Journalist and human rights activist Teesta Setalvad has spent the last two decades fighting for justice for the victims of the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat. Former Gujarat police officer Sanjiv Bhatt reported a meeting that involved the then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, who, Bhatt claims, told the police to turn a blind eye to the violence. R.B. Sreekumar, a retired additional Director General of Police in Gujarat, filed affidavits with the Nanavati-Mehta commission (constituted to look into the riots) on the failure of law-enforcement agencies during the violence, which resulted in over 1,000 deaths and the disappearance of many people.
On June 24, however, the Supreme Court dismissed the Gulberg Society case, in which Setalvad was a petitioner, and held that the petitioners had fabricated a case with no merit, thus paving the way for their arrest.
Empowered by the verdict and encouraged by Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s subsequent interview on national television where he said Prime Minister Narendra Modi and he stood vindicated, the Gujarat police arrived at Setalvad’s home in Mumbai on June 25, produced an FIR filed by a Gujarat policeman, and took her to Ahmedabad where she was detained.
On the same day, the Ahmedabad police arrested Sreekumar, who lives in Gandhinagar. Bhatt, who has been lodged in Palanpur jail since his arrest in 2011 for a custodial death case, was brought to Ahmedabad as well.
Setalvad, Bhatt and Sreekumar have been charged with forgery, fabricating evidence, instituting criminal proceedings to cause injury to a public servant, making incorrect records or writing with intent to save a person from punishment, and criminal conspiracy. On July 2, they were remanded to 14 days judicial custody. The arrest of the three crusaders sends a chilling message: those seeking accountability will not be tolerated.
Over the years, the Gujarat government has done everything possible to thwart the legal process to get justice for the riot victims. This has entailed keeping Setalvad, Bhatt and Sreekumar at bay. A consistent campaign to undermine their credibility led to supporters losing interest or preferring to remain anonymous out of fear of the government’s vindictiveness. Even the media began to avoid Setalvad, Bhatt and Sreekumar. But they did not relent in their pursuit for justice.
The Gulberg Society case was in relation to the massacre on February 28, 2002, in a Muslim neighbourhood in Chamanpura, Ahmedabad, which claimed the lives of 35 people, including that of Congress MP Ehsan Jafri. This is the only one of the nine cases relating to the Gujarat riots in which Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah have been accused of being part of a larger conspiracy.
Setalvad and co-petitioner Zakia Jafri, Ehsan Jafri’s wife, kept fighting the case for 16 years despite the odds stacked against them. As several riots cases began to result in convictions, Setalvad believed that this one too could be won.
A three-judge Supreme Court bench of Justices A.M. Khanwalkar, Dinesh Maheshwari and C.T. Ravikumar delivered the judgment on Zakia Jafri’s appeal against a lower court’s decision refusing to file a case against Modi for his role in the riots.
Dismissing the petition, the judges cleared Modi and Shah of any involvement in a larger conspiracy by approving the Special Investigation Team (SIT) report. Moreover, the judges challenged every allegation and, in a surprising turn, blamed the petitioners for “fabricating” a case.
“It was very harsh. Even if they had let Modi and Shah off, which we expected given the current climate, to allow the law to go after Teesta, Sanjiv and Sreekumar is frightening,” said a defence lawyer associated with Setalvad.
The court said: “At the end of the day, it appears to us that a coalesced effort of the disgruntled officials of the state along with others was to create sensation by making revelations which were false to their own knowledge. The falsity of their claims had been fully exposed by the SIT…. Intriguingly, the present proceedings have been pursued for (the) last 16 years… including with the audacity to question the integrity of every functionary involved in the process of exposing the devious stratagem adopted (to borrow the submission of learned counsel for the SIT), to keep the pot boiling…. All those involved in such abuse of process need to be in the dock and proceeded with in accordance with law.”
“It was a body blow,” Setalvad told Frontline on the day of the verdict. “The judgment was over in precisely two minutes,” she said in a voice message.
“The SIT report 2012 has been fully accepted. The protest petition dated April 15, 2013, has been rejected. There was no infraction of the rule of law and accordingly the appeals have been dismissed.... We are going down, down, down,” she said. A few hours later Setalvad was arrested.
Communal riots broke out in Gujarat in February 2002 after the Sabarmati Express carrying kar sevaks from Ayodhya was reportedly set on fire. Over several days, rampaging mobs armed with swords, spears, knives, and kerosene attacked Muslim neighbourhoods. Hundreds of women were raped, pregnant women killed, children hacked in front of their parents, and men hanged from trees or burnt alive. The official death toll is 1,044, but local people believe it is closer to 2,000. Thousands of people were injured, and many are still missing.
As a journalist covering communal issues, Setalvad immediately left for Ahmedabad. Along with human rights activists, she began to help the victims.
As the riots spread, Setalvad and other volunteers began to record the incidents. Devastated by the killings caused by communal hatred, which Setalvad repeatedly said was fuelled by Hindutva forces in power, she quit her job and began working with the riot victims. She testified in commissions of inquiries that probed the riots, presented substantial findings, and helped file petitions. Setalvad was responsible for getting convictions in at least six of the nine main riot cases.
Together with the Jafri family, she took on the Gulberg Society case. According to eyewitness accounts, Ehsan Jafri tried everything in his capacity as a former MP to get help from the police and the Chief Minister’s Office when the mobs encircled the colony. However, his calls were not answered. Instead, he was dragged out of his home and slaughtered.
Zakia, who was determined to get the culprits punished, said she could only do it with the help of Setalvad. Together, they filed a petition that accused Modi and Shah of conspiracy.
The attacks began
In the early days of her work with the victims, Setalvad was seen as a volunteer who sought justice for those who had been harmed by the violence. She appeared on television channels and was invited to seminars. She became the face of justice for the riot victims. As her visibility grew, her opponents started to attack her in various ways, especially those who feared that their rising political popularity would be hurt by her.
Setalvad was accused of coaching Zaheera Sheikh, a key witness in the Best Bakery case involving the burning down of a bakery in Vadodara during the riots. A former colleague charged her with tampering evidence. It later turned out that he was a disgruntled employee of her Citizens for Justice and Peace.
After Setalvad tried to raise funds to build a memorial at Gulberg Society, the Gujarat government charged her with embezzlement. In this case, the police arrived at her doorstep to arrest her. Her financial records proved her innocence. She was even accused of receiving unaccounted foreign aid. This was proven to not be true either.
Her family’s and her bank accounts have been frozen for six years and the riots cases have faced innumerable delays, purportedly because of the police. Despite these setbacks, Setalvad has not backed down from her mission.
Unfortunately, the smear campaign that painted her as a shrill publicity seeker succeeded fairly well. Former well-wishers deserted her in large numbers.
Yet, even though Setalvad may be loud, hers has been the only voice for the victims. Her crime is possibly her refusal to stop her campaign to bring the perpetrators of the Gujarat pogrom to justice.