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'The DNA of this country will re-emerge!'

EXCLUSIVE! The Teesta Setalvad Interview
'The DNA of this country will re-emerge!'

Last updated on: August 06, 2015 11:11 IST

'Little about this regime, given its vindictive credo, is a complete surprise. But we were still taken aback by the CBI raid as it was a complete abuse of due process.'

'These are not legal inquiries, but abusive use of State power. They are not legitimate investigations, but a witch-hunt.'

'Ours is a typical, classic case of the State and its organs being used as an outlet for motivated vendetta of the vilest kind.'

Teesta Setalvad, the face of the movement to secure justice for the 2002 Gujarat riot victims, speaks to Syed Firdaus Ashraf/Rediff.com

Teesta Setalvad

Journalist-turned-civil rights activist Teesta Setalvad has fought a relentless battle to get justice for the victims of the 2002 Gujarat riots.

This activism has brought her into frequents legal confrontations with the Gujarat government, first under then chief minister Narendra Modi and now under Chief Minister Anandiben Patel, and its officials.

Setalvad's appeal against the Special Investigation Team finding no evidence against Modi in the Ehsan Jafri case (part of the Gulberg society case, in which 69 people were killed during the 2002 riots), is still pending.

Setalvad and her trusts have filed 68 cases on behalf of the victims of the 2002 Gujarat violence, which have reportedly secured the convictions of 117 people.

Setalvad and her husband Javed Anand, who run the NGOs Sabrang Trust and Citizens for Peace and Justice, were recently booked by the Gujarat police's crime branch on charges of cheating and using trust funds for their personal benefit, breach of trust and some provisions of the Income Tax Act.

The couple faced imminent arrest until the Bombay high court intervened and granted her bail. Setalvad -- whose grandfather Motilal Chimanlal Setalvad was India's first and longest serving Attorney General -- alleges that the Gujarat government's charges against the couple smacks of political vendetta.

In an e-mail interview with Syed Firdaus Ashraf/Rediff.com, Teesta Setalvad discusses the allegations against her and her battle against the might of the State.

Were you surprised by the CBI raid at your home?

Little about this regime, given its vindictive credo, is a complete surprise. But we were still taken aback as it was a complete abuse of due process.

What did they search for? What were the documents they were looking for?

The documents were largely what we had already given to the Union home ministry's (Foreign Contribution Regulation Act) department and the Gujarat police. Some were originals of the same, the rest were bank statements. In any case, we had offered complete cooperation.

What was the need for this 'search' except to keep the bay hounds of the Sangh Parivar happy?

But why now? What was the motive behind the CBI raid, according to you?

To keep us embroiled in our self-defence and dilute energies from the support and legal aid to the survivors of the 2002 Gujarat riots, to somehow derail the Zakia Jafri case (not the Gulberg society case but one which attempts to look at criminal or administrative culpability for all the incidents during the Gujarat riots of 2002) where senior politicians including the then chief minister, senior policemen and others face prospects of legal action and in general paralyse our working for a secular India, on a sustained basis.

Do you think you and your husband Javed Anand are being targeted, singled out, because you had filed cases against Narendra Modi over the 2002 Gujarat riots?

Yes. We have through our sustained work and legal aid ensured the conviction to life imprisonment of 120 persons where the Supreme Court has monitored trials and 570 witness survivors have been given protection.

The Zakia Jafri criminal revision petition in the high court should not be confused with the Gulberg case which deals with the 69 people killed there along with Ehsaansaab (Jafri).

This petition attempts to look at the criminal or administrative culpability for all the incidents during the Gujarat riots of 2002. So in that sense it is a very historical legal endeavour.

When we first filed the complaint in 2006, Zakia Jafri was a woman who had witnessed things, was traumatised, she had spent the night after the Gulberg massacre at the police station and I remember she kept saying policemen were on leave when Ahmedabad was burning.

It was a thing in her head that this was deliberate, this was conscious. But that's not enough to file a criminal case.

I would say anywhere in our country if Godhra had happened, there would be three or four reprisal attacks undoubtedly. But what was the role that the administration should have played?

