Hounding an activist

The Gujarat Police’s pursuit of Teesta Setalvad, who has been fighting for the riot victims in Gujarat, in a case of “misappropriation” of funds smacks of political vendetta.

Published : Feb 18, 2015 12:30 IST

Teesta Setalvad. She has relentlessly pursued the Gujarat riot cases, punishment for the guilty and compensation for the victims of the riots.

Teesta Setalvad. She has relentlessly pursued the Gujarat riot cases, punishment for the guilty and compensation for the victims of the riots.

Teesta Setalvad has always said they will get her one day. She has told this magazine several times that if Narendra Modi becomes Prime Minister, her future as a lawyer and activist will be finished. She has been on the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) radar for several reasons, the main one being the Zakia Jafri case in which Modi is held culpable for the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat. She has believed that he will pursue a political vendetta against her.

In a dramatic move on February 12, the Gujarat Police arrived at Teesta Setalvad and her husband Javed Anand’s house in Mumbai, probably to arrest them, after the Gujarat High Court rejected her anticipatory bail plea in a criminal case relating to the charge of “misappropriation” of trust funds collected on behalf of riot victims. Reportedly, the couple were away for a family function. Through the intervention of the well-known lawyer Kapil Sibal, the Supreme Court stayed the arrest until February 13. This was later extended to February 19. The hearing of the bail pleas of Tanvir Jafri, the son of Ehsan Jafri, the former Congress Member of Parliament who was killed by rioters in Gulberg Cooperative Housing Society, Ahmedabad, and that of Salim Sandhi and Firoz Gulzar, members of Gulberg Society, who were also named in the case, was also extended.

Teesta Setalvad and other activists have repeatedly said that anyone who crosses Modi’s path is not spared. “They will be hounded, intimidated, persecuted and eventually ruined,” she once said.

If Teesta Setalvad is found guilty and arrested, it could be the end of the road for any form of justice for the families and victims of the Gujarat riots. She and the late lawyer-activist Mukul Sinha were perhaps the only two people who, against all odds, relentlessly pursued the riot cases for more than a decade.

A statement issued on February 13 by the Citizens for Justice and Peace (CPJ), a non-governmental organisation she works with, says: “We have no doubt whatsoever regarding their honesty and integrity in the dealings of CJP. We are convinced that there is no factual basis to sustain the charge of embezzlement, and this has been asserted by the independent auditors of CJP.”

The human rights activist Father Cedric Prakash issued a statement saying, “All are aware that the charges are extremely flimsy and fabricated and are surely politically motivated.”

The case which is threatening Teesta Setalvad’s credibility and safety goes back to 2012 when she and her team from the Sabrang Trust and the CJP mooted the idea of a memorial museum on the premises of Gulberg Society. Of the various means employed to raise funds, one was an art show held in Mumbai. Titled “Art for Humanity”, this exhibition had close to 80 leading Indian artists donate pieces of art to help the CJP carry on its work in the struggle for justice. It was a sell-out. Reportedly, the CJP earned over Rs.1 crore from the exhibition.

At the time of the art show, Teesta Setalvad told this correspondent that “to sustain any movement on a long-term basis, it naturally requires serious commitment and a fair amount of funds, particularly when working on scores of legal cases.” Furthermore, “the aim of building this platform is to evolve a sustainable and strategic fund-raising initiative to ensure a support base for the CJP’s pioneering work in the area of legal rights and social justice. There was an overwhelming response from the artists when we broached the idea with them,” she said.

The CJP is well known for keeping up the fight for justice for the victims of communal attacks since the riots that followed the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Mainly concentrated in western India, the CJP in recent times has been waging a legal battle against the perpetrators of the 2002 Gujarat pogrom. Gulberg Society, a complex of approximately 30 houses and 10 apartments, was the target of one of the most brutal attacks by the Hindu mob in the 2002 communal riots that took the lives of over 800 people.

Rioters set fire to almost every house. Official figures say 69 people were killed and about 100 were injured. Most residents took refuge in Ehsan Jafri’s house within the compound hoping that help would come for him and that they would be saved. But Jafri was dragged out of his house, hacked and burnt to death in front of his family and neighbours. Another 35 people were hacked to death and burnt within the premises of Gulberg Society. Jafri had persistently telephoned the authorities, and reportedly Modi, the Chief Minister, to send help but sadly none came. There are telephone records to prove this.

