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Clamping down

Modi government's hounding of Teesta Setalvad is a message to all dissidents

The numerous cases foisted on her have little substance but are intended to paralyse work to seek justice for the victims of the Gujarat riots.

Incredible as it might sound, the government of India is so irritated with the activities of one woman that it is finding all kinds of ways to catch her and lock her up.  The woman who continues to be a thorn in the flesh of the Modi government is Teesta Setalvad. The reason the government thinks she should be locked up is because this tenacious woman refuses to allow India, or the world, to forget what happened in Gujarat in 2002.

It's another story that the multiple cases being foisted on her have little substance.  What one needs to realise is that together they are part of a plan to paralyse her ability to work and eventually to find a way to take her into custody.

The latest in the long list of inquiries and cases against Teesta Setalvad, her husband Javed Anand, and the organisations they established and run – Sabrang Communications, Sabrang Trust and Citizens for Justice and Peace – are so numerous and complex that one would need hundreds of pages just to run through the bare description.

The earliest cases date back to 2006. The latest was just last week when newspapers reported that the Central Bureau of Investigation had filed an FIR against Setalvad under Sections 120b read with Sections 35, 37 of IPC and Section 3, 11 and 19 of the FCRA Act of 2010 (criminal conspiracy and receiving funds illegally).  Setalvad has not received any notice but only heard about it from the media.

So how does one make sense of these cases that began almost a decade back but have accelerated in the past year?

Work began in 1993

Setalvad and Anand did not begin their work on communalism after the 2002 Gujarat violence, as is sometimes assumed. In fact, they set up Sabrang Communications in 1993 and began publishing the journal Communalism Combat.  After two public-spirited individuals, Jyoti Punwani and Vijendra, printed 500 copies of the Justice Srikrishna Commission Report into the Mumbai communal riots of 1992-'93, Sabrang also published it.  This was at a time when the state government would not make it available to the public.

Copies of the report were sold outside Bombay High Court and at all possible venues for as little as Rs 60. It was the only way people in the city read in detail about the culpability of the police, the Shiv Sena and the Congress state government in what happened during the weeks of violence that permanently scarred a city once considered liberal and cosmopolitan.

Between 1993 and 2002, during which period Setalvad and Anand also set up the Sabrang Trust in 1995, they were never questioned for their activities. On the contrary, they won several awards for their work. The trouble began after they established Citizens for Justice and Peace in 2002 and actively pursued  the courts cases against the perpetrators of the Gujarat violence.

This work meant collecting testimonies, providing witnesses with protection, getting on board lawyers who could formulate the arguments and ensuring that a couple of cases were moved out of Gujarat because the Supreme Court accused the state government of judicial failure.  That this effort resulted in 120 or so convictions in the different cases is a testimony to this work. The record of convictions in communal violence cases in India is so abysmal that it would not be an exaggeration to state only this type of civil society intervention could make convictions possible.

From Gujarat to Delhi

The one case that cut too close to the bone for the Gujarat government, then headed by Narendra Modi, is that of the widow of the Congress MP Ehsan Jafri, who was killed by a mob during the riots. Aided by Citizens for Jusice and Peace, Zakia Jafri filed a criminal complaint for criminal and administrative culpability against top politicians and policemen, including Narendra Modi. This is separate from the Gulberg trial on the killing of Ehsan Jafri and 68 others.  That trial is still ongoing and is under appeal in the Gujarat High Court.

Jafri had questioned the report of the special investigations team set up by the Supreme Court to look into the charges about criminal conspiracy in the Gulberg Case.  The report is popularly believed to have given a “clean chit” to Modi.  In fact, it merely stated that there was not enough evidence to prove his involvement.

