Conspiracy! The sinister word has reappeared with the arrest of human rights advocate Teesta Setalvad and former police officers Sreekumar and Sanjiv Bhatt by the Gujarat police on the weekend. The arrests were prompted by the Supreme Court, which smelt something fishy about the case in which the petitioners contended that the conspiracy behind the 2002 Gujarat violence had not been investigated thoroughly.
According to the learned judges, the people who accused Narendra Modi of facilitating the pogrom against Muslims in the state had “kept pursuing the case intriguingly..for the last 16 years…to keep the pot boiling, obviously, for ulterior design”. Modi was Gujarat’s chief minister in 2002.
The judges added: “All those involved in such abuse of process, need to be in the dock and proceeded with in accordance with law.”
What could that ulterior design be? That design needs to be exposed and the schemers brought to book, the court suggested. The Gujarat police agrees. Hence it has set up a special investigative team to uncover “the behind-the-scene criminal conspiracy, financial and other benefits, inducements for commission of various serious offences in collusion with other individuals, entities and organisations”.
Of course, it is evident that conspiracies cannot be hatched openly, so it was unnecessary for the police to specify that it was looking “behind the scene”. But for its intended audience, this redundant phrase makes the efforts to seek justice by Zakia Jafri, whose husband Ehsan Jafri was murdered during the Gujarat riots, and Setalvad sound more ominous. A simple conspiracy would not do. A behind-the-scenes conspiracy sounds more dangerous.
We are in a world in which language is puffed up to appear as bombastic as the alleged action itself. Reading FIRs and charge sheets filed by the Indian police always violates one’s linguistic sensibility. Now court judgments have started competing with them.
The latest conspiracy theory, propounded by the highest court, which the Gujarat police is committed to busting, is the third one to be initiated by the present dispensation after the Bhima Koregaon and Delhi violence conspiracy cases.
What is common to all these is that the victims of violence or the people speaking on their behalf or working to secure justice for them have themselves been turned into conspirators. They have been accused of conspiring against the state itself, either to defame it or destablize it. The state and “the leader” have become synonymous.
A fantastic story
In the Bhima Koregaon case, Ambedkarites returning from a commemoration of a battle at a village near Pune were attacked on January 1, 2018, and one person was killed. The attack was not spontaneous. There were people and organisations driven by the ideology of Hindutva that were behind the attack. Complaints were filed, accused named. But instead of pursuing those who had planned and executed the violence, the Pune police created a fantastic story about a conspiracy.
The very act of organising a commemorative event that preceded the Bhima Koregaon event was turned into a conspiratorial act designed to foment hatred and violence. The police claimed that inflammatory speeches were made at the event, called the Elgar Parishad, which led to violence. The real act of violence was never investigated. The perpetrators are still roaming free.
The violence targeted many of the people who had participated in the Parishad. But the police said that they were responsible for inviting it upon themselves, that they had provoked people into violence. It did not stop there. The police alleged that the Parishad was part of a larger conspiracy. The net of the conspiracy was cast wide and even people unconnected with the event were caught in it. They included human rights advocates, academics, lawyers and political activists.
The Pune police wants us to believe that all of them, from Jesuit priest Stan Swamy to lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj to activist Mahesh Raut to author Anand Teltumbde, were part of a conspiracy to assassinate Narendra Modi and to create anarchy in the country. Most of the people arrested had nothing to do with the Bhima Koregaon event. But the police claims that they are Maoists who were instigating Dalits.
In this case, Dalits are projected as an innocent mass being tutored into action by these academics and human right activists. That too when Ambedkarites had done nothing but assemble to celebrate the anniversary of the victory of Mahar soldiers in a battle at Bhima Koregaon 200 years before.