This led to the theory that no one wanted to help or the police were told not to help and because of that Modi was complicit in the massacre.

Of the nine riot cases that the Special Investigation Team (SIT) was looking into, Teesta Setalvad was helping victims in almost every case. The Gulberg Society case was the only one in which Modi was implicated in the larger conspiracy behind the riots. Modi had to shake off the communal label. His prime ministerial ambitions had begun to emerge.

Jafri’s widow, Zakia, filed her first case against Modi in 2006. With the help of Teesta Setalvad’s legal assistance, she had her family keep up their fight for justice even though the odds were stacked against them.

Informed 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 was conniving with various riot-accused people. The CJP says that following his disengagement with the organisation, he began filing complaints against them. In fact, it is believed that the government, rather Modi, used Khan to get at Teesta Setalvad and the Jafris.

In 2012, Khan said the websites posted appeals for money to be sent directly to the accounts of the CJP or the Sabrang Trust. He also accused the couple of collecting crores of rupees under the guise of building a museum on the Gulberg Society premises. Real trouble began for Teesta Setalvad when Khan allegedly forged a letter of the Society’s members stating that she and the CJP had not given the money to the victims in spite of collecting it in their names. He filed it as a complaint with the police.

In 2013, official representatives of Gulberg Society, in a letter to the Joint Commissioner of Police, Crime Branch, Ahmedabad, said that Khan’s letter was forged and his allegations were false, but the police disregarded it and said an investigation would be carried out before deciding whether Teesta Setalvad or the CJP was guilty.

After the “investigation”, the Crime Branch claimed that the Society members’ complaint did not have any substance in it and filed a first information report (FIR) against Teesta Setalvad on January 4, 2014. She and her husband were granted interim bail, but their bank accounts were frozen. In spite of Gulberg Society secretary Firoz Gulzar filing a complaint in court against the police’s biased approach, nothing changed.

Observers say the sudden filing of the FIR against Teesta Setalvad and the Jafris soon after the Ahmedabad Magistrate’s acceptance of the SIT report in the Zakia Jafri case against Modi and 59 others is not without significance. Attempts by Teesta Setalvad to shift the case to the Bombay High Court failed.

In 2012, the museum plan got shelved. Soaring real estate prices in Ahmedabad had Gulberg Society members thinking it might be a better idea to sell the property and rebuild their lives. A statement from the CJP says that the funds have been kept to be used once a decision is taken on this. “A formal resolution of the Society was passed after this was conveyed to them, leaving the members free to sell off their properties as per law. In no way have either the CJP or Sabrang in any way cheated them or let down the Society.”

Teesta Setalvad has often asked why 80 leading artists would throw their weight behind the CJP if they did not feel the organisation was genuine. Or why well-known citizens such as the lyricist Javed Akhtar and the businessman-philanthropist Cyrus Guzdar would support the organisation if it was not doing good work. Clearly, none of these arguments have worked in the court. Justice J.B. Pardiwala said the organisation was “a one-woman and one-man show” that misused funds meant for the poor.

His order states: “The facts of this case are quite shocking and disturbing. How can one seek materialistic pleasure and happiness at the expense of the poor and needy persons? The facts of this case reflect the sorry state of affairs of the NGOs. While giving freedom to the civil society to function with the flexibility is positive, too much freedom can lead to abuses by certain groups or individuals calling themselves an ‘NGO’, thus giving civil society a bad name. It is, therefore, very important to have strict laws regulating accountability and monitoring of the NGOs so as to maintain a high trust level and good functioning.”

When the attacks on Teesta Setalvad began two years ago, eminent citizens such as the historian Romila Thapar, Justice B.N. Srikrishna and Justice P.B. Sawant put the issue in perspective in a statement that read: “Indian citizens have just got a disturbing glimpse of how the state would deal with dissidents and human-rights defenders should Narendra Modi come to power nationally…. Eleven months ago, the police had dropped investigations into these very charges after CJP activists explained what they were working towards. The sudden filing of the FIR is evidently in anticipation of CJP’s decision to appeal against the Jafri case judgment. This follows Gujarat’s well-established pattern of harassment of critics, the intention being to intimidate and silence them. Any attempt to prevent the early filing of an appeal will subvert the process of justice. Such intervention is contrary to the norms of our Constitution and speaks of an anti-democratic mindset.”

Whatever may be said about Teesta Setalvad, that allegation that she used the money to holiday and buy luxury goods is difficult to believe.

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