India: Cancellation of the license of Sabrang Trust under the FCRA
IND 003 / 0716 / OBS 054
Obstacles to freedom of association / Harassment India
July 6, 2016
The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a partnership of the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) and FIDH, requests your urgent intervention in the following situation in India.
Brief description of the situation:
The Observatory has been informed by reliable sources about the cancellation of the license of Sabrang Trust under the Foreign Contributions (Regulations) Act of 2010 by the Ministry of Home Affairs of India. Sabrang Trust, a non-governmental organisation headed by Ms. Teesta Setalvad, works to promote conflict resolution and support peace building. In particular, Ms. Setalvad and her organisation have been at the forefront of protests and legal interventions on behalf of victims and their families against crimes committed against Muslims during the Gujarat riots of 2002 and have been sharply critical of the then Gujarat State government led by Mr. Narendra Modi, now Prime Minister of India.
According to the information received, on June 16, 2016, the Ministry of Home Affairs announced on its website that the licence of Sabrang Trust had been cancelled under the Foreign Contributions (Regulations) Act (FCRA) with “immediate effect”. Accordingly, Sabrang Trust can no longer receive foreign funding. Sabrang Trust indicated that it would challenge the order.
The licence of Sabrang Trust had already been suspended on September 9, 2015 for a period of 180 days (see background information).
The Observatory expresses its deepest concern about the obstacles to freedom of association and access to funding faced by Sabrang Trust, which seem to be merely aimed at sanctioning the organisation’s human rights activities, in particular its work for justice and truth with regard to the 2002 Gujarat riots. Accordingly, the Observatory calls upon the Indian authorities to immediately and unconditionally repeal the cancellation of Sabrang Trust’s FCRA registration, in order to allow this prominent organisation to carry out its legitimate human rights work.
The Observatory further recalls that on May 31, 2016, the FCRA licence of the NGO Lawyers Collective was suspended by the Ministry of Home Affairs.
In a statement released on June 16, 2016, United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteurs on the situation of human rights defenders, Mr. Michel Forst, on freedom of opinion and expression, Mr. David Kaye, and on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Mr. Maina Kiai, called upon the Government of India to repeal the Foreign Contributions (Regulation) Act and said that they “are alarmed that FCRA provisions are being used more and more to silence organisations advocating civil, political, economic, social, environmental and cultural priorities, which may differ from those backed by the Government”. According to the UN experts’ statement, FCRA is being “increasingly used to obstruct civil society’s access to foreign funding, and fails to comply with international human rights norms and standards”. They encouraged the authorities of India “to ensure a safe and enabling environment for human rights defenders and civil society, which play a critical role in holding the Government to account and buttressing Indian democracy”.
In April 2016, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association published a legal analysis of the FCRA and stated that the statute is “not in conformity with international law, principles and standards”. The Special Rapporteur further mentioned in the report that “[the FCRA] appears to give the government broad discretionary powers that could be applied in an arbitrary and capricious manner”. The Government of India has yet to respond to the Special Rapporteur regarding his analysis.
Judicial proceedings have been ongoing against Ms. Teesta Setalvad and her spouse since 2013, based on spurious charges of alleged embezzlement of funds intended for the construction of a memorial to the victims of the 2002 Gujarat riots. Ms. Teesta Setalvad had to seek anticipatory bail from the Supreme Court in relation to this case. An investigation that began in January 2014 has resulted in continuous harassment and systematic probes into the accounts of Sabrang Trust and groundless accusations of non-cooperation. On July 14, 2015, Ms. Teesta Setalvad’s house and office were raided by officers of the Central Bureau of Investigation and on June 29, 2015, a travel ban was imposed on her. Her application for anticipatory bail is still pending before the Supreme Court of India. The next hearing in the case is scheduled for July 11, 2016.
On February 12, 2015, the Gujarat High Court denied anticipatory bail to Ms. Teesta Setalvad and her husband, Mr. Javeed Anand. 40 minutes later, Gujarat police arrived at their residence in Mumbai. However, on the same day the Supreme Court issued a stay on the High Court order, which prevented the couple from being arrested.
On March 10, 2015, the Government of Gujarat’s Home department wrote to the Ministry of Home Affairs, ordering the Ministry of Home Affairs to carry out an inspection of Sabrang Trust upon allegation of FCRA violations.
