Never say die

Print edition : March 17, 2017

Teesta Setalvad and her husband, Javed Anand, in August 2015 outside the CBI office in Mumbai where they had been called for questioning in connection with the FCRA violation case. Photo: VIVEK BENDRE

With Zakia Jafri and her son, Tanveer Jafri, at a panel discussion on the Gulberg Society carnage case, in New Delhi in May 2013. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

With Javed Anand at a rally to condemn violence against Dalits and Muslims by vigilante squads in the name of cow protection, in August 2016. Photo: Vivek Bendre

AN aggressive vilification campaign by the right wing has landed Teesta Setalvad in a situation where she is forced to divert her energy to protecting herself. The crusader who has relentlessly fought for justice for the marginalised and for minorities has been in recent times the target of attacks on her reputation and, in a few instances, on her life. She is one of the country’s most inexhaustible human rights activists and has tried hard to speak above the jingoistic nationalist din that appears to have taken over democratic India. Her attempts at justifying her work, mainly that of fighting the injustices that have rendered thousands violated, homeless and helpless, have often been dismissed or ignored by the mainstream media. Consequently, the debate has sadly gone silent—definitely a blow to the movement against communalism.

But Teesta Setalvad is not one to be put down. She makes herself heard in her book Foot Solder of the Constitution: A Memoir. The book is a testimony to the many controversies she combats and reflects her indomitable spirit in the face of the many curveballs thrown her way. The book makes it clear that Teesta Setalvad’s fight is not just about Gujarat. It is a battle for justice and for upholding the principles of the Constitution.

It comes out at a time when Teesta Setalvad and her husband, Javed Anand, are fighting a battle to defend their integrity. The couple have been accused of misappropriation of funds raised for a museum in memory of those who lost their lives in the 2002 Gulberg Society carnage. In this book Teesta Setalvad tells her story boldly and honestly.

She begins her narrative by speaking about her exposure to communalism as a young journalist. She chronicles three major communal riots—Bhiwandi (1984), Ayodhya/Babri Masjid (1992-93), and the Gujarat riots (2002). The account of the Gujarat riots is meticulously researched and chilling. Her introduction to Gujarat, the State’s deep-rooted communal bias and how it all began is riveting, particularly for those who ask “why Gujarat?”

She writes: “In July 1991, I did a State-wide report on the surge of entrenched communal conflict in Gujarat.The BJP had, at that time taken out the Rath Yatra… I visited six or seven cities within the State, taking the intra-city trains. One conversation on one of these train journeys remained with me. It was with a Gujarati Hindu businessman. He was gleeful at the growing popularity of the aggressive and violent organisations that owed their allegiance to the ideology of Hindutva and the Hindu Rashtra. ‘They have removed the fear within the Gujarati to fight and kill, to take to violence. That is good,’ he said.”

Later, in the chapter titled “Opening”, she says: “Now since 2014 we have entered the age of the Gau Rakshak or Cow Taliban. What is happening across India was pioneered in Gujarat sixteen years ago. It is where the Cow Taliban mastered its acts of targeted violence.”

The memoir is divided into four chapters: “Opening”, “Roots”, “Let Hindus give vent” and “Being their target”. The first two chapters trace her early years and include delightful anecdotes about her college years and her brush with activism then. She writes about becoming a journalist rather than a fourth-generation lawyer and her shift from mainstream reporting to starting the magazine Communalism Combat with Javed Anand, and about what eventually propels her into seeking justice for victims of mass communal crimes.

Teesta Setalvad belongs to a prominent and highly respected Mumbai-based Gujarati family. Her grandfather, M.C. Setalvad, was India’s first Attorney General and founder of the Bar Council of India. Her great-grandfather Chimanlal Setalvad was a contemporary of Motilal Nehru. Her father, Atul Setalvad, was a Mumbai-based lawyer.

Teesta Setalvad writes about her close association with the eminent Supreme Court lawyers Fali Nariman and H.M. Seervai, India’s foremost constitutional experts who advise her and keep her on track.

