‘We will not give in’

Print edition : August 21, 2015

Teesta Setalvad: "It is not a personal battle." Photo: K. Pichumani

Teesta Setalvad and he husband, Javed, coming out of CBI office in Mumbai, where they had been called for questioning in connection with a case of FCRA violation that has been slapped on the couple, on July 27. Photo: VIVEK BENDRE

A protest outside CBI office where Teesta Setalvad and her husband Javed Anand were called for questioning on July 20. Photo: VIVEK BENDRE

Interview with Teesta Setalvad, whose tireless pursuit of justice in cases of the Gujarat riots has resulted in 120 convictions so far.

IF there is one person in deep trouble with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government at the Centre, it is Teesta Setalvad. A fiery activist and lawyer who has been relentlessly pursuing justice for the 2002 Gujarat riot victims, Teesta Setalvad has in recent months been subjected to what many are referring to as a witch-hunt.

Teesta Setalvad believes that the attacks on her have increased because Prime Minister Narendra Modi is named as a prime accused in the Zakia Jafri case, which is in the final stage of hearing in the Gujarat High Court. While he may have become Prime Minister and has perhaps successfully shaken off the tag of being complicit in the worst communal violence seen in recent times, Teesta Setalvad has clearly been a thorn in his side with her dogged efforts to resist oblivion for the 2002 riot victims. She says there is a deliberate attempt to scuttle the riot cases by harassing her.

She and her husband, Javed Anand, jointly run the Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP), a non-governmental organisation working for communal harmony. The couple has been accused of a range of offences by the Gujarat Police and the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). They have been accused of, among other things, tutoring riot witnesses, siphoning off funds meant for the Gulberg Society victims, and violating the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act.

In early July, the CBI raided her home and office in connection with the embezzlement case. In February, the police had attempted to arrest her and Anand in connection with the case. She has secured anticipatory bail from the Bombay High Court, but she knows it will be a long and hard battle. She says Modi as the Prime Minister is able to use Central agencies to persecute her.

In the 13 years since the riots, Teesta Setalvad and Anand have fought 68 cases, resulting in 120 convictions. There has been a surge in support for her following the heat she is facing. Citizens’ groups, activists, politicians and former bureaucrats are speaking out as it becomes obvious that any voice of dissent or cry for justice is treated as anti-national.

Frontline spoke to Teesta Setalvad and found out that she was determined never to give up. Excerpts from the conversation:

Ever since an FIR [first information report] was filed in the embezzlement case in January 2014, you have faced the constant threat of arrest, your accounts have been frozen. What do you suspect is the motive for targeting you?

As the survivors of the carnage in Gulberg Society were unable to sell their individual properties at a fair price, it was collectively decided to try and raise funds to build a memorial at Gulberg Society around 2007-08. Since we, the Sabrang Trust—the CJP never had anything to do with the memorial—only managed to raise Rs.4.6 lakh, we had to inform the Society [members] [in 2012] that the project was not feasible. No contract was ever signed, no property or deed ever changed hands, no rent was promised, nor did monies change hands. The Rs.4.6 lakh donated by individuals, all Indians, including one PIO [person of Indian origin], is still unutilised.

The complaint was first made in January 2013, the FIR was filed in January 2014, and a year and a half later, a charge sheet is yet to be filed. The FIR, in our view, was malicious and motivated. It was filed by one Firoz Saeed Khan, the brother of one of the eyewitnesses in the Gulberg case and also a resident of the society, but he was not present when the carnage took place. A former employee of the CJP, who is being systematically used by the ruling dispensation —as he has instigated five cases against me—is the Crime Branch witness!

All that the State of Gujarat appears to be interested in is humiliating and vilifying us and detaining us in custody. This was obvious when the Crime Branch IO [investigating officer] landed up at our home in a full-blown tamasha on February 12, 2015. None of the contentions made by them [the Crime Branch] on affidavit have been supported by documentary evidence; no charge sheet has been filed. It is a sinister design to look into our private lives, what we are spending our money—not Trust funds—on, and to launch a filthy campaign. It is vintage Sanghi-style propaganda. The Mumbai ATS [Anti-Terrorism Squad] chief Hemant Karkare had been likewise harassed before he was tragically killed on November 26, 2008.

The motive is clearly to keep us embroiled in these legal tangles and thus paralyse our efforts to uphold India’s Constitution and challenge the very ideological frame of this government.

The CBI has been on your trail since January 2013. They recently called you a “national threat”.

If anyone working for communal harmony and peace is a national threat, then we are. Our struggle and battle is to uphold Babasaheb Ambedkar’s Constitution. We work to uphold our core constitutional values. We are seen not as a national threat but as a threat by this regime, run by the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh], whose world view is inherently anti-Constitution. We are a threat only to those who believe in the politics of hatred and division. These forces, by the way, never fought for independence, had nothing to do with the richness of principle and commitment as enshrined in the Indian Constitution.

