The Supreme Court should clarify that the Zakia Jafri case verdict was not intended to have adverse consequences on the petitioners including activist Teesta Setalvad, a group of 304 lawyers, judges and eminent citizens wrote to Chief Justice NV Ramana on Wednesday.

The case is related to a petition filed by Zakia Jafri, the wife of late Congress MP Ehsan Jafri, and Setalvad challenging the Special Investigation Team report on the 2002 Gujarat riots that had cleared Narendra Modi. He was the Gujarat chief minister at the time.

The Supreme Court dismissed the petition on June 24, saying that the petition was filed “to keep the pot boiling for ulterior design”.

A day after the Supreme Court’s verdict, Setalvad and Gujarat’s former Director General of Police RB Sreekumar were arrested for allegedly committing forgery and fabricating evidence in a case related to the 2002 Gujarat riots.

The letter to Ramana has been signed by historian Ramachandra Guha, advocates Indira Jaising, Sanjay Hegde and Aspi Chinoy, filmmaker Anand Grover, journalists Syed Naqvi and Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, author Tushar Gandhi, among others.

The group said it was agonised with the police justifying the arrests of Setalvad and Sreekumar based on the Supreme Court verdict.

The letter cited the Supreme Court’s ruling:

“Intriguingly, the present proceedings have been pursued for last 16 years [from submission of complaint dated 8.6.2006 running into 67 pages and then by filing protest petition dated 15.4.2013 running into 514 pages] including with the audacity to question the integrity of every functionary involved in the process of exposing the devious stratagem adopted [to 2 borrow the submission of learned counsel for the SIT], to keep the pot boiling, obviously, for ulterior design. As a matter of fact, all those involved in such abuse of process, need to be in the dock and proceeded with in accordance with law.  

— Supreme Court verdict in Zakia Jafri case

The letter said that the paragraph stated above was not intended to result in legal consequences that Setalvad and Sreekumar are facing.

“It is settled law, that any adverse action against a person can be commenced only after giving due notice,” it said. “The court has neither issued a notice of perjury nor contempt, to anyone in these proceedings. In fact, the court has issued no specific notice whatsoever, warning of any adverse consequences.”

The group was surprised by the court’s statement that the case was pursued by the petitioners for 16 years. It pointed out that the court had itself ordered a Special Investigation Team inquiry and had also asked an amicus curiae to submit a report.

The court in 2013 sent both reports by the SIT and amicus curiae to the magistrate, the group said.

“The matter then travelled up the appellate process till this judgment in 2022,” it said. “The petitioners or people assisting them, can in no way be blamed for the passage of time, in the law’s delay.”

The letter claimed that after the Zakia Jafri verdict, Union Home Minister Amit Shah made calculated statements on the court’s observation which resulted in the arrests.

Hours before Setalvad was detained, Shah had said that Jafri had pursued the case on “someone else’s” instructions.

“This sequence of events has sent a chilling message for the practice of law in the courts and for the rule of law in the country,” the letter said. “It appears that a petitioner or a witness, who diligently pursues a cause in the courts, runs a risk of being ‘put in the dock’ if the court deems the cause as devoid of merits.”

The group said the Supreme Court did not intend to cause “the course of retribution that the current government has chosen to pursue”.

It added, “We call upon the court, to suo-motu clarify that the above-quoted paragraph in its judgment, was not intended to have any adverse consequences whatsoever.”

The group added that the absence of such clarification can lead to further consequences when the arrested persons seek bail.

The Gujarat Police’s Anti-Terror Squad had picked up Setalvad from her Mumbai home to question her in connection with the statements she made about the violence at Ahmedabad’s Gulberg Society in the aftermath of the Godhra train burning in 2002.

A mob had gone on a rampage at Gulberg Society on February 28, 2002, setting fire to homes. Sixty-nine persons died, including Ehsan Jafri who was hacked to death. The day before, 59 persons returning from Ayodhya had died when a coach of the Sabarmati Express was burnt in Godhra in Gujarat.