Interview with Teesta Setalvad of Citizens for Justice and Peace, which is fighting for justice for the victims of the 2002 riots.
TEESTA SETALVAD is the co-editor of Communalism Combat and has been in the forefront of the fight against communal forces and in defence of human rights. Through her organisation Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP), she continues to fight a lonely legal battle against the Narendra Modi government in connection with the communal riots of 2002. In the context of police officer Sanjiv Bhatt's affidavit alleging that Modi, in a meeting, instructed the policemen not to stop the rioting Hindu mobs, Teesta Setalvad spoke, in this interview, about the pressure tactics of the Modi government and suggested that the Special Investigation Team's (SIT) role in investigating the cases had been below expectations. Excerpts:
What was your immediate reaction to Sanjiv Bhatt's revelations regarding Narendra Modi's role in the riots of 2002?
The first reaction was that finally the truth is getting out. But that was not the first time we heard of this meeting. Policemen, journalists, the political class who were in Gujarat in the first week after Godhra, all knew that such a meeting had happened. I reported about this meeting in Communalism Combat.
The Concerned Citizens Tribunal, headed by Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer and including Justice P.B. Sawant, Justice Hosbet Suresh and K.G. Kannabiran as members, set out guidelines that it would talk about this meeting only if there was sufficient corroboration. I tried to get official corroboration as a convener of the tribunal. In 18 days, the tribunal heard over 16,000 testimonies from all classes. Finally, the official confirmation of this meeting came from Haren Pandya [former Gujarat Minister who was killed in 2003 in suspicious circumstances]. He appeared before the tribunal in mid-May 2002. The words spoken' have not changed in any of the versions since 2002. So Sanjiv Bhatt's revelations are a final direct piece of evidence against Modi because he was present at the meeting. What Haren Pandya said was indirect evidence.
In 2005, when [R.B.] Sreekumar [Additional Director General of Police when the riots took place] filed his fourth affidavit before the Nanavati Commission, he referred to a conversation between him and DGP K. Chakravarthi, in which Chakravarthi said the Chief Minister had done this [the riots]. But all these pieces of evidence were indirect. Bhatt's affidavit is direct evidence, which the Supreme Court cannot ignore. They will, at least, have to examine it.
What are the commonalities in the versions of Sanjiv Bhatt and Haren Pandya?
I can't tell you much because both my statement and that of the SIT are with the judges. So I can't commit any impropriety. But in August 2009, when the SIT chief, R.K. Raghavan, assigned the case to a special inquiry officer, A.K. Malhotra [a non-Gujarat police officer], one of the SIT teams recorded the statements of Justice P.B. Sawant and Justice Hosbet Suresh in Mumbai. These statements are before the High Court and record what Haren Pandya told the Citizens Tribunal. They are pretty much what Sanjiv Bhatt has said in his affidavit. These commonalities will be used, hopefully, by an independent agency to get to the truth.
You need corroboration. We have been saying that the Intelligence Bureau keeps vehicle logs of all government officials. In Bhatt's case, his driver [that day] has confirmed that he had gone to the Chief Minister's house on February 27, 2002, unlike what many Gujarat officials have said. [Some officials denied Bhatt's presence at the meeting and some said they did not remember.] So, all these facts need to be connected to get to the truth.
This is important. There had been incidents of communal violence in this country before 2002, but in just three days in 19 districts of Gujarat 2,500 people were killed. This kind of mayhem had never happened before. So, it has shocked people to hear these kinds of utterances from the Chief Minister himself. Pandya was a member of the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh], but even he felt the need to speak. People do find different ways of resistance. Sreekumar did it in a certain way, Rahul Sharma [a police officer who produced a compact disc having phone records that point to connivance of the administration and the rioters in the pogrom] and Haren Pandya did it in their own ways.
Sanjiv Bhatt has also accused the SIT of ignoring his statements for no proper reasons.
As co-petitioners, this is the most painful part of the process. We have full faith in the system and the Supreme Court of India. We expect an agency appointed by the Supreme Court to do a fair and independent job. Unfortunately, the agency, which is investigating many other cases, is found to have huge lacunae. We brought this out in a very sober fashion from October 2009 onwards. We brought out factual issues in front of the Supreme Court.
Narendra Modi won two elections after the Gujarat pogrom. The agency has to realise that Modi is facing severe criminal charges. He commands the State machinery, the administration and the police. He has full access to all the records. If the investigative agency does not insulate itself from the police and the administration, there are chances that evidence can be manipulated or destroyed.
More importantly, as Bhatt also said, people in the police would get to know who is deposing in court at what point of time. Bhatt had to depose before the SIT in 2009 on a specific date, which was later changed. In between the first date and the second one, there were police officers who went and told him what to say and what not to say. This is pretty much what happened with Sreekumar when he deposed before the Nanavati Commission.
The timing of Sanjiv Bhatt's affidavit has been questioned. Why was it that he came up with the affidavit after nine years?
I can only give my understanding of how civil servants work. How people work in certain situations. Bhatt responded in 2009 first, in front of the SIT. The first legal opportunity he got, he did speak.
