Anand Grover, forme UN Rapporteur on Health. Some rights rserved.As the Government of India, along with other member states made promises at the UN General Assembly Special Session on AIDS underway in New York, it intensified its persecution of civil society organisations in India. Recent instances brings the persecution to the doorstep of the HIV response in India.
In early June, Lawyers Collective, a civil society organisation that has been at the forefront of legal activism to ensure the rights of people living with HIV, LGBTI groups, sexworkers and injecting drug users in India, received a government order suspending its right to receive funds from foreign agencies. This had the potential to hamper all of Lawyers Collectives work with HIV organisations and the central and state governments in India.
Among other things, the organisation was accused of utilising foreign funds for raising awareness and conducting workshops/meetings/seminars on issues relating to HIV/AIDS and women’s empowerment. Further, they have been accused of spending foreign funds on advocacy with media and Members of Parliament for raising awareness on legal issues, including discrimination faced by people living with HIV and the need for legislative measures for redress. And also, they have been accused of spending foreign funds on organising protest rallies led by positive people’s networks.
This incident came as an enormous shock to the HIV community that has been witness to the work of Lawyer’s Collective since the mid-1990’s. In the early days of the HIV epidemic in India, when very few people knew anything at all about the issues surrounding HIV and the rights of people living with HIV, Lawyers Collective challenged discrimination against people living with HIV in the Bombay High Court in 1997. Two landmark legislations were drafted by them - Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 and the HIV/AIDS Bill, 2014, which is waiting for ratification by the parliament.
Lawyers Collective led the battle against legislation that criminalises same-sex relations. They secured affordable medicines by preserving public health safeguards under the patent laws and have recently drafted changes to ensure access to essential narcotic drugs. Anand Grover, senior advocate and a founder of Lawyers Collective, held the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on Right to Health between 2008 to 2014. These and other initiatives helped restore the faith of marginalised groups in the Indian Judiciary and the Constitution of India.
While the entire HIV community in India, and many from the around the world stand by Lawyers Collective in this moment of strife and persecution, the situation begs several larger questions. What is the future of rights-based civil society mobilisation in India? What safeguards are available for activists? In the absence of national funding for advocacy, and the shrinking trickle of international funding, how are civil society initiatives to sustain their work? Are the hard-won freedoms of civil society activists in India at risk of being completely closed down?
The HIV community is particularly concerned about the shrinking space for civil society voices in India in view of the fact that the enormous success of the HIV programme in India has been due, to a large extent, to the mobilisation of communities around issues of rights and justice. Nearly 170 organisations and individuals from across India and various parts of the world have come together to sign a petition condemning the recent persecution of Lawyers Collective.
It is imperative that Governments, while committing to ending AIDS by 2030, remain alive to the indispensable role of civil society organisations in creating sustainable change.