From April 9 to 11, 2015, a four-member FCRA Inspection Team headed by Shri Mahendra Kumar, Deputy Secretary (MHA/GOI), inspected the accounts and related records of Sabrang Trust in Mumbai. All original documents and photocopies as required by the Inspection Team were submitted, along with printouts of books of accounts of Sabrang Trust’s FCRA account. Receipts for the same were duly acknowledged by the Inspection Team.
Sabrang Trust subsequently received an official post-inspection communication from the FCRA department. The notice, signed by Under Secretary Shri Anand Joshi, who was not part of the Inspection Team, and dated June 4, 2015, made several ”observations” concerning alleged violations of the FCRA, 2010 and the FCR Rules, 2011.
Through a detailed letter dated June 25, 2015, Sabrang Trust responded to each allegation, point-by-point, highlighting how, contrary to what was claimed in the “observations”, the Trust had not violated any provision of the FCR Act and Rules.
Sabrang Trust received an ’Order’ dated September 9, 2015, signed by Deputy Secretary Shri Mahendra Kumar (who had headed the Inspection Team in April 2015), suspending the FCRA registration of Sabrang Trust for a period of 180 days.
In response, through a detailed letter dated October 5, 2015, addressed to the Deputy Secretary, Sabrang Trust challenged again the ’Order’, denying once again having committed any FCRA violation. The Trust requested that it be given an opportunity for its members to present the case in person before the FCRA authorities.
Subsequently, Sabrang Trust received a letter dated March 30, 2016 signed by Shri D.P. Tripathy, Director of FCRA Monitoring Unit, asking Mr. Javeed Anand, Sabrang Trust’s Chief Functionary, to appear before him on April 16, 2016 to present Sabrang Trust’s case. Accordingly, Mr. Javeed Anand and a lawyer appeared before the Director of FCRA Monitoring Unit to further support Sabrang Trust’s contention that it had not violated any provision of the FCR Act and Rules. The meeting lasted less than 10 minutes.
Please write to the authorities in India, urging them to:
i. Repeal immediately and unconditionally the cancellation of Sabrang Trust’s FCRA registration, as this cancellation only seems aimed at sanctioning Sabrang Trust’s legitimate human rights activities;
ii. Put an end to all acts of harassment - including at the judicial level - against Sabrang Trust, Ms. Teesta Setalvad and Mr. Javeed Anand, as well as against all human rights defenders and organisations in India so that they are able to carry out their work without hindrances;
iii. Conform with the provisions of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on December 9, 1998, especially its Articles 1 and 12.2; and
iv. More generally, ensure in all circumstances the respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and with international and regional human rights instruments ratified by India.
Mr. Shri Nanredra Damodardas Modi, Prime Minister of India, Fax: + 91 11 2301 6857. E-mail: pmosb pmo.nic.in / manmo sansad.in
Mr. Raj Nath Singh, Union Minister of Home Affairs of India, Fax: +91 11 2309 2979. Email: dirfcra-mha gov.in
Justice T.S. Thakur,, Chief Justice of India, Supreme Court, of India, Fax: +91 11 233 83792, Email: supremecourt nic.in
Justice Shri H.L. Dattu, Chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission of India, Fax +91 11 2465 1329. Email: covdnhrc nic.in; ionhrc nic.in
Mr. Srinivasa Kammath, Focal Point on Human Rights Defenders, National Human Rights Commission, of India, Email: hrd-nhrc nic.in
H.E. Mr. Ajit Kumar, Ambassador, Permanent Mission of India to the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. Fax: +41 22 906 86 96, Email: mission.india ties.itu.int
Embassy of India in Brussels, Belgium, Fax: +32 2 6489638 / +32 2 6451869
Please also write to the diplomatic mission or embassy of India in your respective country.
 The order cancelling the FCRA registration of Sabrang Trust says more than 50% of the foreign contributions obtained under the FCRA has been spent on administrative expenses without prior permission of the Central Government. In response to this alleged violation, Sabrang Trust had submitted a detailed worksheet along with copies of its annual returns to show that administrative expenses during the financial year 2010-2011 were 30% of the total, and during the financial year 2011-12 were 31.5% of the total. Apart from the blanket claim that its administrative expenses during these two years were 64.23% and 55.14% respectively, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) did not explain how they had arrived at these figures. The MHA’s response to the detailed explanation submitted by Sabrang Trust was simply “found not satisfactory”.
 See Observatory Urgent Appeal IND 002 / 0616 / OBS 046, June 8, 2016.
 See Women Human Rights Defenders International Coalition (WHRDIC) joint statement, August 3, 2015.