teestartiOpen Intimidation
Vol – L No. 29, July 18, 2015

The attack on Teesta Setalvad is part of a larger strategy to suppress dissent.

The Modi government’s relentless harassment and intimidation of human
rights activists Teesta Setalvad and her husband Javed Anand is
symptomatic of a larger strategy to suppress all dissent and
dissenters in the country. There can be no justification for the
manner in which the government has gone after this couple for what it
claims are violations of the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act
(FCRA). If they are one amongst around 9,000 non-governmental
organisations receiving foreign funds that are believed not to have
adhered to the law, why is it that only this couple is being

The reasons are apparent. Setalvad and Anand, and the three
organisations they represent—Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP),
Sabrang Communications and Sabrang Trust—have been in the forefront of
the fight against communal forces. CJP’s assistance to survivors of
the communal carnage in Gujarat in 2002 has been principally
responsible for the conviction of around 120 persons who participated
in the violent attacks on Muslims. The Bilkees Lateef case, the Best
Bakery case and the notorious Naroda Patiya case stand out as
instances of the effectiveness of civil society intervention. Without
it, there is little doubt that as with so many other cases of communal
violence, in which the state or powerful politicians are complicit,
the cases would have dragged on indefinitely, or would have been
dismissed for “lack of evidence.” Yet, because CJP helped the
survivors, protected witnesses, and paid lawyers to represent them,
some semblance of justice was possible.

It is also clear that without the backing of such people, a person
like Zakia Jafri, the frail widow of former Member of Parliament Ehsan
Jafri who was brutally murdered by a fanatical mob, would not have
pursued a case of criminal conspiracy against prominent Gujarat
politicians, including the then Chief Minister Narendra Modi, and top
policemen. She accused these people of being complicit in the attack
on her husband and the Gulberg Society in which 69 people died. Even
though the report of the Supreme Court-appointed Special Investigation
Team (SIT) failed to find sufficient evidence against Modi and others,
and Jafri’s petition challenging the veracity of this report was
dismissed by the magistrate’s court, she has persisted. The review
petition is being heard again on 27 July. Equally important is the
conviction of Maya Kodnani, a minister in Modi’s Gujarat cabinet, and
Babu Bajrangi in the Naroda Patiya massacre in which 97 Muslims were
killed. The former is out on bail and both are trying for acquittal in
the Gujarat High Court. The CJP is determined not to let this happen.

As the chief persona against whom Zakia Jafri is pursuing her case
happens now to be the Prime Minister, it is clear that everything
possible will be done to prevent the case from proceeding. The attack
on Setalvad and her organisations is aimed at stopping Jafri and other
Gujarat survivors from moving ahead. The government knows that without
support from CJP, it would not be possible for any individual to
persist with such cases.

In the past year, CJP and Sabrang have had to face numerous inquiries
from the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) into their accounts ending
with a first information report (FIR) filed by the Central Bureau of
Investigation (CBI) on 8 July 2015 and a raid on Setalvad’s residence
and offices on 14 July. As Setalvad has repeatedly pointed out, her
organisations had offered full cooperation and submitted copious
documentation to the MHA. Despite this, the CBI raided her place with
no prior notice. Its officials spent a full day inspecting documents
that had already been submitted. The motive for this could only be to
humiliate and intimidate Setalvad and her colleagues on the eve of
important court hearings in the Naroda Patiya and Zakia Jafri cases.

Apart from Setalvad, Greenpeace India was also given similar treatment
with charges of violating the FCRA. As with Setalvad, its accounts
were frozen. One of its activists was prevented from travelling to
London to depose before a group of British parliamentarians about
environmental violations in the Mahan forest block in Madhya Pradesh
where the government has permitted the Essar company to mine for coal.
Like its international affiliate, Greenpeace is known for opposing
governments and corporates who violate environmental laws. In the
current environment in India, when so-called “hurdles,” including
environmental concerns, are being cleared to encourage industry and
business, Greenpeace is obviously an irritant that the government
would rather not have around.

The harassment of Greenpeace and Setalvad are part of the larger
picture that is emerging. Increasingly, the space for dissent, so
essential in any democracy, is being squeezed out. It is being done
through open intimidation, as seen in the CBI raid on Setalvad, or
through harassment over funding, or by physical intimidation of
activists, often of people who do not belong to large organisations.
This incremental but diabolic and organised suppression of dissent and
dissenters has to be exposed and opposed. If not, then the remaining
spaces for questioning the acts of the powerful in this country will
disappear altogether.