The Home Ministry order cancelling the FCRA registration of Teesta Setalvad’s trust will further hinder her work for Gujarat riot victims. By ANUPAMA KATAKAM

ON June 16, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) issued an order cancelling the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, 2010, (FCRA) registration of the Sabrang Trust, of which the chief trustees are the activist Teesta Setalvad and her husband, Javed Anand. The order means that the Sabrang Trust will not be able to receive foreign funding anymore.

The Ministry’s order said that the FCRA registration was being cancelled because of monetary irregularities detected in the Sabrang Trust’s transactions and also that the organisation’s responses to the charges had been carefully examined. It said that the trust had spent Rs.50 lakh for Sabrang Communications & Publishing Pvt Limited (SCPPL), of which Teesta Setalvad and Javed Anand are directors, co-editors, printers and publishers. “By this action, the NGO [non-governmental organisation] has not only unauthorisedly utilised the foreign contribution for the purposes of an unregistered entity but also that entity being a self-owned media and publication company, utilised that amount for activities totally prohibited by FCRA,” the order added.

The trust responded to the order with a statement, saying: “The Trustees regret to note that today’s order of the Home Ministry is simply a mechanical reiteration of the very same allegations made earlier, in total disregard to the detailed and reasoned explanations and arguments put forward by the Trust. Sabrang Trust will actively explore all legal options to challenge the order.”

Teesta Setalvad told Frontline: “It is an old story which you also have been following. We have been fighting this for two years. This decision was pre-decided. When Javed went for the hearing, it was over in seven to 10 minutes. This is nothing but a vilification campaign to malign and defame.” The Sabrang Trust works on issues relating to communal harmony. The choking of funds effected by the MHA order will hinder its work, particularly its work with the victims of the 2002 violence in Gujarat.

Accusations and Rebuttal

The MHA has listed six FCRA violations by the Sabrang Trust. Teesta Setalvad and her team have said they have already refuted each one of the charges. In a press release of October 2015, Teesta Setalvad’s defence team said in the 2015 release that the transfer of Rs.50 lakh (between 2006-07 and 2013-14) was “payment” by the Sabrang Trust to SCPPL towards its agreed monthly share of shared actual expenses incurred on office/furniture and fixtures/office equipment/staff. No part of this amount was paid to Teesta Setalvad or Javed Anand, and no rent has ever been charged to any trust or entity for use of office space by Teesta Setalvad’s parents, as alleged.

The MHA order says that the NGO did not obtain the mandatory government permission before utilising over 50 per cent of foreign contributions for administrative expenditure. Teesta Setalvad’s press release had contended that its administrative expenses for 2010-11 and 2011-12, the check period, were well below the permissible 50 per cent limit. She says that the MHA has collated project-related expenses incurred in furtherance of the objectives of the trust with administrative expenses. The FCRA, 2010, clearly states that expenses directly related to project execution are not to be included in administrative expenses, the trust says.

The order stated that the inspection of records showed that the chief trustees Teesta Setalvad and Javed Anand also work as directors, co-editors, printers and publishers in SCPPL, which publishes a magazine called Communalism Combat. Both entities function from the same premises, utilising staff, infrastructure and other resources interchangeably. This violates Section 3 and 7, 8 (1) (a) of the FCRA, 2010. The organisation’s position is that though the Sabrang Trust, the association that had been granted registration under FCRA, was prohibited from publishing or acting as correspondent, columnist, editor, and so on, there was no restriction or prohibition on any of its board members or office-bearers from acting as publishers, editors and printers of a registered newspaper run by some other independent legal entity.

Another MHA allegation is that the Sabrang Trust made direct payments of approximately Rs.12 lakh from its FCRA-designated account to CitiBank and Union Bank of India to meet liabilities on credit cards belonging to Teesta Setalvad and Javed Anand respectively. The activist couple and other Sabrang Trust members say that these are “false and baseless allegations”.

