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The strange case of Zahira & Teesta
Sandhya Jain
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April 28, 2005

Now that the hullabaloo over the US denial of a visa to Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi [Images] has died down, it would be worth our while to scrutinise the actions and motivations of Narendra Modi's tormentors, which resulted in this denouement. Because while political analysts admit that the post-Godhra riots were no worse than riots that had previously rocked the state after Independence, social activists in Gujarat claim that media reports of 2,000 dead are false since compensation claims filed by next-of-kin of those who died number around 700.

The possibility that 1,300 'victims' never existed certainly calls for a rethink on the Gujarat imbroglio.

Indeed, with hindsight one can discern an NGO-media synergy in targeting the Modi regime throughout the riots and thereafter, and taking considerable liberties with the truth while doing so. With opinions being paraded as facts, it is time to ask some hard questions, especially since the issue has been internationalised in a manner detrimental to national dignity.

Complete coverage: The Gujarat riots

Aside from the actual number of victims in the riots, we must begin our quest for truth by scrutinising 'facts' we have not been allowed to question hitherto. The most critical of these is the so-called 'Face of the Riots,' which has been splashed across the national and international media for three long years.

Media reports claim the Rehmatnagar chawl of Gomtipur, Ahmedabad, was attacked by a mob on March 1, 2002 (after the Godhra carnage). One tailor, Qutubuddin Ansari, was immortalised as a cameraman took a picture of him standing with folded hands, tears in his eyes, pleading for mercy. The bloodthirsty mob supposedly threatening him is never shown in any picture of this incident, though it is inconceivable that a cameraman would shoot any a single frame of such a poignant event.

Yet the picture was so powerful that it silenced many who felt that the widespread nature of the Gujarat rioting indicated deeper societal tensions and could not be explained as State-sponsored violence against minorities. Hence it was something of a shock to discover that Mr Ansari was alive and well, and was desperate to evade continuing media publicity and usage of his picture. Far from perishing in the riots, he made his way to Mumbai, lived there for three years, and in February this year returned to his native city to resume his old way of life.

The media has never told us how Qutubuddin Ansari made it out of the chawl alive, why he alone from his family fled to Mumbai, who settled him there, and who indicated it was safe to come back. Since the Ansari family has also survived, and now wish to spurn the media, the question may legitimately be asked: was there a mob at all?

The second sensational, and international, face of the riots is Zahira Sheikh, who lost several family members in the attack on the Best Bakery, owned by them. Zahira famously damned Narendra Modi when she surfaced dramatically in Mumbai, claiming that her testimony in the Vadodra fast track court that led to the acquittal of 21 accused persons was inspired by fear.

A combined media-NGO synergy whipped up such a campaign that the National Human Rights Commission jumped into the fray, roundly condemned the state government and petitioned the Supreme Court to transfer the riot cases out of the state. The apex court sent the Zahira and Bilkis Bano cases to Mumbai, and asked the Gujarat government to re-examine all other cases.

Now, however, it seems that the Gujarat government may have the last laugh as Zahira Sheikh accuses Mumbai activist Teesta Setalvad of physically controlling her from July 6, 2003 to November 3, 2004 and tutoring her to give a certain type of testimony in the court. The state government also pounced upon the fact that an affidavit submitted to the NHRC in the name of Zahira was actually signed by Teesta Setalvad.

When Zahira Sheikh turned against Teesta Setalvad last year and insisted she had not signed any affidavit before the NHRC seeking transfer of the Best Bakery Case outside Vadodra, the NHRC discovered that the 600-odd pages of documentation filed by Setalvad's Citizens for Peace and Justice, did not contain a single signature by Zahira.

It's an issue of swabhimaan: Modi

They were, as Zahira sneered, mere pamphlets, and it is truly shameful that the NHRC was so swayed by NGO-cum-media rhetoric that it moved the Supreme Court to take the cases out of Gujarat without scrutinising the records placed before it! The apex court has appointed a probe committee headed by Registrar General B M Gupta to ascertain the truth.

Zahira is therefore within her rights to demand the right to cross-examine the NHRC chairperson on this matter. She claims she visited the Commission along with Setalvad, who 'tutored' her on what to say there, and that she made an oral submission which was recorded by the chairperson and two other members. Zahira wishes to examine them because she says her oral testimony differs from the record which NHRC has presented to the Supreme Court. This is a serious charge and the probe committee would do well to summon the NHRC records and permit examination of the chairperson and members, if justice is to be seen to be done.

In this connection, Zahira is justified in demanding a probe into Teesta Setalvad's post-Gujarat assets, particularly since Setalvad and her NGO-media friends have spared no efforts in maligning Sheikh, insinuating that she had been 'purchased.' That Zahira is an intelligent and educated woman is obvious. She has compelled Setalvad to admit that Communal Combat is not an NGO, but a business venture of a privately-owned company called Sabrang Publications.

I think things went wrong for Setalvad because Zahira was a 'bad' victim. She just did not know how to act oppressed. Not satisfied with having made mincemeat of her former benefactress, Zahira has gone on to take potshots at the US State Department for calling Best Bakery a 'notorious case' in communalised Gujarat in its 2003-04 report.

Complete coverage: Modi's visa troubles

As America has assigned millions of dollars to fund litigation on behalf of Gujarat Muslims, the riots' most irrepressible witness quipped: 'I am applying to this programme for aid and assistance so that I may be able to explain to the world at large the exploitation in the name of secularism and protection of Muslims.'

Zahira's guts and gumption give us much to think (rethink) about. Those who lament that well organised NGOs made the Bush administration deny Modi a visa should ponder if it was the other way round, namely, that the White House nudged certain groups to protest so that it could act in a pre-decided manner. The latter strikes me as far more likely, for if genuine public anger could not stop the invasion of Iraq, a couple of well-heeled NGOs could hardly make President Bush wag his tail on the Modi issue if he didn't want to.

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