Was there a clear-cut appeal for calm, for peace, for no revenge, for no baying for blood? That's all we are saying and we have built up a case around that.

I believe it is these arguments coming back out into the public domain that this regime really does not want.

But the prosecution claims you are not cooperating with the investigating agencies.

This is not true. We have fully cooperated with all agencies. Over 25,000 pages of documents have been submitted to the Gujarat police, they have not even filed a chargesheet after 20 months. Full cooperation was given to the MHA (FCRA) when they came for three separate inspections.

After reports of a portion of the FCRA related matters being handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation for a criminal investigation, we proactively wrote to the CBI on June 30 including the office that organised the raid/search.

When we were offering full cooperation, where was the need for a search? This violates the law. We have challenged this before the magistrate that issued the warrant.

These are not legal inquiries, but abusive use of State power. They are not legitimate investigations, but a witch-hunt.

Why did Firoz Khan Pathan allege that the money you raised to construct the Gulberg museum in memory of those killed during the communal riots was not utilised?

That question is best put to him. Some persons have played into the hands of a vindictive police and state government.

An FIR, in our view malicious and motivated, was lodged over 18 months ago at the crime branch, Ahmedabad, that simply speaks of funds collected for the Gulberg memorial. This amount of a princely sum of Rs 4.6 lakh (Rs 460,000) is still lying unutilised due to our inability to take this dream project forward.

To date, despite over 24,000 pages of documentary evidence being filed, there is no chargesheet.

All that the state of Gujarat appears to be interested is humiliation and vilification in the public domain and custodial detention (a euphemism for torture).

This was patently obvious when the crime branch investigating officer landed up at our home in a full-blown tamasha on February 12, when the Gujarat high court refused to grant stay of our arrest after protecting us for nearly a year.

In mid-March it was the Gujarat government's home department who writes to the MHA to initiate the inquiry. It is no wonder that we received the notices.

We have fully cooperated; we believe there have been no violations by us. The motive is clearly to keep us embroiled in these legal tangles, to paralyse our work that upholds India's Constitution and challenges the very ideological frame of this government (driven by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh's commitment to a Hindu Rashtra) and to keep the mob(s) that support this ideology gleefully content.

The MHA began with examining the records of Citizens for Justice and Peace and the Sabrang Trust (NGOs run by Teesta Setalvad and her associates), now they are training their guns on Sabrang Communications.

Ours is a typical, classic case of the State and its organs being used as an outlet for motivated vendetta of the vilest kind. All sorts of diversionary tactics are being used. It would seem that this government has a clear-cut agenda which it is following.

Then the CBI is sent straight from Delhi to raid our home and offices. This is despite the fact that we proactively wrote to the CBI on June 30 (including to the Mumbai economic offences wing) offering full cooperation. Then why the high-handedness?

Is it a coincidence that officers like Y C Modi (responsible for the Haren Pandya investigation under the National Democratic Alliance-I when he was in the CBI) and A K Sharma, former joint CP, crime, Ahmedabad (named in Snoopgate and the Ishrat Jahan killing cover-up) are being inducted into the PMO? And then they act like the private army of politicians.

Do you feel sad that many liberal voices, particularly in the media, have not come out very strongly in your support after the CBI raids?

The support has been widespread and overwhelming from across the political spectrum, mass organisations and individuals.

What about the Gujarat government's allegation that you misused the funds raised through your NGO for personal benefit? Apparently the money was given to your Sabrang trust by foreign donors to set up a museum at the Gulberg society which you never did?

This has been answered above. The monies raised for the museum was just Rs 4.6 lakh. The rest of the funds raised were for specific activities of the CJJP and the Sabrang Trust. The media played into the hands of the powers that be by never placing our systematic rebuttals in the public domain.

What is the status of the museum at the Gulberg society?

A dream that could not be fulfilled.

How do you counter the claim by the Gujarat crime branch that you were blowing up money on wine, jewellery and foreign travel from the Sabrang Trust money?

