On June 1 2016, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) suspended the FCRA registration of Lawyers Collective (LC), a prominent association of lawyers, for 6 months. Senior Advocate Indira Jaising is its Secretary while Anand Grover serves as its President.

There were discrepancies cited in its returns with respect to foreign contributions. It was said that Jaising accepted remunerations worth ₹96.60 lakh, out of undisclosed foreign funds, when she was serving as the Additional Solicitor General (alleged to be a government servant), in violation of FCRA norms. It was said that these out of these, ₹13 lakh had been used for ‘political purposes’. This includes organising rallies/dharnas and draft legislation meetings with respect to the HIV/AIDS Bill in 2009, 2011, and 2014.

Back then, the LC issued a statement, saying that the suspension amounted to gross misuse of the FCRA Act, to suppress any form of dissent. This was because both Grover and Jaising had represented several persons in cases against the government and its functionaries. This includes the Sohrabuddin murder case against present Home Minister, Amit Shah, and Yakub Memon’s case as well. The Collective also stated the post of ASG is a public servant, and not a government servant, on whom there was no prohibition in the law against accepting such funds.

In May 2019, the NGO has issued a notice by the Supreme Court for these allegations, on a petition filed by another organisation called Lawyers Voice. The petition sought an SIT probe into the alleged violations.

Recently, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) decided to register a case against LC and Anand Grover on these charges. The FIR is as per a May complaint filed by Anil Kumar Dhasmana, an Under Secretary in the MHA. It alleged that the NGO diverted foreign contributions for activities not mentioned in the objects of the association and that funds were used for personal expenses unrelated to the stated objects. The FIR invokes provisions of the IPC, FCRA, and the Prevention of Corruption Act dealing with cheating, criminal conspiracy, and criminal breach of trust, inter alia.

The LC, earlier registered under FCRA, received more than ₹32 crore in foreign donations between 2006 and 2015. The FIR mentions that after prima facie violations appeared, the MHA conducted on-site inspections of accounts in January 2016 and sought explanations. Not satisfied with them, it cancelled LC’s registration in November 2016.

The Collective issued a statement, expressing ‘shock and outrage’ over the CBI’s move. The statement refers to the reply submitted to the MHA in 2016, wherein it said that it had been targeted and victimised for its involvement in sensitive cases, which includes challenging the detentions in the Bhima Koregaon issue, as well as the case involving former Kolkata Police Commissioner Rajeev Kumar.

LC questioned the inaction of the CBI for about two and a half years since the cancellation of its FCRA registration in 2016. It claimed innocence and said that there had been no material change in circumstances during this period which necessitated this move. The cancellation has been challenged in the Bombay High Court, where the matter is sub judice.

The Collective alleges victimisation at the hands of the present dispensation, for its involvement in sensitive cases, such as the one against Home Minister Amit Shah.

The statement also sought to link the May notice with this move, by saying that the NGO Lawyers Voice comprises lawyers from the BJP and its ‘main protagonist’ is the head of the Legal Cell of the BJP in Delhi. It also highlighted the participation of its members in addressing concerns “on the subversion of due process of law in the Courts in the matter of the alleged sexual harassment by a former employee of the Supreme Court of India”, and alleged victimisation on the basis of the same. This is interesting, because Indira Jaising had been vocal in demanding a fair enquiry into the allegations of sexual harassment made against Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi, and demanded his immediate recusal from hearing the matter.

The LC saw the move as an attack on the right to representation, for those who dissent their views against the ruling party, and on the right to freedom of speech and expression, and the legal profession in general. It alleged the personal targeting of its office-bearers for speaking in defence of human rights, secularism, and independence of the judiciary, particularly in their capacity as senior lawyers in court.

The Central Government has invoked Section 43 of the FCRA, 2010 to assign the investigation to the CBI. However, notification S.O./2446/E, issued by the Government of India, dated 27 October 2011, empowers the CBI to investigate only those matters where the alleged violation is in respect of amounts exceeding ₹1 crore or more. This means that the government has used exceptional powers in the given case, which are ideally supposed to be invoked only in grave cases of national interest.

The matter is currently sub judice. It is now up to the Lawyers Collective to come clean in a court of law. While the allegations are claimed to be completely baseless, the veracity of the same must be left to the discretion of the highest court of the land. Utmost faith should be placed in the institutional mechanisms in place, and at the same time, the integrity of the legal profession to get justice done must be preserved at all times.

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