Unapologetic of her privileged background, and in fact proud of the larger-than-life figures in her life, she writes with nostalgia of her growing-up years, in particular her father’s deep influence in shaping her. She says: “Bombay had opposed the horrors of the Emergency both on the streets and even within its institutions…. All our homes had been seats of hectic parleying and meetings. I remember Atul telling me not to worry about studies but to campaign against the Emergency and the Congress party.”

She reiterates throughout the book that her faith in the Constitution is absolute. She believes that democracy cannot work without strong institutions that adhere to constitutional principles. The past 15 years have been tumultuous for Teesta Setalvad, but her tone is even as she lets incidents speak for themselves. Her frustrations and disappointments do break through at times, but her research is meticulous always and her journalistic experience ensures that the reports are factual. She writes about visits to Delhi in 2001 to appeal to Fali Nariman to consider public interest intervention in the Supreme Court as her documentation was pointing to a disaster in the making in Gujarat: “I pleaded with fellow activists as well as senior politicians and bureaucrats to train their lens on the State. I had absolutely no idea what form or shape the disaster would take but [it] was eerily clear that, given the planning and build-up, something ghastly, and irretrievable would happen.” She repeatedly acknowledges the support and encouragement she gets from a range of family, friends and associates.

Second half

While the first two chapters set the scene for Teesta Setalvad’s crusade, the third and fourth chapters get to the heart of it. With a group of intellectuals, she set up Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) as a first step in the battle for justice. At the start of the chapter “‘Let Hindus give vent’”, she says: “If Bombay ten years ago was bad, then Gujarat is one thousand times worse.”

About the start of her legal battle, she writes: “Within days of the coverage [2002], a resolve shaped into a dogged commitment based on the dual experiences: of having lived through Bombay 1992-1993 and now Gujarat 2002: mere documentation and advocacy and campaigning on the targeted mass crimes that exposed bitter fault lines of bias and prejudice in our institutions of democracy and governance would not be enough. It was time to test the criminal justice system, from several angles; can justice ever be done when mass violence happens?.”

The compelling narrative makes this chapter a definite page-turner with its detailed description of the violence that spread across Gujarat. Teesta Setalvad, by virtue of being very well known in Gujarat, virtually functioned as a “control room” during the weeks of rioting. She provides information that is new and shocking even for those who consistently followed the communal pogrom.

She does not hesitate to take on former Gujarat Chief Minister and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Along with the slain Ehsan Jafri’s (former Member of Parliament) family, she accuses him of complicity in the Gulberg Society killings.

She has faced not just a protracted legal battle but has been the target of nothing less than a witch-hunt. Ever since the CJP began taking on riot victims’ cases, she and her team have been accused of tutoring and kidnapping witnesses (Zahira Sheikh, 2004), submitting false affidavits (2010) and financial embezzlement (2014). She was almost arrested in 2015 and her bank accounts remain frozen.

The final chapter, “Being their target”, provides details of the harassment: threatening and abusive phone calls and insults and abuse that came from all quarters, including Supreme Court lawyers. The mainstream media, once supportive of her, changed its tone to insulting. There are hints of despair in this last chapter as there is no end in sight as yet to the suffering. The Zakia Jafri case and the Gulberg museum case are still in court.

But Teesta Setalvad will not go down without a fight. She does not spare any details in speaking of the Gulberg massacre case, the damning evidence collected by her team and the inefficiency of the Special Task Force (STF). She justifies the museum project and leaves it to the reader to understand that it was an honest effort that went awry.

There have been just over a 100 convictions in the riots that killed 790 (official number) people (activists say thousands actually died). It has been widely agreed that if it were not for Teesta Setalvad, even this number would not have been found guilty. The book could have been voluminous given Teesta Setalvad’s experiences and research, but she keeps it an easy read which makes it accessible to a larger audience. It is an inspiring story, a handbook for activists that gives the true picture of communal incidents that have been a blot on India’s history.

While Teesta Setalvad does narrate the constitutional failure of the executive, the legislature, the judiciary and the media in the book, she does not give up hope. Truly a foot soldier, she continues to march on even in the direct line of fire.

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