- The Home Ministry has slapped notices on Gujarat riots activist Teesta Setalvad.
- It has asked the CBI to freeze her bank accounts and probe fund transfers.
- Govt says Teesta’s company Sabrang Communications has committed Foreign Contribution Regulation Act violations.
- A case of cheating has also been filed in connection with a memorial to the victims of Gulberg Housing Society massacre.
- Teesta says the govt is witch-hunting her because she has helped victims of the 2002 Gujarat riots.
- She denies all allegations, stating that her company has operated within the rules.
- She blames the Gujarat govt for vilifying her organisations and protecting perpetrators of the riots.
Some describe Teesta Setalvad as a thorn in the BJP’s flesh; some as an inconvenient pest who just will not let the 2002 Gujarat riots be forgotten.
Many others see her as a brave social activist who fights relentlessly for justice and secularism.
The fact is that, today, one cannot discuss the Gujarat riots, its victims, and the perpetrators, without a reference to Teesta.
She began her career as a journalist about 33 years ago. In 1992, following the riots in Mumbai, she started a magazine with Javed Anand devoted to discussing communalism and how to fight it and called it Communalism Combat.
She also started an Education for Plural India programme called Khoj. Since 2002, she has been involved in pursuing justice for the victims of the post-Godhra riots. This has made her a target for all those who would prefer her to keep quiet.
It’s no coincidence that about 16 inquiries have been initiated against her by the state and the central governments. She has had to seek anticipatory bail four times already.
Ford Foundation, which gave her funds, is also facing a crackdown.
In this interview with Suhas Munshi, Teesta speaks about the various allegations levelled against her, about her fight for the Gujarat riot victims, about some of her toughest legal battles and her achievements. She also explains why despite all adversity, she refuses to give up.
SM To begin with, how do you respond to the Home Ministry sending notices to two of your NGOs and asking the CBI to freeze your bank accounts and probe fund transfers to your company for alleged FCRA violations?
The ministry has basically raised three important questions about the functioning of your company Sabrang Communications and Publishing Private Limited (SCPPL). One, that SCPPL, being a private listed company, is not supposed to receive foreign contributions, and by doing so without prior permission, has violated section 11 of FCRA regulations.
Two, that your company didn’t keep any records of the foreign funding it received. And three, that your company lobbied illegally with political parties.
It has also raised some doubts on the company’s expenditures. What do you say to these charges?
TS In mid-March, it was the Gujarat government’s Home department that wrote to the MHA to initiate the inquiry against our NGOs, Sabrang Trust and Citizens for Justice & Peace (CJP). The Home Department was headed by Narendra Modi before he became Prime Minister.
It is no wonder that we received the notices. We have fully cooperated; we believe that there have been no violations by us.
The MHA began with examining the records of Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) and Sabrang Trust, 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. Now that our bail application is due to be heard on 7 July, all sorts of diversionary tactics are being used.
As far as the MHA’s questions go, Section 3 of FCRA, 2010 bars certain ‘persons’ (political parties and its office bearers, government servants and those associated with registered newspapers and those involved in the production and broadcast of news) from receiving foreign donations.
However, the very next section, Section 4 which is subtitled ‘Persons to whom section 3 shall not apply’ states: “Nothing contained in Section 3 shall apply to the acceptance, by any person specified in that section, of any foreign contribution where such contribution is accepted by him, subject to the provisions of Section 10- (a) by way of salary, wages or other remuneration due to him or to any group of persons working under him, from any foreign source or by way of payment in the ordinary course of business transacted in India by such foreign source.”
SCPPL, which published the monthly Communalism Combat, signed a consultancy agreement with Ford Foundation in 2004 and 2006 “to address the issues of caste and communalism” through a clearly defined set of activities, which had nothing whatsoever to do withCommunalism Combat or remuneration to Javed Anand or Teesta Setalvad for discharging the magazine’s editorial/managerial functions.
The Consultancy Agreement was signed by Sabrang Communications only after advice from eminent legal counsel that such an agreement was covered under the exclusion stipulated under Section 4 of the Act and therefore the consultancy fees (not grant or donation) received would not be in violation of FCRA 2010.