Although Jafri's initial protest petition was rejected on December 26, 2013, in the magistrate’s court, she has not given up and is still pursuing the case. Eight days after this, an FIR was filed against Setalvad and four others, including Jafri’s son, for embezzlement of funds. This was followed by all the organisation’s accounts and Setalvad’s personal accounts being frozen. Despite this, Jafri and Setalvad managed to file a criminal revision to the protest petition by March 15, 2014.  This is the case that will now be heard on July 27 before the magistrate’s court in Ahmedabad.

What we need to recognise is that while between 2006 and last year, the cases filed against Setalvad and her colleagues were mostly initiated by the Gujarat Crime Branch, since the Modi government was formed at the Centre, they are now coming from agencies in Delhi.

For instance, in response to a letter sent by the Gujarat Crime Branch to the Ministry of Home Affairs in Delhi in March 2015, raising questions about Setalvad’s organisations receiving funds from Ford Foundation, the ministry sent notices to them about violating provisions of the Foreign Contributions Regulations Act. Ford Foundation also faced the heat and is now required to get clearance before releasing funds to any non-governmental organisation.

Squeeze from all sides

There were a series of inspections of the accounts of Sabrang and Citizens for Justice and Peace. These organisations have sent in over 25,000 pages of documentation answering every query about funding.  Despite this, the CBI has reportedly filed an FIR against Setalvad.  Why, when the charge is being investigated, and the people charged are cooperating and answering all questions?

What this means, once you wade through the mountain of legalese, is that the government has a single objective: to find a way to get Setalvad into their custody.  By filing FIRs and sending out warrants for her arrest, the government has ensured that a large part of her time, at least three or four days a week, is now spent running from one court to another to get anticipatory bail. These applications can only be made before the Gujarat High Court or the Supreme Court. Setalvad lives and works out of Mumbai.

The other part of her time is spent dealing with the multiple inspections into the accounts of the three organisations and preparing the required documents. What time is left is then devoted to cases such as Ehsan Jafri’s and the Naroda Patiya case, in which a minister in Modi’s cabinet in Gujarat, Maya Kodnani, was convicted and sent to jail. Although Kodnani has managed to get bail, Setalvad and her group are fighting hard to ensure that she does not get acquitted.

In sum, the government’s strategy is to squeeze organisations like Setalvad’s from all sides until they give up. On the surface, it would appear that the government is cracking down on all non-governmental organisations receiving foreign funds.  In fact, it is carefully picking the ones that it wants to shut down. Teesta Setalvad’s organisations are on top of that list.

Crushing dissent

This attack on Setalvad has also to be placed against what is happening in the country since the Modi government took office. We have not seen a major communal conflagration like Gujarat 2002.  But there is a steady stream of incidents of communal violence in various parts of the country.  It is more than evident that minorities are being targeted in direct and indirect ways (the beef ban, questioning education in madrasas, attacks on churches, ghar wapasi etc).  Modi has remained silent on all this, including the inflammatory statements made by ministers in his cabinet.  Against this reality, the effort put in by Setalvad’s team to keep alive Gujarat 2002 in our collective memories, and to get justice for the victims of that period of violence, is relevant.

On the other side, while people like Setalvad are being hounded for pursuing these cases of violence, we are watching the disintegration of the cases against Hindutva extremists in the Ajmer bomb blast case of 2007, where witnesses are turning hostile, and the Modasa case the next year, which has been closed for lack of evidence. In Maharashtra, special prosecutor Rohini Salian went public about the National Investigation Agency asking her to “go soft” on the Malegaon bomb blast case of 2008, in which Hindutva extremists have been implicated. All this has happened in the last one year.

The message is loud and clear.  If you come in the way of this government, you will be hounded till you give up. If you are on their side, even if you are guilty, you have a good chance of getting a reprieve.

So the issue is not just whether the Modi government will succeed in catching Teesta Setalvad and detaining her, but also whether there is any hope for dissent and justice when the state uses its power to crush those who question it.

Kalpana Sharma is an independent journalist, a columnist with The Hindu and consulting editor Economic and Political Weekly.

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