Mainstream, VOL LIII No 9, February 21, 2015
Trying to cage a Tigress: Roused Civil Society defends Teesta Setalvad against Gujarat Attempt to Humiliate Her
Monday 23 February 2015, by
Around noon on Thursday, February 19, Supreme Court Justices Dipak Misra and Adarsh Kumar Goel extended the stay on the arrest of human rights activist and editor Teesta Setalvad and her husband, Javed Anand, in a case of alleged embezzlement of funds for a “Museum of Resistance” at the Gulbarg Society in Ahmedabad, where over 60 people were killed during the 2002 anti-Muslim riots that devastated several towns and villages in Gujarat.
This pauses for some time a convoluted case that has generated interest in international and national human rights circles, in the media, and has become part of the political discourse in the country. And in some ways has also not let the Supreme Court’s own reputation untouched, focusing the spotlight as it did, if only for sometime, on the friendship of the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, with a judge on the Bench which on an earlier occasion had heard the case, and been rather curt in his obiter dicta. Chief Justice H.L. Dattu had then assigned the anticipatory bail plea of Setalvad to a new Bench even though none of the two judges on the earlier Bench had sought recusal from the hearing.
“The value of freedom cannot even be compared to the stars in the sky,” the Court said on Thursday as it questioned the need to arrest her. The Gujarat Government had said that Teesta and her husband, Javed Anand, must be arrested to enable an investigation into allegations that they misused the money. “Who the petitioner is, that’s absolutely irrelevant, the question is whether liberty can be put on ventilator or stay in intensive care unit. This isn’t a case of any scam which needs custodial interrogation. This is a case of misuse of funds of NGOs.”
The Gujarat Police have single-mindedly pursued Teesta and Javed on a complaint filed against her by 12 persons who claim to be residents of the Gulbarg Society after the Museum project was reportedly shelved, alleging she raised Rs 9.75 crores between 2008 and 2012 through her NGO and used Rs 3.75 crores for branded clothes, shoes, and foreign travel. The Gujarat Government told the court that the couple had not been cooperative and were trying to influence witnesses. Rejecting their argument, the Court said Ms Setalvad would be asked to cooperate and submit all documents for the investigation. Her bail petition has been rejected by two other courts. Last week, as the police arrived at their Mumbai home, the couple won a last-minute reprieve when the Supreme Court agreed to hear their appeal. They have been told to provide a list of documents and names of donors as sought by the Gujarat Police and if they did not cooperate, the Gujarat Police can file an application for cancellation of their bail.
The police now have to go through several thousand pages of documents and accounts of records to see if they can prove the defalcation. The papers are already with them and their lawyers for quite some time
And that was the point of curiosity with civil society activists who had been following the case for some time, wondering what exactly was it that the police wanted from the couple in custodial investigation which they did not have with them already.
To most it was clear that the objective never was the pursuit of evidence, or even of justice. It was to get Teesta and Javed inside a police lockup, and then in jail, to crush their spirit and humiliate them in the public eye in fulfilment of an agenda that would send out a strong signal to human rights activists, civil society and to the minority communities on the utter futility of resisting, much less challenging, the might of powerful leaders of the government and the Sangh Parivar.
For Teesta, the founder with Javed of that pioneering journal, Communalism Combat, and then a citizens’ group in Mumbai to fight for the victims, had pursued not just murderous hood-lums of the Sangh Parivar and police officers willing to act as henchmen of the state, but the top leaders, including Ministers, party honchos, and their ultimate Boss, Narendra Modi, then the Chief Minister of Gujarat, and now the Prime Minister of India. In case after case, she challenged them in the legal system, assisted by some excellent lawyers, exposing just about every crime that a state could commit in collaboration with political groups and a subservient, or cowardly, adminis-trative apparatus. For the first time in India, 117 perpetrators of communal violence, including a Minister in the then Modi State Cabinet, had been convicted. Had it not been for her and other rights activists, the victims would been gagged to submission.
It was in not sparing Modi, and his political major-domo and now President of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Amit Shah, that Teesta committed the crime of lese-majesty.
