The courts must step in when governments persecute individuals like Setalvad.

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Teesta SetalvadThe “caged parrot” that sings to its master’s tune is at it again. Twelve “parrots” searched Teesta Setalvad’s home and office in Mumbai for proof that she had used foreign donations to her NGO for private purposes. I would think that the CBI has weightier matters to deal with but Setalvad has offended those in power with her single-minded devotion to the cause of justice for Gujarat’s Muslims. If not for this intrepid woman, the injustices of Delhi 1984 would have been repeated in Gujarat.

Setalvad has fought the case almost single-handedly. I, for one, would not have had the patience and perseverance to fight for so many years through the maze of our judicial system. She kept vigil over grovelling police investigators, partisan prosecutors and timid adjudicators to finally force the system to convict a few of the murderers, including a minister in the state’s cabinet and a notorious thug of the extreme right. This required guts and determination that only she could muster.

The allegation that Setalvad has diverted funds supplied by the Ford Foundation for personal use has been summarily discarded by all who know her and her husband, Javed Anand. Both live simply and frugally, have no social life outside their one overarching interest of “communal harmony”, and have no taste at all for the good life. Setalvad hails from an old, respected Gujarati family settled in Mumbai for more than a century. Her family has a long tradition in the legal profession.

Teesta was born with the proverbial silver spoon and could have lived a life of leisure, but instead chose to stand up and fight for causes. It is inconceivable that she could have misused any money she had sourced from foreign donors to sustain the work of her NGO.

If the government wants to ferret out acts of non-compliance with the laws of the land it will be able to silence any citizen. It is not possible for ordinary citizens to keep track of each and every government rule or regulation, a bulk of which are couched in legalese. It is the intent of the accused that must be ascertained. If it is criminal in nature, the culprit needs to be punished.

In Teesta’s case it can hardly be that she intended to break or ignore any law. If there is a transgression, it will be purely coincidental and unintended. The government will be able to find thousands of people who have “contravened” the provisions they accuse Teesta of flouting. But it has picked on Teesta.

She has dared to bring some its supporters and active members to heel for crimes that no decent human being should even contemplate. I am sorry, though, for the parrots. After all, they belong to my erstwhile service. They are doomed to remain caged even when masters change. In earlier times, they used to be told to get some culprits off the hook and now they are instructed to “hook” someone who is not a criminal.

I cannot decide which is worse. While the rulers in Delhi and Gujarat busy themselves with silencing Setalvad, the rulers of our largest state, Uttar Pradesh, are busy silencing another doughty character known to me personally. Vijay Shankar Pandey is an IAS officer of more than 30 years’ standing. He should have been elevated to the rank of secretary to the government of India but languishes at a junior level in UP for the sole reason that he is intolerant of any form of corruption. When he was a junior officer, Pandey pushed his colleagues in the IAS state association to hold a secret ballot to determine who among them were the three most corrupt.

The three whose names came up in the ballot later became chief secretaries of the state, and all got into trouble for corrupt practices. Pandey had approached me to write to the then chief of the “caged parrots”, asking why the CBI was delaying submission of the chargesheet in an open-and-shut case that it had investigated. The chief parrot, I am glad to record, acted quickly thereafter. The chief secretary concerned was ultimately sentenced to a term in prison. Pandey had got together a group of 15 retired officers from different disciplines.

We meet once in two months and take up cases of deep concern to the people of the country. We had filed a PIL in the Supreme Court about the black money stashed abroad. The government of UP took objection to Pandey’s association with this PIL and punished him under the All India Service Rules.

The Allahabad High Court overruled this decision. Now the UP government refuses to release Pandey on deputation to the Centre. He has approached the Supreme Court for redress. No other option except the courts remain when the political parties in power choose to target individuals like Teesta, who is out to fight communalism, and Pandey, who is out to fight corruption.