New Delhi: The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) on Thursday raided the residence and offices of senior lawyers Indira Jaising and Anand Grover in a case of alleged violation of rules in receiving and utilising foreign aid. Grover was booked by the agency for alleged Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act violations in receiving foreign aid.
The CBI had filed an FIR on June 13 against Grover who is the president of Lawyers Collective, a voluntary group known for raising human rights issues in courts of India, on the basis of a complaint by the Home Ministry that foreign aid received by the group was used in violation of norms.
"Mr Grover and I are being targeted for the human rights work that we have done over the years," Jaising told reporters.
The agency started its search operation at five locations in Delhi and Mumbai early morning. At around 5 am, CBI teams reached Jaising's two houses in Nizamuddin, two offices of Lawyers Collective and a residence of Grover in Mumbai to carry out searches.
"It was alleged in the complaint that during the year 2006 to 2014, the accused persons entered into a conspiracy in Mumbai, Delhi and other places with an intent to cheat Government of India in the matter of misusing and diverting foreign contribution received by the Mumbai-based NGO (Lawyers Collective)," a CBI spokesperson said in a statement.
He said foreign contribution to the tune of Rs 32.39 crore was received in the account of the NGO and the accused misutilised a sizable amount of the foreign contributions received in Lawyers Collective's account, thereby violating the provisions of FERA 2010.
The Supreme Court in May had issued a notice to the lawyers and their NGO, Lawyers Collective, on a plea alleging violations of the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act.
Reacting to the notice, the two had alleged they were being "victimised" as Jaising had taken up the cause of a sacked woman employee of the apex court who had levelled allegations of sexual harassment against Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi, which were later rejected by an in-house inquiry committee on May 6.
The notice was issued to them on a plea seeking investigation and lodging of FIR under various provisions of law for allegedly violating rules relating to receipt and utilisation of foreign funds.
Jaising and Grover, founders of Lawyers Collective, had been asked by a bench headed by the CJI to respond to a plea by an NGO, Lawyers Voice.
"It is obvious to us that this is victimisation on account of Ms Jaising taking up the issue of the procedure adopted in relation to the allegations of sexual harassment against the Chief Justice of India by a former employee of the Supreme Court which Ms Jaising has done so in her capacity as a concerned citizen, a senior member of the bar and a women's rights advocate, without commenting on the merits of the allegations," Jaising, Grover and Lawyers Collective said in a press statement.
They said that since Jaising, a former Additional Solicitor General, has been "publicly vocal" on the due process with regard to the conduct of the In-House Inquiry Committee headed by Justice SA Bobde, the CJI should have recused himself from hearing the matter.
"Considering that Ms Jaising has been publicly vocal on the issue of due process of law in relation to the conduct of the in-house inquiry, the Chief Justice ought to have recused himself from hearing the matter," the statement said.
They also said that the plea by Lawyers Voice was filed in the apex court on May 6 and it came be listed before the CJI's court on Wednesday "contrary to the circulars and notifications" of the top court.
"We are deeply disturbed by the turn of events. It needs to be noted that the petition came to be filed on May 6, 2019. It appears from the record on the Supreme Court's website that the petition was filed on May 6 at 3.19 PM. There were a number of objections, which were removed on May 7," they said.
"It further appears that though the matter was not orally mentioned on May 7, it came to be listed in court number 1 on May 8, contrary to the circulars and notifications of the Supreme Court in respect of listing," the statement said.
Opposition parties write to PM
The CBI action evoked sharp reactions from politicians, activists and lawyers.
"While the law must take its course, brazen targeting of well known and respected senior advocates by the government via its agencies raises serious questions about its intentions," CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury said in a tweet.
A statement from opposition MPs termed the action as the "latest in a long line of coercion and intimidation" of Jaising and Grover which was "nothing short of a brute show of intimidation as well as gross abuse of power". The letter was signed by MPs from the Congress, TMC, SP, CPI and CPI(M). It added that the two who were well known for their "pioneering work" in the field of human rights had fully cooperated with authorities.
Noted Supreme Court lawyer-activist Prashant Bhushan also criticised the searches, terming them an act of vendetta.
"CBI raids at residence of Indira Jaising and Anand Grover in case of alleged misuse of foreign funding to their NGO is a clear act of vendetta. Registration of cases and raids by government agencies has now become the way of government to harass and intimidate opponents," he tweeted.
A statement from around 200 eminent citizens circulated by 'Sahmat', another civil society group, said the "reprisal" against Lawyers Collective began in 2016 by suspending their FCRA license, which was then challenged in the Bombay High Court which is currently pending. It asked the government to immediately stop acts of intimidation and harassment against Grover, Jaising and Lawyers Collective.
"The criminal charges against Lawyers Collective be immediately withdrawn pending the decision of the Bombay High Court. Misuse of the country's laws and the state machinery against human rights defenders should come to an end," the statement signed by citizens including MK Raina, Jayati Ghosh and Irfan Habib said.
It also asked the National Human Rights Commission of India take cognisance of the matter and take immediate action under the Protection of Human Rights Act 1993 (PHRA), including a review of the FCRA under Section 12 (d) of the PHRA.