A member of a lawyers’ group in Mumbai suggested that the order probably reflected the government’s frustration at the way the activist couple had been protected from arrest by the country’s judicial system: “The Supreme Court has been extending from time to time protection to Setalvad and Anand from arrest and custodial interrogation, sought by the CBI [Central Bureau of Investigation], on the grounds that it was not required if the accused submitted all the required documents in connection with allegations of financial irregularities to the investigators. The cancellation of the FCRA registration of the Sabrang Trust, therefore, has been argued by some to have been the result of the government’s frustration with the continued protection from arrest of the couple by the Supreme Court.”

Teesta Setalvad’s story

The MHA order is damaging to the reputation of not only the Sabrang Trust but also Teesta Setalvad, who has been at the forefront of the protracted and intense legal battles seeking justice to the victims of the 2002 communal violence in Gujarat. Along with Zakia Jafri, whose husband, Ehsan Jafri, was killed in the Gulberg Society massacre, she has also been seeking a criminal trial against Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

In early 2012, the Sabrang Trust and the Committee for Justice and Peace (CJP, also led by Teesta Setalvad) mooted the idea of building a memorial museum within the Gulberg Society compound. To raise funds for the project, the team held an “Art for Humanity” auction, for which over 80 well-known Indian contemporary artists donated their works. The CJP earned over Rs.1 crore from the exhibition.

If Teesta Setalvad’s campaign for riot survivors rattled certain sections, an opportunity to discredit her and her work seemed to present itself when Rais Khan, a former CJP employee and Gulberg Society carnage survivor, filed a first information report (FIR) in January 2014 with the Ahmedabad city crime branch alleging that the organisation misused funds collected in the name of providing relief and legal help to riot victims. There is a view that Rais Khan was set up to discredit Teesta Setalvad.

After Rais Khan’s FIR was filed, the activist couple and their organisations faced repeated harassment at the hands of the police in Gujarat. They were forced into repeated court appearances; bank accounts were frozen; there were inspections by law-enforcement agencies; they were required to produce a lot of paperwork. In 2015, the CBI tried to get Teesta Setalvad arrested, but she was able to get bail.

Soon after Modi became Prime Minister, FCRA regulations with regard to NGO funds were amended. Not long after that, the Intelligence Bureau (I.B.) drew up a watch list of NGOs that might be threatening “national security” or engaging in “anti-national” activities. Teesta Setalvad’s organisations did not feature in the list, but the FCRA rules seem to have eventually got her.

If Teesta Setalvad has been facing harassment in the last couple of years, crackdowns on NGOs started in 2013 with Greenpeace, the National Alliance of Anti-Nuclear Movements (NAAM) and the People’s movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE) facing accusations of engaging in anti-national activities or movements threatening national security. The activists Priya Pillai of Greenpeace and S.P. Udayakumar of the PMANE were hounded by the government for their involvement in the anti-coal mines and nuclear power campaigns.

Earlier this month, the MHA cancelled the licence of Lawyer’s Collective, which is led by former Additional Solicitor General Indira Jaising. Informed sources say other NGOs are also under scrutiny. The Ford Foundation, which funds NGOs, was listed in the infamous I.B. “watch list”.

Apparently, it came under scrutiny for jeopardising “national interests”. However, the label was removed from the organisation in June this year.

Crackdowns part of a larger plan?Rights groups, prominent activists and NGOs say that the government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is trying to keep corporate India happy. The crackdown against NGOs is part of that larger plan. Anyone who crosses the path of corporate entities will clearly pay a price.

In April 2014, just before the general election that returned Modi as the Prime Minister, the well-known columnist and Gujarat commentator Aakar Patel warned: “Like all tyrants, Modi has a fundamentally primitive view of criticism. Those who oppose him, write against what he says and does, are enemies and he must fix them before they harm him. They should watch out.”

In the same piece, he commented on Teesta Setalvad: “She is a genuine heroine who is being slowly martyred and tortured by Modi, as a disinterested nation looks elsewhere. This is the sort of third-rate pettiness Modi likes descending to because as a nation we allow him to. This constant mischief from Modi keeps Setalvad away from the work Modi is afraid of.”