It was a mild winter day in 1993 when I went to the home of Prem and Indra Pasricha, my grand uncle and grand aunt. I always enjoyed going to their apartment in Scindia House in Connaught Place, New Delhi, because the parathas were always delicious and because the langurs always seem to make a visit to their roof (some years later, these monkeys attacked my frail grand aunt). But there was something misplaced about these visits.

I had become involved in the Left movement and was a vocal opponent of the Ram Janmabhoomi campaign by the Bharatiya Janata Party and its various organisations to destroy the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya and to erect a Ram temple on that site. Uncle Prem and Aunty Indra, loving as they were to me, held diametrically opposed viewpoints.

Hum mandir vahi banayenge, we will build the temple there, he would chant from his sofa, a cup of tea balanced perilously on his lap. I would argue with him, but to no avail. He was older and more experienced, and I would splutter in the face of what I saw as the ugliness of bigotry. And besides, he respected the fact that I could finish off the crossword puzzle in The Statesman, and that overshadowed our disagreements as far as he was concerned.

What a difficult time it was in the winter of 1992-’93. On December 6, 1992, the forces of Saffron had destroyed the Babri Masjid. In its aftermath, terrible violence broke out in Mumbai and in Delhi. As a young research scholar at Delhi University and as a reporter for one of the daily newspapers, I went off to Seelampur in Delhi to cover some of that violence, which marked me with its brutality (the wretchedness of seeing working-class Dalits and Muslims fight it out in a struggle that benefitted neither distressed me).

I carried around pamphlets of that violence done in a hurry with great bravery by the Sampradayikta Virodhi Andolan, the AIDS Bhedbhav Virodhi Andolan, and the Delhi State Committee of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), having participated in the research and writing for many of these documents. Rattling off the facts to Prem and Indra made no difference; they would smile and turn away.

The trauma of Partition

Prem and Indra Pasricha not only journeyed to Delhi from what would become Pakistan, but they also journeyed from a kind of colonial liberalism – fostered at Kinnaird College in Lahore for her and at Government College in the same city for him – to the fang-bared hard right of the forces of Saffron. It was Partition that hardened them, and then intensified by their hatred for the Congress (particularly after the mass killing of Sikhs in Delhi in 1984; on his coffee table, Prem kept Who are the Guilty?, the report by Peoples Union for Democratic Rights and Peoples Union for Civil Liberties on that pogrom); then later, all those personal experiences marinated into a reflexive bigotry towards Muslims – it was hard to get a word in when they spoke about Bangladeshi migrants.

Aunty Indra was one of the founders of the Rashtra Sevika Samiti and Uncle Prem acted as an advisor to the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of the Sangh Parivar.

It was because of their commitments to the cause of Saffron and to their close links to the various Bharatiya Janata Party tentacles that their parties were often attended by senior members of that network. That 1993 winter day, one of the guests at their party was a veteran of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad fights at Delhi University, Arun Jaitley. Ten years later, Jaitley would become the law minister in the BJP government and would be hailed as a moderate, although anyone who saw his behaviour at Delhi University knew that moderation did not make sense to his temperament.

At some point in the late afternoon, Jaitley asked me to come with him to a balcony that overlooked Janpath, the bustle of the streets and the noises of the monkeys our companions. He told me that he had read some of my writings and that Uncle Prem had spoken to him about me. “You’re a bright boy. It’s fine that you criticise us,” he said. “We don’t mind criticism, that’s ok.” He was looking at me sternly. And then he said: “But, Vijay, if you make fun of us, be careful.”

When I got news that the Supreme Court of India had made a comment that the state should investigate Teesta Setalvad’s role in advocating for the survivors and victims of the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat, I thought of those words: be careful.

I have known Teesta Setalvad for over 30 years, when she and her husband Javed Anand started the important publication, Communalism Combat. I would occasionally write for it and would try to get people to take subscriptions of it. There were few publications in India then – and now – that so diligently took the view that communal hatred was iron in the soul of a nation. After the pogrom in Gujarat, Setalvad and others formed the advocacy platform, Citizens for Justice and Peace; this platform fought in an adverse terrain to lift up the voices of the injured and the families of the dead in an atrocity that catapulted the BJP to power in Delhi and that continues to pain those impacted by it.

It is easy to forget the small voices of history, the people who suffered in the pogrom and whose families suffer still from the knowledge that powerful people then are even more powerful now. Be careful, the words that touched all of us as we defied very powerful interests.

A decade ago, it became clear that the forces of Saffron wanted to cleanse the history books of their leading role in the violence of 2002. As a consequence of that violence, Narendra Modi Gujarat’s chief minister at the time, was rejected on the international stage, unable to get a US visa for over a decade due to a ban on him. The stain of Modi’s role in that violence has not left him, with 600 words on the pogrom at his Wikipedia page.

As part of that cleansing of history, the forces of Saffron went after all those who doggedly continued to insist on justice – reporters such as Rana Ayyub and campaigners such as Teesta Setalvad, as well as former government officials such as RB Sreekumar and Sanjiv Bhatt (three of the four of these examples are now in prison).

