with the Lawyers Collective on July 11.
The former Executive Director of Section27, Mark Heywood, wrote an op-ed in the Daily Maverick on July 14, describing Grover's legacy, particularly as it relates to the work Grover has done assisting campaigns against pharmaceutical companies in South Africa. He called on South African President Cyril Ramaphosa to speak out against Modi’s attack on the Lawyers Collective.
On July 16, the Global Commission on Drug Policy issued a statement condemning the “harassment” of their colleague Anand Grover for the past three years, and to “stop immediately the growing and worrying trend of attacks on civil society”. Several well-known figures such as Helen Clark, Michel Kazatchkine, and José Ramos-Horta are Commissioners alongside Anand Grover. The late Kofi Annan also served as a Commissioner before his death.
A number of French-speaking NGOs working on AIDS wrote to the Ambassador of India in France on July 18, and AIDS Action Europe wrote to the Indian embassies in Brussels, Luxembourg, and the EU, expressing their concern regarding the Lawyers Collective’s situation.
Front Line Defenders has issued an urgent appeal to Indian authorities to drop the “fabricated” charges, to stop attacking the Lawyers Collective, and to repeal the FCRA.
A group of 56 retired Indian civil servants penned an open letter published July 22, condemning the attacks against the Lawyers Collective and other human rights defenders in India: “We find it intensely worrying that there are crude and ham-handed attempts to intimidate such voices into silence, using the institutions of state authority”.