According to some news reports, one of the charges against you is that while you were additional solicitor-general you accepted a salary from the Lawyers’ Collective. Does this mean that you were also attending to LC work besides the ASG’s work?
The main charge against me is that during the period 2009 to 2014, I was an additional solicitor-general of India and during that period I was getting paid for the services that I was performing for Lawyers’ Collective. Yes, it is true I did get paid and all this is disclosed to the funders and to the government in our returns. Nothing was kept back. The funders have no grievance in relation to that. The project for which Lawyers’ Collective was given a grant was on issues of gender justice.
To begin with, I was not a “government servant” as ASG. Our appointment is a political appointment and we hold office only so long as the government has confidence in us. We do have a tenure of office. No law officer is a government servant, they advise the government. I was the first woman ever to be appointed as ASG by the UPA government and I appreciate that appointment and am grateful to them for ensuring that women got appointed. The NDA was forced to follow with the appointment of a woman as an ASG. Who knows, one day a woman will be the Attorney General of India as well. But to come back to your question, it is so obvious that law officers are not government servants. Look, the current attorney general was given permission to appear for the liquor lobby of Kerala. Why would he if he was a government servant? So this is nothing but harassment to say that I am a government servant. They, too, know this is not true, but these are straws they need to clutch on to.
Do you feel that government is targeting your NGO? If so, why?
Yes, we are being targeted, or to put it legally, persecuted. This is a case of the government misusing and subverting its own laws instead of upholding them. All governments are known to persecute their opponents. In a democracy governed by a Constitution, every one has the right to political activity, everyone has a right to a political opinion. They know that they cannot legally stop that so they use illegal means. These illegal means include “leaks” to the press of defamatory materials without giving the person an opportunity to deal with them first. This is what they have done to us. There is an abuse of process going on here. A law meant for one purpose is being used for another. The problem is not the law but with the manner in which it is being used. Today, the FCRA is being used to disguise the real motive — that is to stop people from opposing the government.
They are foolish; they should understand that there will always be people who will oppose the government whether they get funds or not. People speak from behind bars, who can stop them? Money does not make you speak, people give you money because they appreciate your work.
The general perception is that you are being targeted because of the cases that you have been taking up against the government, including Amit Shah, BJP president. How many cases have you fought against the government?
The first showcause notice was released to the press on the day Anand Grover was due to appear in Bombay high court challenging the discharge of Amit Shah in a triple murder case. They know the case was on board as Mr Shah’s lawyer was appearing in the case on that day. As you know, the CBI did not appeal against the order. When we pointed out that we had not been given any opportunity to be heard, they quickly removed the notice from the website of the MHA. But how could they withdraw the news reports?
The second one has been issued two days after I spoke at the launch of Rana Ayub’s book launch — Gujarat Files — at which I mentioned that we would be filing an appeal against the discharge. I refuse to believe this is a coincidence. I have represented Sanjiv Bhatt, the police officer who alleged that he was at a meeting in 2002 where the then chief minister of Gujarat indicated that the police should go slow against the rioters. He has also produced emails to show that S. Gurumurthy was drawing the affidavits of the state of Gujarat, which he had no business to do being an outsider to the government.
The Supreme Court rejected the case, but the very fact remains that the emails showing the complicity of the state of Gujarat with the accused are now in the public domain. I have also successfully represented Priya Pillai of Greenpeace when she was off-loaded and prevented from travelling abroad to the UK to meet parliamentarians to protest against the investment of Essar in coal mines since Essar did have collaboration with British companies. Anand represented Yakub Memon when he was on death row, when no one was willing to represent him, and for that he has been called anti-national. Every person has a right to legal representation, more so a person on death row.
Is their problem really with the Ford Foundation also? The MHA said that a foreign hand was behind your anti-government agitations — trying to destabilise the government. Your views.
They did have a problem with Ford Foundation. I don’t know why since they are the biggest beneficiaries of Ford Foundation, their organisations and several universities are funded by Ford, why they do not complain about them? Why only when it comes to people like us, who they know are opposed to their politics? Just because we accept grants form Ford Foundation, it does not mean we suspend our own political imagination. Ford funded us only for doing work on gender justice and for work in HIV, not for representing anyone in court pro bono. We don’t cease to be professionals just because Ford funds us on social issues. We have delivered on the issues we were funded for. We have worked on the domestic violence law and also on the law prohibiting discrimination based on HIV which is now pending before Parliament.
The ministry of home affairs is saying that you have not given proper replies. Is this sheer harassment?
Remember that they issued a showcause notice on November 22, 2015, and withdrew it to give us an opportunity to be heard. After one intensive week of auditing our accounts and replies by us, running into 50 pages, they issue the same showcase notice. This clearly shows that they went through the motions of hearing and, now, say that our reply was unsatisfactory. Who can satisfy them when they had already made up their minds in November that our registration should be suspended?
In one of your TV interviews you mentioned that if political parties can get foreign funding, why not NGOs. The BJP spokesperson said there was no comparison between the two. What is your view? Are there many political parties getting foreign funding? Who are they?
All political parties are recipients of foreign funds form corporates. Remember, a political party is also registered as a society, just as any other NGO, and the law for them is the same. On the contrary, the law for them is more stringent.
No candidate for an election can receive foreign funding. And yet they are all funded by corporates from abroad, including the present ruling party, or I should say more so.
I have to admit that the present finance minister is a very clever lawyer; he amended the FCRA retrospectively to define what is a “foreign source” by saying notwithstanding that a corporate has a marked value beyond the limit to which they can fund, if the face value does not exceed the permissible limit of foreign investment under the FDI policy, it will not be considered a “foreign source”. This is like saying you can have FDI in political parties.
This was meant for Vedanta, which did fund political parties. This is now being legitimised. If that can be done, why would the grants to NGOs not be treated as foreign direct investment? We work in the social sector more effectively than any other institution.
What are your plans going forward?
This battle for us is not about money. We do not mourn the loss of foreign funding, we speak not because we are funded but because we stand for constitutional values.
The government will be opposed with or without foreign funding. After all, when the farmers of this country opposed the land acquisition ordinance which the government was forced to withdraw or allow to lapse, the farmers did not do so on foreign funding.
The government must understand that this is the normal democratic process which they cannot suppress under any circumstances. It is deeply rooted in the Indian psyche. We will not tolerate the Indianised form of “President’s Rule” that is creeping into the country unannounced but is highly visible and tangible. Lawyers’ Collective is a victim of this form of invisible “president’s rule” — the rule of the president of the party maybe.