Smear campaign

The attempt to malign Setalvad started right after she got involved in advocating for the victims. In November 2004, Zaheera Sheikh accused Setalvad of pressuring her to say certain things about the Best Bakery case, an accusation that was found by Tehelka to be based on payments made to Sheikh; in 2005, the Supreme Court found Sheikh’s statements to be lies and sent her to prison for a year. This accusation of pressuring witnesses is back on the table.

In 2009, The Times of India claimed that the Special Investigation Team had sent the Supreme Court a submission that offered evidence that Setalvad had exaggerated stories from the pogrom. The Supreme Court condemned the leaking of the report but made no comments about its contents. Then, in 2013, Setalvad was accused of misusing the donations for the victims, although again the entire accusation was based on hearsay and falsehoods.

Cases upon cases piled up, and each time, Setalvad was forced to spend her energy in courts and with lawyers to protect her integrity; this form of lawfare would have been enough for most people to simply give up and surrender to the fact that no justice would prevail here. But Setalvad was dogged.

During this period, Sudhanva Deshpande and I from LeftWord Books went to visit her at her home in Mumbai and asked her to write her memoir so that she could tell her own story and not allow herself to be so maligned by the major media houses and by the government. Over the course of a year, we worked on her book, which was then published in 2017. In the book Teesta Setalvad tells the story of her commitment, drawing from her great grandfather Chimanlal Harilal Setalvad (who was on the Hunter Commission, set up to investigate the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre) and from her grandfather MC Setalvad (India’s first attorney general), to the law and to India’s Constitution.

For Teesta Setalvad, faith in the judicial system was absolute: the necessity of bringing the culprits to book so that they could be judged based on the Constitution was an axiom of her life. That is the reason why we called her memoir Foot Solder of the Constitution.

Toward the end of her book, Setalvad writes: “I’m not always sure what motivates me to keep at it. Indira Jaisingh, an old family friend and comrade in arms, says that my parents named me for ‘a river in Bangladesh which flows fearlessly across borders’”. That, she writes, is a clear motivation. But there was another, which took her back to the 1992-1993 riots in Bombay, when she felt it had become clear that it was “the culture of impunity that had to be punctured”.

“My challenge”, Setalvad writes, “is to fight the culture of impunity. That’s what I have been motivated to do.”

The culture of impunity

Aasif Sultan (Kashmir Narrator), Fahad Shah (Kashmir Walla), Gaurav Bansal (Panjab Kesri), Manan Dar (Pacific Press), Meena Kotwal (Mooknayak), Sajjad Gul (Kashmir Walla), Siddique Kappan (Azhimukham): these are just a handful of names of the journalists either still in prison or in the judicial system because they dared to write stories that displeased the government of India. No surprise that India stands at 150 out of 180 in the Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index (it was at 142 in 2021).

The attack against news outlets such as Caravan and Newsclick has been especially harsh, with the full weight of the administrative state (the Enforcement Directorate, the Income Tax Department, the Police) being brought to intimidate and harass journalists. Some critics of the government find thugs at their doorstep, while others watch as their homes are torn down by bulldozers.

Then there is the malignant Bhima Koregaon case, bizarre because the 16 people arrested for the 2018 riot in Maharashtra had nothing to do with the riot (one of them – Anand Teltumbde – even wrote against the violence). Revelations about the Pegasus Project indicate that the authorities planted evidence in the phones of many of these activists and writers, people with no history of violence (cultural activists such as Jyoti Jagtap, Ramesh Gaichor, and Sagar Gorkhe, social justice activists such as Sudhir Dhawale and Mahesh Raute, lawyers such as Arun Ferreira, Surendra Gadling, and Sudha Bharadwaj, writers such as Gautam Navlakha, Rona Wilson, Varavara Rao, and Vernon Gonsalves, and professors such as Hany Babu and Shoma Sen as well as Teltumbde).

That culture of impunity goes back beyond the Indian Constitution (1950) to Section 124a of the Indian Penal Code (1870). I remember reading this part of the Code when I was a young student, pondering over the detestable views of its authoritarian writer – James Fitzjames Stephens – who savagely attacked the “sentimental liberalism” of James Stuart Mill. The Code, written in the aftermath of the 1857 uprising, made it illegal to use any words that would “excite disaffection towards the government”.

Mohandas Gandhi said of this part of the Code that it was “designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen”. Which is indeed what it is being used for against people who offer their disagreement of government policy or of the behaviour of the political forces that are in government. It is this kind of illiberal police activity that suffocates a society and allows the culture of impunity to flourish.

Don’t make fun of us. If you do, be careful. Those are threats made in a faraway time, which, like a mist, follows us into the present as more and more people are picked up by the authorities for having the nerve to accuse the powerful of breaking the law. The fang-bared forces of Saffron want to cleanse India’s history of their stain, using toxic detergents to wash clean their khaki pants and saffron pennants. The main stain – 2002 – disturbs them. They will use any means to wash it off, even by shredding the spirit of the Constitution.

Somewhere in the future, temples will be built to house the Indian Constitution. Lines of people will come to do their darshan to the book, bowing their heads and departing past the armed guards that are its sentinels. Sections of the book might be read by the anointed, but the vast mass will no longer know its contents.

Vijay Prashad is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter. He is an editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research.