Opinion

Teesta Setalvad: ‘Government intimidating me to obstruct the fight for justice in Gujarat’

The human rights activist talks about the current regime's concerted campaign against her – and her belief in miracles.

Despite being agnostic, we do sometimes believe in miracles. Through the work we have committed our lives to; through the work that has made us the object of arrest warrants, death threats and CBI raids; through the work that has made my husband, sister and children get dragged into unseemly allegations and controversy, I have believed in the purity of motive and the sincerity of faith. Neeyat agar saaf hai to mushkilon kitni bhi hon, jeet hamaari hai.

The struggle for justice for the victims of the Gujarat riots has validated this belief. It has been awe-inspiring to watch the raw courage of witness survivors – firm in the belief that truth is on their side – testifying before the courts. It is their audacity that has led to the life imprisonment of 120 people. The fact that they stood with us, and we with them, has made them unflinchingly loyal to us. Even in these hours when state vendetta has been unleashed upon us, they are praying for us.

We believe the reason for the redoubled attempts to humiliate me, to constrain my movement lie in the slow advance of the Zakia Jafri case. The criminal miscellaneous appeal in the this case, appealing the rejection of the Special Investigation Team closure report and seeking the charge-sheeting of 60 powerful accused is set to begin on July 27, 2015. My harassment is essentially an effort to affect the quality of arguments in this case. Besides the Zakia Jafri case, there are other events afoot.

Moments of miracle

The bail applications of Maya Kodnani, once a minister in Narendra Modi’s Gujarat government, have taken curious turns ever since she filed the first plea in February 2014. She was first refused bail by the Gujarat High Court and then granted it by the same court in July 2014.

Witness survivors, backed by our group Citizens for Justice and Peace, filed a special leave petition challenging her bail. An elected representative in 2002, Kodnani was found guilty by a special court (set up by the Supreme Court) of not only being the kingpin of a conspiracy to launch a physical attack on sections of the populace in her constituency, but also of physical presence during the attack and distribution of swords to further it. Officially, the charge-sheet said 96 persons were killed in Naroda Patiya, the single biggest massacre of 2002. Our count is closer to 124.

Not long after, another round of drama began: attempts to speed up her appeal in the Gujarat High Court. One such bid in April this year was objected to by survivors in the Supreme Court, as there were reservations about the manner in which the appeal was being rushed through. The Supreme Court listened and the hearing of the appeal was stayed for two months. Then on July 13, one of the two judges of the division bench assigned to begin hearing the case from that day recused himself, saying ‘not before me’.

Four months later, on July 15, a miracle happened, the sort that makes you believe in the purity of motive. A two-member bench of the Gujarat High Court, for the second time, recused itself from hearing appeals in the Naroda Patiya case. This time it was not a simple ‘not before me’. Justices MR Shah and KS Jhaveri stated in open court that while, under normal circumstances, reasons are not given by judges recusing themselves, this time they were constrained to state that some of the accused had approached them. It shows how far these perpetrators are ready to go to subvert justice. This is why, in this auspicious month, we agnostics too begin to believe in miracles.

Campaign of harassment

On August 29, 2012, a day that should be commemorated in India’s human rights movement, 32 persons were sentenced to life imprisonment in the Naroda Patiya case. Judge Jyotsna Yagnik, who delivered that verdict, has been threatened over the past one year and the security given to her withdrawn. Twenty-nine accused people have filed appeals, and our team and I were set to represent the survivors. And then, this dramatic turn of July 15 took place.

The Zakia Jafri criminal revision application (against the magistrate’s order of December 26, 2013, rejecting her protest petition) will now be argued rigorously by us from July 27, 2015. Our team will make out the case of criminal and administrative culpability despite the brazen bid to intimidate us.

In the past, the intimidation came from the Gujarat police. They arrived at our home on February 12, 2015, to arrest us within minutes of the Gujarat High Court rejecting bail on charges that we have rebutted. Now the new central regime has unleashed the Central Bureau of Investigation on us, even as it remains mute on raging murderous scams.

I include portions of a statement I made while the CBI searches were being conducted at our residence on July 14-15, 2015:
“As I write this, the search is still not concluded. It is shocking that while over a dozen members of the CBI are still in our premises conducting the search, a Delhi spokesperson of the same agency is misleading the public and our supporters by deliberately misinforming the public.

In our view, and we repeat no laws have been broken by us. No ‘incriminating documents have been seized’. The documents ‘seized’ by the team we were prepared to voluntarily give, and we have both to the Gujarat police and the MHA’s FCRA department [Ministry of Home Affairs’ Foreign Contribution Regulation Act] (April and June 2015). We had written to the CBI twice, first on June 30, 2015, and again on June 10, 2015, offering full cooperation and seeking information. All the investigation can be carried out through documentary evidence. Why then this cloak and dagger method to portray us as common criminals ? Until now the witch hunt was solely by the Gujarat police. Now, under the new dispensation Central agencies have been unleashed on us!!

It is shameful political vendetta. To stop us in our tracks, and prevent the systematic legal aid to Survivors, be it the Zakia Jafri case, the Naroda Patiya appeals (Kodnani and Bajrangi) and the Sardarpura and Odh appeals.

India should be ashamed that when scams like Vyapam are happening, over 50 persons dying, witnesses in Asaram Bapu case are dying; CBI is not appealing in critical cases related to crimes by politicians; the agency is being unleashed on human rights defenders standing up for the rights of Survivors of Mass Violence. It is worse than the British Raj. Pathetic.

I repeat Sabrang Communications has broken no law(s). Section 3 of the FCRA, 2010 bars political parties and its office-bearers, government servants, including Judges and persons associated with the newspapers and television news channels, from accepting foreign contribution. However Section 4 of the same law says that if persons named under Section 3 accept money from a foreign source by way of wages, salaries or other remuneration for themselves or a group of people working under them in the ordinary course of business in India, such payment will not be a violation of the FCRA. The amount received by Sabrang Communications and Publishing Pvt. Ltd. Co. from the Ford Foundation was not a grant but a payment as per a consultancy agreement which had nothing to do with the publishing of Communalism Combat. Therefore, the question of prior permission or registration does not arise.”

In fact when Communalism Combat was awarded the prestigious Prince Klaus Award for Excellence in Journalism and Development in December 2000 (during the time of the previous National Democratic Alliance regime) we sought permission from the Ministry of Home Affairs before depositing the award amount into our account. Are these the actions of common criminals?

Will the vindictive designs of this regime succeed? Not if we can help it. Eid Mubarak.

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