Ford Foundation, in fact, deducted TDS with every installment of consultancy fees it paid to Sabrang Communications. The activities undertaken and the expenses incurred were in accordance with the agreement. Activities and Financial Reports were submitted annually to the satisfaction of Ford Foundation.
Two, Sabrang has kept records and provided copies of the same to the FCRA during the inspection visit of the FCRA team in Mumbai on June 9 and 10, 2015. Additional documents as required were also posted to the FCRA department.
Three, whether deliberately or otherwise, the FCRA team is confusing the well-known lobbying that is part of the political process in the USA with advocacy initiatives in India whereby NGOs and civil society activists engage with the government of the day to draw their attention towards the legitimate issues of women, children, Dalits, religious or linguistic or sexual minorities, differently abled persons etc.
It is ridiculous to equate such advocacy initiatives with lobbying.
Sabrang Communications therefore denies all the allegations.
SM What about the case of cheating people, in the name of constructing a memorial for Gulberg Housing Society victims, in which you, along with Javed Anand and three others, have been booked?
TS An FIR with malicious intent was lodged over 18 months ago at the Crime Branch, Ahmedabad, that simply speaks of funds collected for the Gulberg Memorial.
These funds amount to a princely sum of Rs. 4.6 lakh 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, no charge-sheet has been filed.
All that the state of Gujarat appears to be interested in is humiliating and vilifying us in the public domain.
SM A key witness in the Best Bakery case – Yasmin Sheikh – has filed a complaint with the office of current Gujarat DGP against former cop RB Sreekumar and you for making money in the name of fighting for post-Godhra riot victims. This sounds like a disturbing accusation.
TS This is just part of a sustained campaign of false allegations to prejudice ongoing trials, in which powerful functionaries of RSS and BJP face serious charges. Why does no one ever question the state of Gujarat that has been bent on thwarting its legal obligations to prosecute those guilty for mass murder in 2002?
Why is the state of Gujarat, instead of ensuring the conviction of 120 persons who have been brought to book through witness testimonies, bent on setting them free?
Today our team is working against all odds and state vendetta, to make sure that the guilty are punished.
Only recently, in the case of Maya Kodnani’s appeal (that was being hastily pushed in the Gujarat High Court), it was our intervention that ensured that due process was followed and that appeals of all accused were heard together.
It is this continued work of ensuring legal aid to the needy that is the greatest irritant for this government.
SM Charges of tutoring eyewitnesses have also been levelled against you in the past. How do you respond to them?
TS In the judgements of the Sardarpura case (2011), Naroda Patiya (2012) and Best Bakery (2006), despite all efforts by a vindictive state, no false accusations of “tutoring” against me or my organisation have stuck.
The trial courts have said that all we did was assist and enable witnesses in their testimony, a lawful and constitutional task.
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 mobs that support this ideology gleefully content.
SM Many see these attacks on you by the state of Gujarat or MHA as a witch hunt. Why do you think you’re being targetted the most? What aspects of your work irk the governments, in Gujarat and at the Centre, the most?
TS The single biggest threat to the regime in power is the Zakia Jafri case, which will be heard in Gujarat High Court on 7 July.
The widow of Ehsan Jafri, assisted by us, seeks to prosecute a number of powerful people, including Narendra Modi, for their role (criminal, administrative) in deliberately allowing loss of life and property in 2002.
We are basing our case in accordance with the report of Amicus Curiae (Raju Ramachandran) for the Supreme Court that clearly stated availability of enough evidence to prosecute Modi, some senior policemen, including the present police commissioner of Ahmedabad, and some other important politicians.
Through our efforts, we have also achieved 120 convictions to life imprisonment, thanks to the monitoring by the Supreme Court of India and protection given to 570 eye-witnesses.
The Naroda Patiya verdict, Odh and Sardarpura verdicts, apart from the Best Bakery case, are historic achievements that have created lasting jurisprudence.
SM Taking on those in power is tricky business. Have you learnt any lessons?
TS My learning or realisation is that governments may tolerate seminars, writings and workshops against them, but when you show the grit and the determination to hold them accountable legally, when heads roll, when convictions happens, when the legality behind mass crimes is backed by path breaking rights-based jurisprudence, it is then that you become a real threat to the government and to the system.