What are the allegations against you? You have told the media that you have cooperated in every way possible, yet they raided your home/office. From a legal standpoint, did they have the authority to do this?

The raid and search violated due process of law. We have challenged the police move of obtaining a search warrant by applying to a magistrate, who issued the search warrant [on July 17, two days after the search] and have informed him that he was misled. None of the correct steps was followed by the CBI under Section 192-193 of the CrPC [Code of Criminal Procedure]. We believe there has been a complete infringement on our constitutional rights. A notice has been issued on our application and the matter will be heard in early August. Several charges have been made against us and we have rebutted all of them. We have cooperated in every way possible. Almost 24,000 pages of documentation have been provided by us to the CBI.

To begin with, the aims and objectives of both the CJP and the Sabrang Trust as contained in their founding documents are broad enough to allow a wide range of activities. However, since its inception in 2002, the CJP’s core concern has been to provide legal aid to the victims of mass crimes. The Sabrang Trust’s main focus has been on, one, Khoj [education for a plural India] programme run in schools, and two, conflict resolution and peace-building. On the Gulberg memorial, as I said, funds were raised, but since only Rs.4.6 lakh was collected, we informed the members that the project was not feasible, and the money is still untouched.

As for funds raised and activities conducted for legal aid, the CJP raised money for providing legal aid to victims of the 2002 Gujarat carnage, and its record in this respect is unprecedented in India. Witness how protection and probity during trials, despite hostile regimes, have ensured the convictions of 120 people.

All payments to me and Javed were strictly in accordance with the budgets proposed to and accepted by the Ford Foundation, the UNVFVT [United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture], CRY, and so on.

All payments by the CJP and the Sabrang Trust towards reimbursements for shared expenses were as per resolutions passed from time to time by their respective trustees. Javed and I recused ourselves from the decisions taken in all such instances.

As for the allegation that Javed and I spent on ourselves from the remunerations we received, this is too ridiculous to merit comment.

As for the funds raised through art auction by the Sabrang Trust, these funds were intended to support the core activities that have been spelt out at the very beginning. It was never claimed by the Trust that the funds so raised were for financial help for victims. India’s leading artists gave generously their works to support these endeavours because of their high regard for our work.

As for the charge that no accounts were kept for legal aid work by the CJP, everyone in India and abroad, except for the Gujarat Police, recognises the legal aid work undertaken by the CJP and its unprecedented outcome. It is evident from the annual audited accounts of the CJP, which have been submitted to the authorities—Income Tax, Charity Commissioner, Ministry of Home Affairs—that 80-90 per cent of the CJP’s annual expenses are incurred on legal aid, including expenses on the CJP’s field office in Gujarat.

With regard to funding, could you explain the connection with the Ford Foundation?

Sabrang Communications, which published the monthly Communalism Combat, signed a consultancy agreement with the Ford Foundation in 2004 and 2006 to address the issues of caste and communalism through a clearly defined set of activities, which had nothing whatsoever to do with Communalism Combat or remuneration to Javed Anand or Teesta Setalvad towards discharging editorial/managerial functions. The consultancy agreement was signed by Sabrang Communications only after advice from eminent legal counsel that such an agreement was covered under the exclusion stipulated under Section 4 of the [Foreign Contribution Regulation] Act and so the consultancy fees, not grant or donation, received would not be in violation of the Act.

How much damage has all this done to the organisation and the work you do?

Apart from the persistent tension, this has definitely impacted our donor list, scaring persons away. However, our supporters have only grown. When the ruling regime makes it so brazenly clear that we are persona non grata, it sends out a message, and many silently receive it and avoid us. Not because they don’t believe in us anymore but mainly to protect themselves and save their skins.

You, Javed Anand and your organisation are not the only ones targeted. Greenpeace, anti-nuclear and human rights activists have been attacked.

This is true. The attacks on us, though more vicious than on others, are part of a wider trend to silence democratic dissent. On the one hand, those who speak the language of social justice, against communalism and the politics of hate, are the target. On the other, and this is as important, those who challenge the paradigm of a proto-fascist development, the transfer of public resources to select crony capital, are the others who are being ruthlessly silenced. The time has come to build a vibrant resistance to this.

You said to the media that the CBI's move is an obstruction of justice. Could you explain this?

We don’t believe we are above the law, but we insist on due process. We have always cooperated, while retaining our rights to protest a malafide and motivated investigation. Alleged economic offences mentioned in the Gujarat Crime Branch’s FIR and also the CBI’s can be probed through a scrutiny of documentary evidence. Then why the obsessive desire for custodial interrogation?