“Teesta and Javed are being targeted. In the last 12 years, whenever she got a favourable development from court, the police of Gujarat have become active to target her,” says Indira Jaisingh, former Additional Solicitor General of India, who was among those who addressed public meetings in solidarity with Teesta and Javed. “When all evidences in the case are documented then where is the need to arrest her and personally interrogate her? It is just to humiliate her and teach her a lesson,” said she. Indira Jaisingh also expressed concern over mani-pulation of the system and referred to the clean- chit given to Amit Shah by a Mumbai court in the Gujarat fake encounter case involving three murders. “I am concerned about such ability to manipulate the system. In the case of Shah, three judges were changed. Till today, the CBI has not chosen to appeal against the order of the Mumbai court. Is the CBI a parrot in the cage of the ruling party? When the BJP was in the Opposition it would make similar accusation against the Congress-led UPA. It is not a crime to hold a view contrary to that of the government. But the government of the day thinks so. They have brute majority in the Lok Sabha. We can only speak, but they want to suppress that right too.”
Editor of Hindi daily Jan Satta Om Thanvi wondered as to why the police want to arrest Teesta in a ‘petty’ case while the accused in rape and murder cases are being released and reinstated. He also said Teesta’s case has a symbolic significance. “Teesta’s is a petty case. Several accused of murder and rape are being released and reinstated but Teesta and Javed are being hunted. Our right to speak is being challenged. Most in the media are supporting those who are stifling our freedom of expression. It is not an individual case of Teesta. It is symbolic.”
Teesta has, in interviews with Seema Mustafa of The Citizen.in and other journalists, said only around Rs. 4.6 lakhs was received by the Sabrang Trust for the proposed Museum. This amount, which was highly insufficient for the memorial, is still shown as unutilised earmarked funds in the balance-sheets of the Trust from year to year. The grossly exaggerated percentages allegedly transferred to personal accounts have been arrived at by clubbing together salaries and honorariums and reimbursements for office and equipment.
G. Pramod Kumar, in an article in FirstPost.com, noted that Teesta had clarified that credit card expenses that the NGO paid for were not personal, but official such as travel. It’s not unusual for people to use personal credit cards for official purposes and then get the official expenses reimbursed. But by conflating the personal (wine, groceries, books etc.) and official, the police tried to besmirch their reputation and make out a case. Similarly, additional money used from the account was for salaries and legal expenses.
The police case was based on a complaint by 12 members of the Gulbarg Housing Society, but it curiously refused to take note of the submission by the Secretary and Chairman of the Society that the case was false. The latter had also informed the police that the complainants had misused office stationery. That despite an official clarifi-cation from the Gulbarg Society, the police went ahead with the case, looked clearly motivated. And now their over zealousness in seeking custodial interrogation of the couple nails their intent.
Pramod Kumar noted their track record in foisting spurious cases against her. In 2012, the Supreme Court came down heavily on the state for initiating a probe for “illegal exhumation” of the 2002 riot victims. “This is a hundred per cent spurious case to victimise the petitioner (Setalvad),” said the Court. “This type of case does no credit to the State of Gujarat in any way,” it further said. A year later, the police came up with the embezzlement case, despite the official representatives of the Gulbarg Society affirming that they had no complaint, and wanted to arrest Setalvad. “Obviously, Setalvad is a marked person because she is refusing to give up, along with Zakia Jafri, the complainant in the Gulbarg Society massacre case, against the Gujarat State Government and the then Chief Minister Narendra Modi. Although a Special Investigation Team had found no prosecutable evidence against him. Setalvad and her supporters, point to the dissenting notes by the Supreme Court-appointed amicus curiae, Raju Ramachandran, who had said that the evidence against Modi was significant.”
In 2005, she was accused of pressuring Zaheera Sheikh in the Best Bakery Case to given evidence against the government. The SC had later absolved Setalvad and sent Zaheera Sheikh to jail for a year. “This is a classic example of a case where evidence were tampered with and witnesses won over,” the Court had then said.
Recently, in an Open Letter to Teesta, writer Malavika Sanghvi made poignant mention of her courage: “Through all the intricacies of the court battles to bring justice to the victims in the Best Bakery and Gulbarg Society cases, through the ascension of Modi from Gujarat CM to India’s Prime Minister, feted on the international stage, through the triumphalism and hurrahs of an India all set to become a world superpower and a utopia of Right-wing policies and practices, you have stood unmoved, unrelenting, reminding us of the sins against humanity that all the perfumes of Arabia cannot wash away. And for this, your life has been turned upside down. Daily court cases to fight; witnesses to protect against threats and bribes; your motives and personal integrity questioned; and what’s worst of all, as a measure of the State’s dirty tricks department, you have been accused of cheating and misappropriation of funds of the very people that you have dedicated your life to empowering!”
The Supreme Court ruling this week, hopefully, will help bring this harassment to an end.
The author is a senior journalist, human rights activist and member of the National Integration Council.