The fight against communal forces in Gujarat has been waged less by the so-called secular political parties like the Congress and more by rag-tag non-profit human rights groups. Teesta Setalvad’s Citizen for Justice and Peace has been one of such NGOs which have been waging a relentless struggle for justice and equity in Gujarat. A former journalist and grand-daughter of India’s first Attorney General MC Setalvad, Teesta became a full time human rights activist after the 1993 inter-religious conflict in Mumbai. Together with her husband Javed Anand, also a former journalist, she founded a monthly magazine named Communalism Combat and devoted herself to the cause of fighting fundamentalist forces and exposing their ideology of hate and paranoia. After the 2002 Gujarat riots she became one of the most visible faces of the civil society resistance against the Modi administration. Her organization, CJP, was one of the first forums to file a petition before the Supreme Court praying for re-investigation and re-trial of the major cases of riots. Teesta’s efforts led to the retrial of the Best Bakery case outside Gujarat in 2005. Again it was Teesta who along with Ehsan Jafri’s widow Zakia Jafri who filed a criminal complaint against Modi before the Supreme Court demanding a thorough probe into the larger conspiracy behind the riots. It was this petition which forced the SIT to inquire into several allegations of direct and indirect complicity of Modi and his officials in the carnage. But her unwavering resolve to seek justice for riot victims also led to a vicious smear-campaign against her by elements within the Sangh parivar and harassment by way of bogus cases slapped by the Modi regime. Recently the Supreme Court censured the Gujarat government for instituting “spurious cases” against the social activist.
Ten years is a long time. What has made you fight the Modi dispensation all these years? Why do you think it is important to resist?
When you have spent 18 years devoted to exposing the communal demon, when you have given up a promising career in mainstream journalism to devote yourself 24×7 to understanding the forces of irrationality that can spill blood on the streets, 10 years is but a part of a whole.
After Javed (Anand) and I decided to launch Communalism Combat and Sabrang, a whole new phase in our life began. I began analysing the teaching and studying of history. Gujarat has been part of my study since 1998. Structures of state and society were being de-constitutionalised; textbooks were being rewritten; Bar Associations taking sharply discriminatory positions; and censuses targeting Christians and Muslims were being allowed. There was a systematic build-up, which is why Gujarat has been dubbed a lab for the Hindutva forces. The preparations for something catastrophic were being cynically laid. My family hails from Gujarat and I could see it was a strange hate-filled land that was being nurtured.
Due to this work, my involvement was deep and, on 27 February, after news of the train burning burst upon us, I started receiving distress calls sitting in Mumbai. When I reached Gujarat, I felt broken. Not intervening was simply not an option. I was driven by the need to ensure some hope where there was only despair.
For me, the mandate of the Indian Constitution and its principles run very deep: parity, fair play, equality of life and law. It was somehow important to restore some faith in the Indian system, a faith that was being torn apart systematically. A woman who had lost her son and not even found his dead remains had this simple belief that the act of swearing an affidavit and putting in a petition would ensure her voice would be heard, get her justice. Another survivor once explained that his reason for being part of the struggle was that through our resistance, we will ensure that generations of Muslims after us will have their righteous place within Gujarat. This is some of what has driven me.
Were there any specific incidents in the riots that particularly moved you? Many left, why did you dig your heels in?
The anger and despair of the women, the frightening impotency in the men. As I recorded the terrible narratives of victims, I felt an urgent need to do something, demand some answers. We are proud as Indians, pompous even, about being the world’s largest democracy. Are we capable as a nation of facing up to shame and delivering justice? We never seem to redress the wrongs of communal violence. There has never been punishment for the perpetrators; they just grow from strength to strength, reaping electoral dividends. It happened in Delhi in 1984, it happened after Mumbai in 1992, with the victory for the saffron combine and the victories of Madhukar Sarpotdar and Gahanna Kirtikar (Shiv Sainiks named as perpetrators in the Justice Srikrishna Commission report).
It was this collective understanding of how communal violence always gets away in this country that deepened our resolve to test the system this time. After the 1992 Mumbai riots, we had concentrated our energies on getting the Srikrishna Commission report published, not with the legal cases. And mostly, they all fell by the wayside. This time, I felt we should try and fight the cases to the bitter end. That’s how Citizens for Justice and Peace was born.
The sincerity of our struggle was evident when five families of the tragic train burning approached me in 2003, feeling they had been exploited by the VHP. We supported them just as other survivors for justice. This infuriated Praveen Togadia who openly threatened me for daring to support Godhra victims! This is the kind of mindset we are dealing with.
What have been the most difficult personal costs of this fight for you?
The cost of time with my family, my children who have grown up in the past decade with a mother who is only partly theirs. She has given herself up, partly at least, obsessively even, to another wider family of survivors. Time with my husband and lover, my comrade in arms. Not enough time to read, write and paint. But the worst has been the lies flung at us, first by a hostile state apparatus, then by the accused and, finally, by the odd witness or survivor who’s been induced or intimidated.
Of all the setbacks over these years, which were the most difficult to swallow?
Small and vicious personal allegations designed to make you defensive, tire you out, distract you, frighten you in the hope that enough mudslinging will do the trick and shake you off the path.
You have been accused of tutoring and coercing witnesses. How can you fight this accusation more frontally?
All allegations made against us have always been fought frontally and found to be untrue. I wonder if TEHELKA has read the recent observations by the Sardarpura Trial Court exonerating us of all allegations and issuing notice for the prosecution of those who did. The same thing happened at the time of the Best Bakery retrial and even in the Registrar General Supreme Court’s report in 2005. The allegations have remained the same; the persons making them have changed.
Where have you drawn strength from?
My greatest strength has been the strength of the survivors — the stoic belief among the poorest of the witnesses, even those who have not necessarily lost family members, that wrongs must be righted. It is a simple conviction with a deep moral core. It is not revenge that drives them but the belief that if the perpetrators are made accountable, no one will suffer like this again. The reformative impact of punishment.
What have been some of the triumphs and failures of these 10 years?
Judicial pronouncements like in April 2004 when the Best Bakery case was transferred and a retrial ordered. The fact that our sustained resistance has, to a large extent, delegitimised Modi all over India and, slowly now, even in Gujarat. The drawback is the process is just too long; it demands tremendous endurance and patience.
What have been the most frustrating oversights of the judiciary?
There should have been minimal delays; the riot cases should have been prioritised. Right through the most crucial time, Modi remained home minister and chief minister, presiding over departments that can make or break an investigation.
If there are five stark facts you’d like Indians to remember about what makes Modi culpable, what would they be?
The fact that the state supported a bandh on two consecutive days, which was an invitation to anarchy; the fact that the district administration was pressurised by Modi to hand over the dead bodies of the Godhra victims to a VHP man who was thereafter accused of inciting the massacres at Naroda Patiya and Gam; the fact that the internally displaced in relief camps were treated like vermin; the fact that outrageous instructions asking the police to allow mobs a free rein were given at a meeting at the CM’s house; the fact that officers who stood by their Constitutional duty have been chargesheeted and punished, while those who fell in line have been rewarded.