For the residents of Nirant, a white bungalow on the busy Juhu-Tara Road in Mumbai, the morning of July 14 was anything but quiet. On that day, civil rights activist Teesta Setalvad started her day with a call from the security guard saying CBI officers were waiting at the gate.
The moment the gate was opened, 16 CBI officers rushed into the bungalow that also houses the offices of organisations run by Setalvad. The officers started going through her stuff even before she and her husband, Javed Anand, could go through the search warrant.
“The CBI wanted to seize documents for the alleged violation of FCRA [Foreigners Contribution (Regulation) Act] by the trust run by us when we had already filed the copies of the 25,000 documents,” said Setalvad.
The search went on for almost a day. In the meantime, a team was also sent to the residence of Gulam Peshimam, a director in Sabrang Communication and Publishing Pvt Limited. The company publishes the monthly Communalism Combat edited by Anand and Setalvad.
The raids were conducted on the basis of an FIR filed by the Gujarat Police in January 2014 accusing Setalvad and Anand of embezzling crores of rupees from the Citizens for Justice and Peace, an organisation formed in 2002 to provide legal aid to victims of mass crimes, and Sabrang Trust, which is working in the field of education, conflict resolution and peace building. The couple are trustees of these organisations. The FIR was filed under sections 406 and 420 of the Indian Penal Code and the Income Tax Act. “We submitted 25,000 documents to the investigating officer of the Ahmedabad city crime branch, rebutting every single bogus allegation with facts, figures and record,” said Setalvad.
But in March 2015, Gujarat home secretary wrote a letter to the Union home ministry demanding an inquiry into the foreign funds received by CJP and Sabrang Trust. “Both these organisations have the necessary FCRA registration and it was written after the first failed attempt of the so-called 'embezzlement claims' of the Gujarat Police,” said Setalvad.
Most activists are of the view that Setalvad is being targeted for raising her voice against the establishment. “It is clearly a vilification campaign led by the present ruling dispensation and these spurious claims were made repeatedly by the senior lawyers associated with the BJP, including Mahesh Jethmalani and Meenakshi Lekhi,” said Gautam Thaker, social activist from Ahmedabad. He said it was no surprise that the Modi government was trying to discredit and harass activists like Setalvad, he said. “Don’t forget it was because of the CJP’s legal interventions led by Teesta in the courts of Gujarat and the Supreme Court that 120 perpetrators, including a few prominent politicians and a former minister, of the 2002 communal riots are serving life sentences,” said Thaker.
Based on the letter by the Gujarat home secretary, a four-member FCRA team visited Mumbai between April 6 and 11 to inspect the accounts of both CJP and Sabrang Trust. “We extended our full cooperation and produced every single original document for their perusal,” said Setalvad. “We also submitted hundreds of pages of photocopies of all the documents that the inspection team asked for and they looked satisfied.”
Yet, CJP and Sabrang Trust received letters from the FCRA department alleging a number of violations. Along with Peshimam, Setalvad and Anand are directors of Sabrang Communication. They are also officer bearers of CJP and Sabrang Trust. This allegedly is in violation of the FCRA 2010. The second allegation against Sabrang Trust is that it transferred lakhs of rupees to Sabrang Communication, which is a private, non-FCRA company.
“An association is an independent legal entity and its board members are independent legal entities. The FCRA does not bar or prohibit any FCRA registered association from having any editor or publisher from being on its board,” said Setalvad. “The FCRA registration certificate issued to CJP and Sabrang Trust prohibits the trusts from publishing any newsmagazine themselves. So, there is no violation and neither CJP nor Sabrang Trust has transferred any money to Sabrang Communication.”
As per the resolution passed by the board of trustees, CJP and Sabrang Trust share office space, equipment, staff and other expenses to save costs, said Setalvad. “The FCRA department is confusing shared expenses with transfer of funds. In fact, there is no violation of the FCRA by either of the trusts,” she said.
The FCRA department also claimed that Sabrang Communication committed a serious violation by accepting foreign donation/ grants. Setalvad clarified that the money was not a grant. “It received payments from Ford Foundation as per a consultancy agreement after receiving written legal opinion that while a private company is barred from receiving donations/ grants from foreign sources under section 3 of FCRA, 2010, section 4 of the same act makes it clear that payments received for a consultancy do not violate FCRA.” Not convinced with the explanation, the FCRA department sought a CBI investigation.
“It is evident that the present Union government is acting with a clear mindset of vendetta and vengeance against Teesta,” said Suresh Mehta, former Gujarat chief minister. “The government’s attitude and approach towards social activists are extremely poor and it is Teesta’s spirit and courage that she is battling it. Anybody else would have simply surrendered.”
Mehta said Modi harboured a vindictive attitude of “either you are a friend or my enemy for life”. After taking over the investigation, the CBI acted surprisingly fast and asked for the custodial interrogation of Setalvad and Anand. “Whatever the CBI’s charges are―violation or no violation, use or misuse of funds―all these are points of arguments about the provisions of the act. It does not require a custodial interrogation, but the CBI asked for it just to harass and torture Setalvad,” said Thaker.
According to the CBI, Setalvad and Anand splurged the embezzled money on wines, perfumes and fancy hair styles. It went to the extent of calling Setalvad a threat to national security. “We are opposed to any ideology which is against the idea of India, a socialist democratic secular nation,” said Setalvad. “Anybody with an agenda opposed to this very basic definition of India levels such allegations. Having a different opinion from the present government cannot be a security threat. Even the High Court dismissed such allegations.”
Setalvad rubbished the CBI's allegation of using the trusts' money to pay for personal expenses. “My husband and I use credit cards for our expenses,” said Setalvad. “We spend for personal as well as professional expenses through our credit cards, but we claim only for the professional expenses from the organisation we work for. We never used trusts' money for our personal expenses.”
THE WEEK has a copy of two detailed audit reports submitted to the crime branch, which clearly mention that they “have not found any financial irregularities and that no expenses of a personal nature incurred through their personal credit cards were charged to the trust by Teesta Setalvad or Javed Anand”.
As for the allegation of misuse of funds collected for a proposed memorial at Gulberg Housing Society in Ahmedabad, the earmarked funds are lying untouched in Sabrang Trust’s bank account. “I was shocked to know that our banks gave our personal credit card account statement in a reply under RTI to a political worker,” said Setalvad. “This itself is violation of law.”
The CBI also alleged that the couple withdrew lakhs of rupees from the trusts. The documents in possession of THE WEEK reveal that Setalvad received an average salary/ honorarium of Rs39,000 a month and Anand got Rs23,500 a month. “It is merely 4.8 per cent and 2.9 per cent of the trusts' expenses but the CBI made a huge hue and cry about it,” said Anand.