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Teesta Setalvad – Funding has never driven our work nor will a lack of it stop it

By , ET Bureau | 17 May, 2015,
Teesta Setalvad Setalvad, one of the fiercest critics of Narendra Modi, tells ET about the charges she faces and the challenges ahead.

Teesta Setalvad Setalvad, one of the fiercest critics of Narendra Modi, tells ET about the charges she faces and the challenges ahead.

Teesta Setalvad and husband Javed Anand are activists who have been seeking justice for the victims of the 2002 Gujarat riots. Setalvad is said to be reason why the Ford Foundation, a prominent American charity, faces restrictions by the central government because it was a key donor to  Sabrang Trust and Sabrang Communications and Publishing Pvt Ltd, the organisations that the couple run. Setalvad, one of the fiercest critics of  Narendra Modi, tells Binoy Prabhakar about the charges she faces and the challenges ahead. Edited excerpts:

On the embezzlement charges levelled against her by the  Gujarat government and how she plans to fight it.

We will fight these alleged charges of embezzlement in the courts as we have fought other allegations – kidnapping, tutoring of witnesses, forging affidavits etc. We are confident of victory as we have done no wrong. Today, after the submission of over 23,000 pages of documentary evidence, each of the alleged charges regarding misuse of trust funds through personal credit card expenses (these were paid through personal incomes — not trust funds), through diversion of monies to Sabrang Communications (this was for salaries of shared staff and shared establishment expenses) and cash withdrawals (these have been fully accounted for) stands disproved. So suddenly the goal post changes and the issue now becomes a Ford Foundation grant.

On the Gujarat CM justifying the action against her saying that Ford Foundation gave money for a purpose and she was using the money for another and that is clearly illegal.

There has been no violation of the law by us. Accounts have been submitted to the authorities every year. Ms Patel is carrying forward a pre-set agenda. When the Crime Branch has been unable to find anything on the alleged charges of embezzlement, the state is now trying to open another front. An  FCRA (Foreign Contribution Regulation Act) Inspection Team visited us from April 6-11, 2015. We gave them full cooperation. We have received no communication since then. When we do, we shall respond.

On how she is managing without funding

Our work began with a conviction that it is needed and necessary. Funding has never driven it nor will a lack of funding stop it. The motive of this government is to scare off potential donors, send a message to groups working on the promotion of constitutional values and keep their constituency happy.

On her work

The work revolves around the deepening of constitutional values at various levels. One, exploratory journalism, researching and writing on issues of communalism, caste and gender. Second, working in the areas of education – history and social studies — with the teaching fraternity and school-going young. Third, legal aid and action for survivors of mass crimes, like Gujarat, Dhule, Muzaffarnagar…

On her reaction when it became clear that Modi would become PM

The words of Bertolt Brecht so brilliantly translated came to mind and were shared by me and colleagues …. Kya zulmaton ke daur main bhi geet gaye jayenge? Haan, zulmaton ke daur ke hi geet gaye jayenge…. [In the dark times Will there also be singing? Yes, there will also be singing. About the dark times.”]

On her concerns after Modi became PM

The concerns went beyond the survivors of 2002 and our struggle for justice and reparation. There was a deep concern for the kind of history, social studies and culture that would be taught in our schools and colleges. Just months before the (general) election results, Gujarat introduced nine volumes of Dinanath Batra’s (RSS ideologue) books as compulsory course material for over 4 lakh school students.

On what keeps her going

In 1977, when elections were declared after the dark period of the Emergency, I was in Class X. My father encouraged me to not worry about examinations but campaign against the ruling party. What were we fighting then? To ensure that India returns to its chosen, democratic path. That is also the situation today.

On whether she ever thought of giving up

So far, no. The belief that we are working towards furthering the foundations of the constitution and the rule of law, the conviction that we have done no wrong and that if fair and impartial investigations are the norm (which is a moot question), we shall emerge vindicated. In 2004, when filthy allegations were hurled at me, it was I who approached the Supreme Court of India for an impartial inquiry. When the report of the then Registrar General cleared our organisation, it was the first vindication. The motive of the government should be obvious to one and all.

On the Gujarat model of development

While we hear much from biographers who have skimmed the surface of the man who is supposed to have driven this model, a well-researched book found little comment or discussion after its publication in 2012. Atul Sood’s Poverty Amidst Prosperity: Essays on the Trajectory of Development in Gujarat (Aakar Publications, 2012) that argued that while Gujarat’s GDP in the past two decades had been notable, it was not reflected in employment, wages, health or education. There are struggles on in Gujarat today, against land acquisition, against the unaccountability of the state government in the assembly (not tabling CAG reports and so on) but little makes it to the national media.

On the state of Muslims in Gujarat

For decades now, Gujarat has been the focus of communal organisations like the RSS, VHP and Bajrang Dal and this has impacted society and state. Since 1998, there has been single party rule, virtually uninterrupted. The deepest worry is the levels of ghettoisation of the Muslim minority in many cities in Gujarat with un-Constitutional laws like the Disturbed Areas Act being extended/passed by the previous government. This law cynically promotes or allows this division of population. Patel’s government has inherited this and shall ideologically further this trend. The recent denial of residences to 275 Muslim families in Vadodara despite their being legally entitled to their homes typifies this.

On Muslims in Gujarat like Zafar Sareshwala who accuse her of holding them back

I wonder what he means when his support for the ruling dispensation has ensured that he has experienced a sharp career rise (he was named chancellor of a university after Modi came to power). There are two basic differences in approach. Some citizens believe that it is their inalienable right under Indian law to fight for justice and reparation while others believe that this must be thwarted or throttled. In 2002, Mr Sareshwala and his brother were the most ardent critics of the (Modi) regime. Democracy and free choice allow them this turnaround. Are we not then invoking the same free democratic choice permitted to persist with our convictions and beliefs?

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