I think there are different kinds of civil servants. The likes of Sreekumar and Rahul Sharma cannot stomach the illegalities. They took a radical step, which cost them a lot. It cost Sreekumar a promotion. Sharma has also been sidelined. The vast majority would choose a safe option and speak when they get a chance. His defence is also valid. He is an I.B. officer and I.B. officers are not allowed to speak in the public domain unless there is a legal inquiry.
There is another, wider, reason also. There is a certain disbelief as to whether perpetrators of communal violence will ever get punished. Even after the SIT was constituted, people felt that Modi was never going to be punished. All these things add up for a person like Bhatt to take such a stand.
What is your view on the SIT investigation and its handling of evidence? Some of the cases you have spoken about in public were dismissed by the SIT, especially the Kausar Bano episode. The SIT report accused you of cooking up macabre tales of killing and tutoring witnesses. A few activists from your organisation, the CJP, have accused you of doing the same.
It was a testimony about the Naroda Patiya massacre. There are 13 witnesses who have deposed on oath, who said that Kausar Bano's womb was split and the foetus was cut into pieces. The judgments are still to come. So how can the SIT say that an incident never happened and that I manufactured it?
The point is that this is a discourse created by the Gujarat government and some members of the SIT to make me and my organisation a target because, eventually, we are the only group that is supporting the victims even today. It is an attempt to discredit me. We told the Gujarat Police that we are available for any legal investigation. But the real aim is not to discredit Teesta but to demoralise the witnesses so that there are acquittals rather than convictions in these cases.
The Hindu, Deccan Herald and Indian Express had carried the Kausar Bano story even before I reached Gujarat. How can you say that Teesta Setalvad manufactured the story? Let it go through a proper legal process and it will automatically get testified. Why is the SIT prejudging the cases like this? If 16 witnesses tell an agency that this man is an accused, you have to record the name and then the court will decide. Does the SIT believe that the Supreme Court has given it the power to judge the accused before the charge sheet is filed? The job of the SIT is to record, and it should do so on the basis of the witnesses.
Teesta tutoring witnesses is not the point. But if 18 witnesses are saying something and the SIT accuses them of filing false affidavits, then the SIT is not convinced about the gravity of the crime and is also pushing the case towards acquittals as an investigative agency. The quality of the statements of witnesses have to be judged and [there is need to] see whether they have withstood the cross-examination in the court first before declaring them false.
Rais Khan and Himanshu Kumar [both of them were members of the CJP before they left it and made allegations against Teesta Setalvad of tutoring witnesses], while making these allegations when the cases are in court because they want to disrupt the trials, are actually committing contempt of court.
Could you tell us a bit about the state of affairs of the victims at present? Their present lives, survival mechanisms and their losses. How have you managed to keep up their tempo when they must be under tremendous pressure not to speak?
That's the question the media should ask first rather than whether I doctored witnesses. What does it take for a victim of mass violence to sustain the story? The Supreme Court ordered a transfer of investigation six years after we made the plea in May 2002. The court appointed Dr R.K. Raghavan in March 2008. The Supreme Court and lawyer Harish Salve delayed the matter till then despite the fact that our lawyers kept bringing it up.
You can sustain the witnesses for this long only by sticking to the truth. Whether it was Zahira Sheikh (chief witness in the Best Bakery case, who kept turning hostile) or anyone else, the core version of their statements has remained the same. That is our biggest strength. Sixteen people have named BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] Minister Maya Kodnani and VHP [Vishwa Hindu Parishad] leader Jaydeep Patel to the Gujarat Police. Sixteen people have named Atul Vaid of the VHP in the Gulberg Society case. They have talked about P.C. Pande and M.K. Tandon. The test of the victim is whether his or her core version remains the same or not. Our contribution to the cause of these victims has been to sustain these survivors legally, to ensure that they get legal assistance.
The fight for the direct victims, who happen to be minorities, becomes a very lonely one because the community members also sort of move ahead. However, I think one of the biggest things that have happened is the bonding of these people, which is beyond the successes and failures of the cases. Over 650 survivors have become human rights activists. They will not be misled anymore. Such consciousness is seen among the victims.
The narrative of the Gujarat carnage, thanks to the media, has remained in the subterranean realm and not been forgotten like other carnages, be it the 1993 Bombay [now Mumbai] riots or the 1984 killings of Sikhs. Post-2007, corporate influence in the media has made them sway towards the development model of Modi, but still at one level the media have kept the issue alive. Media was victim as well, you know. We have managed to convince the victims that the legal process takes long in this country. They have understood the politics of it. Our biggest victory is that despite the same government ruling the State even now, they have deposed fearlessly in Gujarat.
The economies of many people were demolished. Today, more than 23,000 people continue to live in transit camps. They are not even relief camps. Our organisation has also filed a PIL [public interest litigation] petition on the issue of compensation. Some compensation was given but even today victims of gender violence have not been given any reparation. People who lost their homes worth lakhs were given compensation of Rs.10,000 or Rs.15,000. We are trying to get them a compensation of Rs.2.5 lakh.
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