Teesta Setalvad

Targeting an activist

Print edition :

Teesta Setalvad and Javed Anand at a rally condemning the rising violence against Dalits and Muslims by cow viligante squads, in Mumbai in August 2016. Photo: Vivek Bendre

At Gulberg Society in Ahmedabad on February 27, 2012, on the tenth anniversary of the massacre there. Photo: AFP

There is no end in sight to the cases against human rights activist and lawyer Teesta Setalvad who has rubbed the authorities the wrong way with her fight for the victims of the Gujarat pogrom.

SUCH is the success of the vilification campaign against Teesta Setalvad that even an editor known for his integrity once questioned her credibility. Fortunately, better sense prevailed as the facts were in her favour.

Teesta Setalvad, a journalist and human rights defender, and her husband, Javed Anand, a minority rights activist, have been fighting a relentless legal battle since 2015 when charges of misappropriation of funds, among others, were slapped on them. Living under the threat of arrest since then, they have managed to survive on an anticipatory bail from the Supreme Court. That protection lapsed on May 31, 2018, when the apex court said that the High Court of Gujarat would have to decide, on merits, on extending the anticipatory bail. As this magazine goes to press, hearings are on in the case.

Why is there an urgency to incarcerate Teesta Setalvad? If she is arrested, would it mean that the force behind the 2002 Gujarat riot cases is destroyed? Will her case serve as a warning to people who question and take on the might of persons in power such as Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his lieutenant, Amit Shah? She has repeatedly said that the charges against her are absolutely false and that her financial situation is open to scrutiny.

Observers say Teesta Setalvad’s unwavering and fearless commitment to getting justice for the victims of the Gujarat riots has posed a threat to the State government, particularly politicians and law enforcement authorities. The Zakia Jafri/Gulberg Society case in which Modi is named is yet to find closure. Could Teesta Setalvad’s going to jail lead to the death of this crucial case and hence closure?

Ever since Teesta Setalvad took up the cases of the victims of the Gujarat pogrom and successfully ensured the conviction for hundreds of its perpetrators, she has been at the receiving end of intimidation tactics and a vicious media campaign. When she and her organisation, the Sabrang Trust, went after Gujarat’s top guns who wield supreme power today, her situation turned serious, with several false charges made against her. In 2015 an anticipatory bail saved Teesta and Anand from imminent arrest on embezzlement charges. Since then their bank accounts have been frozen, their movements monitored and travels made difficult. Yet, the harshest blow has been to her reputation. That maligning is hard to recover from and a victory of sorts for her detractors, many people say.

In a statement under the banner of the Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP), of which Teesta Setalvad is the secretary, she says: “What was first dictated by Gandhinagar (capital of Gujarat) is now being orchestrated and executed by New Delhi. The Gujarat Police, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) have all been deployed against the human rights defenders who have carried on their struggle for justice despite this politically motivated hounding.

“Several prestigious international publications have published multiple reports on how the couple has been harassed and bullied by the government. In fact, even Frontline Defenders, a highly respected international organisation aimed at protecting human rights activists, has often come out in defence of Teesta Setalvad. The U.N. Special Rapporteurs have also expressed concerns about this hounding. The Higher Courts in India have also commented on the fact that the activists and their organisations have become targets of a vindictive regime, held to be responsible in 2002 for overseeing the massacre of India’s minorities. We categorically state that all allegations of embezzlement, misappropriation, publishing communally inflammatory content, witness tutoring or filing of false affidavits… are all false and baseless.”

The case that led to her arrest is based on the charge of misappropriation of funds by Khoj, Teesta Setalvad’s non-governmental organisation on education. It is alleged that she used her position in the Central Advisory Board of Education of the Human Resource Development Ministry to pitch for funds for her organisation under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan programme.

According to the Crime Branch, Sabrang Trust misused the money granted for educational purposes by the Ministry between 2010 and 2013 for their “personal and political cause”. The Gujarat Crime Branch says the couple published literature and pamphlets that “spread communal hatred”, which is dangerous for “national unity”. The police say the books on communal harmony, which was part of the Khoj project, were in reality spreading religious discord and hatred.

Teesta Setalvad says “this is the most bizzare case”. The CJP’s statement on this says that the police moved against her and Anand’s bail application on the grounds that they might tamper with evidence. The Khoj project was started in 2010 and was over before January 2014 when the bank accounts were frozen in connection with the embezzlement case. The only evidence of “embezzlement” is in the bank accounts. When the accounts in question are frozen, how can Teesta Setalvad tamper with evidence? Many fear that this is a ploy to get a chance for custodial interrogation of Teesta Setalvad.

The CJP says the charge that she misused the funds to mix religion and politics and create communal tensions is absurd. “[The] truth is that Setalvad and her NGOs have worked tirelessly to foster good relations between people of all communities. Setalvad was instrumental in setting up ‘mohalla’ or neighbourhood committees to ensure people of different communities co-exist in peace and harmony. The reading materials produced by any of Setalvad’s NGOs do not contain any communal or inflammatory content,” the statement says.

Other cases are based on allegations that Teesta Setalvad misappropriated money from the funds raised for a proposed museum in Gulberg Society in 2012. Although this proposal did not move forward, in 2015 the Ministry of Home Affairs accused Sabrang, Sabrang Communications and the CJP of violating the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA). However, audits of the books showed that the organisations were completely above board. Unfortunately, the two cases have not been closed; hence Teesta Setalvad is forced to fight them and procure anticipatory bail time and again. 

The case of Rais Khan

Sources say that Modi and his team were looking for an opportunity to discredit and teach Teesta Setalvad a lesson. The opportunity came when a disgruntled employee of the CJP, Rais Khan, a survivor of the Gulberg Society massacre, alleged that Teesta Setalvad and Anand had uploaded photographs and video footage of the riot areas and appealed to people across the globe to donate funds towards relief and legal work.

Khan, who worked for the CJP from 2002 to 2008, was dismissed by the organisation when it was found that he had been spreading rumours that she tutored witnesses and took a cut from the compensation they received. It is said that he connived with the riot-accused to malign her. The CJP says that following his disengagement with the organisation, he began filing complaints against them. It is believed that the government is using Khan to get at Teesta Setalvad and the Jafris.

Rewarded for his efforts, Khan has been appointed to the Central Wakf Board and has a senior counsel closely associated with the ruling party appearing for him. He has been spotted hobnobbing with politicians and businessmen associated with the Bharatiya Janata Party in Gujarat.

In its recent statement, the CJP says that Rais Khan, who has been at the root of several malicious and false cases against Teesta Setalvad, has literally been forum shopping since 2010, 32 months after he was discontinued from his services as a field coordinator of the CJP, a “remunerative post where rental accommodation was also provided”.

As part of his “forum shopping”, he has approached five trial courts specially hearing the Gujarat 2002 cases, the Nanavati Shah Commission, the Special Investigation Team and now the Crime Branch of the Gujarat Police. In the Sardarpura case and the Naroda Patiya case, the judgments had remarks against Khan, labelling his conduct as interference in the administration of justice, the CJP states.

When the hounding of Teesta Setalvad gained momentum in 2015 and Modi became Prime Minister, she told Frontline that anyone who crossed the government’s path would not be spared. “They will be hounded, intimidated, persecuted and eventually ruined,” she said. Her words today seem prescient.

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