Unfortunately, despite us bleating about the “success” of electoral democracy, how much are we concerned about the culture of impunity, the pathetic rates of convictions in mass communal crimes, and the poor quality of investigations and the supine behaviour of state prosecutorial agencies?
Do we have ‘national debates’ on these issues, especially the ‘culture of impunity’ which prevails?
SM What do you think you have achieved in your work in Gujarat during the last 13 years?
TS Speaking of the immediate past, to achieve 120 convictions to life imprisonment of powerful perpetrators is no mean deal.
Apart from the Kodnanis and Bajrangis, those convicted are from powerful communities from within Gujarat’s rural caste structure, whose conviction was possible because of the integrity of witness testimonies alone.
Imagine a farm labourer, whose family of 33 was burnt alive, testifying openly against the murderers, empowered by the protection granted by the Supreme Court of India.
This has simply never happened before.
Besides, thanks to the report of the NHRC (2002, 2003) and its interventions in the Supreme Court, the report of the concerned citizens’ tribunal Crimes Against Humanity, the Supreme Court judgment in the Best Bakery case (12 April 2004), path breaking jurisprudence in mass crimes and victimology has been created.
In 2009, an amendment to the CRPC [section 24(8)(2)] gave the complainant/victim a right to assist the lawyer for the prosecution, that is, to hire a lawyer and independently push the case.
Twelve High Court judgments have upheld this provision, which really means that our criminal justice system – hampered by a callous state uninterested in prosecuting the guilty – is being rejuvenated by a dose of victimology. Through this amendment, dead cases can be revived through persistence of victim complainants and groups.
SM What would you consider has been your toughest fight so far?
TS To give voice and face to the survivors of mass crimes has been our aim and policy, whether it is Bombay 1992-1993 and or Gujarat 2002.
Substantive justice may have eluded us as yet, but the level of broad-based understanding and appreciation of the events of 2002, the evidence related to state complicity and the heaps of documentary material that our efforts have put into the public domain have been historically unprecedented.
The investigation documents, now in the public domain, that we extracted while preparing Mrs Jafri’s Protest Petition, are not just revelations about the pre-meditated nature of the crimes of 2002. They are a valuable study for students of crimimology and law, on where and how evidence can be collected for prosecutions, in future.
The costs of these efforts, human and material are, however, very high, largely because people expect you to get tired, to give up, to flit to another issue. To persist with a cause, and through this persistence, achieve some substantive results, is seen as abnormal, since our accepted norm is a culture of impunity.
SM How much support have you found since you started working for the victims of the Gujarat riots?
TSTremendous support – from the survivors in Gujarat and ordinary Indians. Sometimes quite overwhelming.
There has also been support from across the political spectrum in India, from intellectuals, lawyers, academics, mass movements and activists.
The state is doing its best to cripple us by freezing our accounts. But we continue relentlessly because of the indomitable courage and conviction of our entire team, the backing of the Board of our Trust that has not faltered, and contributions of generous Indians who believe that what we are doing is not just necessary, but must continue.
Although the battle to simply face a vicious regime is a drain on energy, resources and stamina, the counter resistance for support has kept us going.
SM In a different context, do you think the Narendra Modi government is pushing the idea of a Hindu state or has his ascent to the Centre ensured a more overt allegiance to the plural values of the Constitution?
TS When the Prime Minister of a secular nation not only visits the Pashupatinath Temple (Nepal, 2014) but also makes offerings worth Rs 4.96crore, what are we to make of this?
Look at the symbolism, the history and culture that is being pushed through the Ministry of Human Resource Development and the appointments being made to the Indian Council of Historical Research, the National Council of Educational Research and Training, the Bombay University Vice-Chancellorship etc.
Today we have governors of states who owe allegiance not to the Indian Constitution and the tricolour but to the idea of a Hindu Rashtra. The signs are there for all to see. They are ominous. All our institutions will have to resist this assault.
SM It has been 13 years since you started fighting for the victims of 2002 riots. During this time, you have been threatened, maligned, reviled. What has made you last the course?