Suppose I were to illegally get hold of your bank statements and credit card expenses (abusing due process) and wrongly allege that what you actually spend on tobacco, cigarettes, personal toiletries, etc was actually from official monies?

Since March 2014, when investigating officer K N Patel first made these allegations, we have systematically rebutted them. But no section of the media has bothered to report on the rebuttals. Why?

All personal expenses from credit cards were from our personal accounts. The same credit cards were used to book tickets, hotels etc for our legal team -- which were expenses sanctioned by the trusts.

After the brazen allegations were made, both trusts separately took decisions to get a re-verification (external link) of already audited accounts done by our auditors. These were also widely circulated to the media and are on the CJP Web site. But have you as a responsible journalist even bothered to glance at them?

When these kind of allegations are being levelled against you, why are you not filing a defamation case against the accusers?

We have already (done so) and will do it again when the time is ripe. We shall not let the investigative officers or the law officers who have vilified us get off lightly.

In the 1993 Mumbai riots case, you fought for the victims before the Justice B N Srikrishna Commission (that was probing the Mumbai riots) but never went to the courts. But in the Gujarat riots you filed court cases unlike in the Mumbai riots? Why?

We live and grow with our experiences. Our work in Mumbai related to ensuring proper evidence was led before Justice Srikrishna and that the report was published.

When Gujarat happened, that was a thousand times worse than Bombay 1992-1993, all of us trustees of CJP felt we should test the system to see if there ever could be justice for mass targeted crimes in the country.

Is the government allowing you to operate your personal bank accounts or have they curtailed that?

They are still frozen.

Your children must be witnessing the drama around your life. What are the lessons you are teaching them in these difficult times?

It is a tough time for all of us.

For 13 years you have waged a fight for justice for the Gujarat riot victims, and against Narendra Modi. In this period he has gone from strength to strength, from chief minister of Gujarat to prime minister. Do you think your fight has failed?

No comment.

Do you think he is immune to the charges against him?

No comment.

Some say the hyper focus on Modi's alleged communalism actually proved counter-productive, with people believing that he was being unfairly targeted, so why not give him a chance? Do you agree with this view?

No comment.

The media was very much against Modi post the 2002 Gujarat riots. When and how did Modi succeed in recasting his image that got him support from almost all the media establishments for the post of prime minister of India in 2014?

No comment.

Is India heading towards a dictatorship?

Yes, we are already in the grip of proto-fascist authoritarianism. The question is whether the resistance will build effectively or will there be a complete takeover.

In one of your interviews (external link) you said you got 117 people convicted in the 2002 Gujarat riot cases? Is that true?

The collective efforts of the team of survivors of 2002, the fact that we had a strong National Human Rights Commission report, and the grit of the CJP team that ensured the monitoring of the Supreme Court of India was effective, ensured the conviction of 120 powerful perpetrators of 2002.

Over 570 witnesses have been ensured protection by the highest court.

This is unprecedented, a historic effort. The successes are sought to be overturned by the regime in power.

Do you think all the cases by the government against you have affected your credibility as a human rights activist?

In the battle of right over wrong, good over evil, warriors are maligned. Look at how the Sangh Parivar continues to malign (Mahatma) Gandhi! We are very small fry in comparison.

The Congress party is decimated and there is no opposition to Narendra Modi.

The people of India are inherently secular and democratic. A combination of factors led to the election results of May 2014. The DNA of this country will re-emerge within the secular political opposition -- discard the black sheep among them, and there are some -- to defeat the forces of majoritarianism.

Until then these words of Bertolt Brecht:

Kya zulmaton ke daur main bhi geet gaaye jaayenge?

Haan, zulmaton ke daur ke hi geet gaaye jaayenge

(In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times.

The list of cases against Teesta Setalvad and their status (Courtesy: Teesta Setalvad)

Image: Teesta Setalvad, left, with her lawyer after getting anticipatory bail from the Bombay high court, July 27. Photograph: Sahil Salvi

Syed Firdaus Ashraf / Rediff.com in Mumbai