As the threads of this so-called conspiracy were being unravelled by the Pune police and the National Investigation Agency, another conspiracy theory was crafted by the authorities in Delhi. In February 2020, violence broke out in parts of the Capital where protests against the discriminatory Citizenship Amedment Act had been underway for more than two months. Protestors had staged sit-ins on road in the north-eastern part of Delhi demanding the government’s attention.
Some leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party threatened them with violence – in the presence of senior officers of the Delhi police. Just after their threats, the violence started.
The protest sites were attacked and destroyed. The police visibly participated in the attacks. Fifty three people were killed, the majority of them Muslim. Mosques and madarsas were vandalised, Muslim houses and shops looted and burnt.
The Delhi police did not act against the BJP leaders – including a Union minister – who had called for violence. It did not even file an FIR against them. The Delhi High Court had to scold and direct them to register FIRs against them. Tey refused.
Instead, like the Pune police, the Delhi police authored a tale of conspiracy. A conspiracy in which the protests themselves had been organised with the aim of creating disaffection in society, to defame the country and bring down the government. The police blamed teachers, students and other activists – mostly Muslim – of being part of this plot.
The original spark for the violence has not been investigated. The protesters who faced the violence are being described as the source of violence. They have been arrested and a never-ending investigation to find out the origin of the Delhi conspiracy is underway. The Delhi police says that the conspiracy is not confined to the violence alone: the conspiracy would stand even if it had not resulted in violence.
2002 Gujarat carnage
But even more serious than these two is the latest fiction of a conspiracy that the Supreme Court has asked the authorities to investigate. Zakia Jafri, whose husband was murdered along with hundreds of others in the 2002 Gujarat carnage, was not satisfied with the findings of the Special Investigation Team established by the court itself to inquire into the pogrom. The team had absolved the state authorities of all responsibility. However, Jafri had reason to believe that the violence was not a spontaneous outpouring of anger but the result of meticulous planning. She suspected that the people occupying the highest offices were involved.
Jafri was being assisted in her quest for justice by Setalvad, whose organisation Citizens for Peace and Justice has helped hundreds of victims and secured many convictions. Setalvad impleaded herself in this case. She knew, as did Zakia Jafri, that they were up against the state itself with all the resources.
They fought for 20 long years. But the Supreme Court viewed their perseverance with suspicion. In a country where people make compromises easily and can be broken either with threats or money, how could they sustain their quest for so long? There must be a devious design in their struggle, the court declared. They themselves are part of a conspiracy “to keep the pot boiling”, to keep defaming the state and keep generating ill will in society. So, the court wants them to be punished.
And like the actors of a drama with a poorly written script, the Gujarat police has taken its cue from the court. It has, like its counterparts in Pune and Delhi, floated the story of conspiracy. This one is on a much larger scale, so it gives the police liberty to create more characters, more scenes to make the story more swashbuckling.
Teesta Setalvad is the protagonist. Police officers RB Sreekumar and Sanjiv Bhatt are other important characters. Zakia Jafri is a victim of the clever machinations of these conspirators. More scenes will be added.
As I was wrapping up this article, along came the news of yet another conspiracy being uncovered. This time the protagonist is Mohammad Zubair of the fact-checking site AltNews. He is a journalist who has been busting fake news, tracking hate speech and hate events. Now he himself has been accused of fomenting hate and enmity. He has been arrested.
“Mohammed Zubair had tweeted a questionable image with a purpose to deliberately insult the god of a particular religion,” the Delhi police said. “Such tweets were getting retweeted and it appeared that there is a brigade of social media entities, who indulge in insult mongering thereby leading to a possible ramification on communal harmony and is overall against the maintenance of public tranquility.”
The Delhi police wants to find out more about this “army of social media entities” of which Zubair is presumably the head. Another exciting assignment for the police. Another excuse to arrest, harass more Muslims, more critics of the government.
India has turned into a land of thousand conspiracies, all of them plotted by the weak, the hunted and the persecuted to harass and defame our poor rulers.
Apoorvanand teaches Hindi at Delhi University.