Interview with Teesta Setalvad, activist.
LAWYER-ACTIVIST-JOURNALIST Teesta Setalvad has been waging a battle like none other. Ever since the 1992-93 communal riots in Mumbai, she has been on the trail of the big fish who planned and executed the killing of hundreds of Muslims. While most may still be running free, she has ensured through petitions and legal cases that the law is following them and that their names are linked to the horrific crimes. In recent years, she has been fighting for justice for the victims of the 2002 communal violence and also of the encounter killings in Gujarat. In an interview to Frontline, she spoke about the fight for justice in Gujarat.
The CBI has requested the Supreme Court to transfer the Sohrabuddin encounter killing case out of Gujarat. Narendra Modi has lashed out at this. Your comments.
Though hard to state, the sheer vindictiveness of the present government in Gujarat renders the judiciary vulnerable to pressure. Just last year, the country was witness to how Gujarat treated [Ahmedabad Metropolitan] Magistrate [S.P.] Tamang, who investigated the Ishrat Jahan extrajudicial killing. But for the intervention of the apex court, which upheld the findings of Tamang, this magistrate would have been left utterly miserable and isolated.
I must say here that to the credit of the lower judiciary in Gujarat, in 2002, sessions court after sessions court refused bail to those involved in treacherous mass crimes, be it Babu Bajrangi or any other. Within months, after a few judges of the Gujarat High Court held out, some High Court judges granted bail to these criminals.
It seems these encounters were orchestrated by politicians. But will the big fish get caught?
The larger issue of extrajudicial killings (fake encounters) involves not just the criminalisation of politics but the more dangerous politicisation of crime. This is now clearly linked to the bitter and deep virus of communalisation in our polity spread by divisive ideologies.
Many States, not just Gujarat, have been training policemen, and providing them impunity, to put it crudely, to bump off those criminals who become inconvenient to those in political power. The difference in Gujarat is stark and sharp because here is a government that has ridden proudly on the bloodshed of 2002, and which thereafter conspired to use, as the next stage of its cynical strategy, such fake encounters to turn public sentiment in its favour.
The first such incident was the killing in cold blood of Haren Pandya, former State Revenue Minister, in March 2003. What was his crime? He had dared to testify before a citizens tribunal headed by Justices V.R. Krishna Iyer, P.B. Sawant and Hosbet Suresh regarding the meeting at the Chief Minister's residence on the night of February 27, 2002, where instructions were allegedly given to Gujarat DGP K. Chakravarti and Ahmedabad Police Commissioner P.C. Pandey to let Hindus vent their anger for Godhra and to do nothing to protect minority life and property.
What is already clear from the investigation papers and charge sheet is that the panic in the BJP stems from the fact that their vicious rhetoric about Sohrabuddin stands exposed he was simply part of a grisly extortion racket (by the way, a secular one since Hindu and Muslim criminals were part of it) that was feeding the deep, deep pockets of some politicians.
In this case, senior police officials have been taken in. That would be considered a big step towards justice. Yet they make easy fall guys. Could you comment on the complicity between the police and politicians in Gujarat?
When senior police officials were not arrested and only Crime Branch men were, we said that until the seniors were drawn in, the chain of command responsibility would not be established and the real criminal minds would go scot-free. Now that senior policemen, and women, have been and will be questioned and maybe even charge-sheeted by the CBI, we are closer to finding out from them what the instructions were from their political masters. One major victory, though not complete, is, if these investigations are taken to their logical conclusion and if the Supreme Court ensures that the 2002 investigations under the SIT are taken up rigorously no IAS or IPS officer will in future fall prey to or be conspirator or execute the illegal and unconstitutional orders of their cynical political masters.
What we are witnessing for the first time is the transparency and accountability process for mass crimes within a democracy. Democracy is not simply about who garners the majority vote but also about the rule of law and constitutional governance.
Thirteen police officers, including IPS officers, have been accused in the Sohrabuddin case. What do they gain from encounter killings?
Such easy compliance from senior bureaucrats and policeman which we also witnessed during those dark days of 2002 can only be achieved if an aura of invincibility governs the masterminds, the conviction that the long arm of the law, even the Supreme Court of India, cannot ever reach us, if the incentives are great (huge amounts of money have been paid), and if the masterminds command fear and are capable of vindictive behaviour.
A history of the Modi regime in Gujarat, a study of the list of the conspiring IAS and IPS officials who have been given lucrative post-retirement postings by the state, establishes the complicity completely.
We are at a historic juncture, where despite our failings in the past the Indian system could deliver.
Why should the police and the government go to such great lengths to kill a small-time gangster?
The only real reason could be that not killing Sohrabuddin whose demands and whims had become excessive would mean risking his crying foul. Remember, he was the man Modi and his party (according to a recent BJP press release) called an AK-47-wielding terrorist. This terrorist was extorting money as were his partners in crime like Tulsi Prajapati, and feeding the deep pockets of some rulers. When he became inconvenient, he was bumped off. Worse was what was done to his innocent wife, Kauser Bi, who was raped and killed. Now a witness says that Sohrabuddin may have been involved in the Haren Pandya murder.