The Central Bureau of Investigation on Thursday searched residences and offices of human rights lawyers Indira Jaising and her husband Anand Grover, and Lawyers Collective in a case of alleged violation of rules in receiving and utilising foreign aid, attracting sharp reactions from politicians and activists.
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.
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 Foreign Exchange Regulation Act 2010.
The CBI action on Thursday also 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," Communist Party of India-Marxist 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, Trinamool Congress, Samajwadi Party, Communist Party of India and Communist Party of India-Marxist.
It further said 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 voluntary group Human Rights Defenders Alert – India strongly condemned the action, saying it was intimidation of the lawyer couple and other rights activists.
"Such actions by the government are contrary to its pledge at the UN Human Rights Council and its obligations and commitments under several international human rights treaties and declarations," it said.
The raids being conducted by the CBI are nothing but a vendetta, brazen abuse of power and exemplary show of vindication, sending out a message about the repercussions of dissent against the government in power, it said.
It said that there was unjustified use of power against two of the most notable figures, which protect and preserve constitutional values and the foresight of its framers.
The group said the searches are nothing more than a shameful show of power and another technique of the government to ensure coercive compliance, throttling dissent and activism in the Indian democracy.
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 M K Raina, Jayati Ghosh, 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, including a review of the FCRA under Section 12 (d) of the PHRA.