We have maintained that we have broken no laws, that we are here to cooperate, but the last 20 months have been spent, first by the Gujarat authorities and now the Centre—the Home Ministry and the CBI—on simply keeping us engaged in this trivia and busy protecting our personal liberties. The timing of the recent, bizarre raid by the CBI is clearly meant to stymie our physical presence and my active engagement in the Gujarat High Court when the Zakia Jafri Criminal Revision is heard, challenging the “clean chit” given by the SIT [Special Investigation Team] and accepted by Magistrate [B.J.] Ganatra. The CBI is functioning like a caged parrot. By attempting to tie us down with daily interrogations, they tried to prevent us from working on the Zakia Jafri case.

The collective work of the CJP, with the support of statutory bodies and continuous monitoring by the Supreme Court of India, has successfully broken the prevalent culture of impunity for mass communal crimes in India. Have we seen justice for the Nellie massacre of 1983? For the Sikh pogrom of 1984? Have we seen any justice for the Bombay violence of 1992-93? Ours has been a historic effort, where we have managed to get 120 people, including some powerful men from the Patel community, convicted for the Gujarat violence. The efforts now seem to be to crudely reverse these successes.

The Zakia Jafri case is in its final stage. Does the timing of the raid seem like a coincidence?

This is not a coincidence.

When we first filed the complaint in 2006, Zakia Jafri was a woman who had witnessed things, was traumatised, she had spent the night after the Gulberg massacre at a police station, and I remember she kept saying policemen were on leave when Ahmedabad was burning. It was a thing in her head that this was deliberate, this was conscious. But that’s not enough to file a criminal case. We now have insurmountable evidence to prove this.

I would say if Godhra had happened anywhere in our country, there would be three or four reprisal attacks, undoubtedly. But what was the role that the administration should have played? Was there a clear-cut appeal for calm, for peace, for no revenge, for no baying for blood? That’s all we are saying, and we have built up a case around that.

I believe that it is these arguments coming back out into the public domain that this regime really does not want. My question to the powers that be is, if you are so confident of the so-called clean chit, why is the Gujarat High Court hearing of the Criminal Revision Application (205/2014) bothering you? Are you insecure?

Is activism and the pursuit of justice being deliberately suppressed? You are becoming a symbol of the fearless activist.

If that’s what is being said, I wear the tag humbly. It is obvious that there are deliberate moves to paralyse our efforts. We will not give in and that is what I would say to anyone pursuing justice. It is a clarion call to all of us that we must not allow this proto-fascist ideology to take over/seize our democracy.

What is happening now is frightening. It is much worse than even the Emergency. There is a clear-cut agenda to convert India’s constitutional democracy into a selective, crony-corporate-driven Hindu Rashtra. We must remember that no government in our democracy is supreme, even if it has 292 seats in Parliament. It is the Indian Constitution that is supreme. A brute show of electoral power cannot substitute the constitutional principles of equality and just governance. We must, at all times, remind ourselves that nationally only 31 per cent of Indians support this authoritarian regime.

These past few months have seen a surge in support for you. For some time you were dismissed by the electronic media.

We are deeply grateful for this surge of support and see it as a source of renewing our energies and strengths. Several people, organisations, political parties have been consistently supportive.

The media have been a huge let-down. While the print media is overall slightly better—condescending to at least publish rebuttals the day after the one-sided damage has been done—large sections of the electronic media have conducted a regime-driven witch-hunt. It is shocking enough to be worth a detailed study. Completely unbalanced news hour shows, the flashing of unsubstantiated allegations. Most importantly, failing on the critical count of carrying both sides of the story, fairly, point by point. We have become a victim to the corporate-supported electronic media’s irrational support for this regime.

When you say you are fighting for justice, what do you mean by that?

That we are not fighting a personal battle but one for accountability for mass crimes. If a government in power is held legally accountable for a calculated breakdown of constitutional machinery for weeks and months—apart from the first 72 hours after the Godhra tragedy, Gujarat was simmering till early May 2002 when K.P.S. Gill was flown in by the first National Democratic Alliance government—is not this a struggle for public justice?

If questions are being asked of policemen and administrators about their failure to respond to State intelligence messages signalling dire warnings and police control room messages demanding support —which senior police officers deny—are these not legitimate legal queries in defence of a citizen’s fundamental rights? If 47 messages of the Ahmedabad Fire Brigade—part of the Zakia Jafri Investigation papers that are being used by us—on February 28, 2002, are deliberately and wilfully ignored, what does this tell us about Commissioner of Police P.C. Pande and Additional Commissioner of Police Shivanand Jha, responsible for acts of both commission and omission? Should this battle for accountability always stay abandoned and never be fought?

Given the difficult time you and your husband are going through, have well-wishers asked you whether you would throw in the towel and seek protection? Your thoughts on what would happen if you do.

So far we have dug our heels in and fought. At great personal cost. We hope that this abiding courage will not abandon us.

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