On June 17, 2016, the government announced that Sabrang Trust – a group run by activists Teesta Setalvad and Javed Anand, both well-known for their support of the victims of the 2002 mob attacks against Muslims in Gujarat – will no longer be allowed to receive funds under India’s Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA). The government has accused the couple of misusing funds allocated to help riot victims for instead dining in hotels and buying cakes and sanitary napkins. These are ludicrous and politically motivated charges arising from their tenacious efforts to hold accountable Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was chief minister of Gujarat state at the time of the violence.
While the authorities were canceling Sabrang Trust’s FCRA registration, a special court in Gujarat was convicting 24 individuals of the murder of 69 people at Ahmedabad’s Gulberg Society during the Gujarat riots. The judge described the killings as the “darkest day.”
These convictions, along with those of 150 others for their roles in the mass attacks on Muslims during the 2002 violence in Gujarat, were only possible because of the efforts of activists such as Setalvad, as well as scores of victims, witnesses, investigators, and prosecutors.
The desire to see justice done overcame previous failed efforts at accountability for attacks on religious minorities in India. Long before the Gujarat riots, Setalvad and Anand began a campaign for communal harmony after the 1992-1993 riots between Hindus and Muslims which rocked their home city of Mumbai. Most of the perpetrators have not been held accountable for this violence, nor for the mass attacks on Sikhs in Delhi in 1984.
Another civil rights group, the Lawyers Collective, led by internationally respected lawyers Indira Jaising and Anand Grover, was placed under FCRA restrictions in May. Recently, three United Nations human rights experts warned that the FCRA is increasingly being used “to silence organizations involved in advocating civil, political, economic, social, environmental or cultural priorities, which may differ from those backed by the Government,” and urged the government to repeal the FCRA. Other groups including Greenpeace India and Ford Foundation have also come under attack in recent months.
Successive governments in India have now used the FCRA to target activists. Instead of erecting obstacles against those that speak up for victims because they might tarnish its image, the Modi government should end the misuse of the FCRA. That would be a true sign of a rights-respecting leadership.