by G Pramod Kumar, FP
The Gujarat Police’s overt enthusiasm to arrest Teesta Setalvad and her husband Javed Anand no sooner than the state high court rejected their plea for anticipatory bail in a curious “embezzlement” case didn’t raise any eyebrows, but justified the perception that the BJP government was on a hot pursuit of the activist.
The BJP leaders and their proxies found nothing extraordinary in the action of Gujarat Police, which landed up at the doorstep of Setalvad in Mumbai in no time, because, according to them, the police was at liberty to arrest the accused when the courts refuse anticipatory bail. Some would even say that the police was duty-bound to pursue the case.
But what was unsaid was the deviousness in the police’s insistence of custodial interrogation of the couple for alleged diversion of funds collected by her NGO to convert Gulbarg Society in Ahmedabad, where 69 people were killed in the 2002 riots, into a museum. The charge was that the couple had transferred Rs 14.2 lakhs from the NGO’s account to clear their credit card bills and had transferred large sums of money to their personal accounts. The police said that the expenses included payments for wine and groceries.
Setalvad had clarified that credit card expenses that the NGO paid for were not personal, but official such as travel. It’s not unusual for people to use personal credit card for official purposes and then get the official expenses reimbursed. But by conflating the personal (wine, groceries, books etc.) and official, the police tried to besmirch their reputation and make out a case. Similarly, additional money used from the account was for salaries and legal expenses.
The police case was based on a complaint by 12 members of the Gulbarg Housing Society, which curiously refused to take note of the submission by the secretary and chairman of the Society that the case was false. The latter had also informed the police that the complainants had misused office stationery.
That despite an official clarification from the Gulbarg Society, the police went ahead with the case looked clearly motivated. And now their overzealousness in seeking custodial interrogation of the couple nails their intent.
One cannot clearly miss the police targeting Setalvad, but what makes one more worried about their motive is their track record in foisting spurious cases against her. In 2012, the Supreme Court came down heavily on the state for initiating a probe for “illegal exhumation” of the 2002 riot victims. “This is a hundred percent spurious case to victimise the petitioner (Setalvad),” said the court. “This type of case does no credit to the state of Gujarat in any way,” it further said.
A year later, the police came up with the embezzlement case, despite the official representatives of the Gulbarg Society affirming that they had no complaint, and wanted to arrest Setalvad.
The police’s dogged pursuit brings us to the question of who Setalvad is. She is an exceptional character in India’s human rights campaigns – she is the principal reason for getting justice, although partial, to the victims of the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat. For the first time in India, 117 perpetrators of communal violence, including a minister in the then Modi state cabinet, had been convicted. Had it not been for her and other rights activists, the victims would been gagged to submission. She is also the biggest obstacle to Modi’s image management efforts.
Obviously, Setalvad is a marked person because she is refusing to give up, along with Zakia Jafri, the complainant in the Gulbarg Society massacre case, against the Gujarat state government and the then chief minister Narendra Modi although a Special Investigation Team had found no prosecutable evidence against him. Setalvad and her supporters, point to the dissenting notes by the Supreme Court appointed amicus curiae Raju Ramachandran, who had said that the evidence against Modi was significant.
Setalvad may be particularly unsparing of Modi, as some allege, but that doesn’t allow for continuous police harassment. The victimisation of Setalvad is too evident to ignore. And it hadn’t started yesterday. In 2005, she was accused of pressuring Zaheera Sheikh in the Best Bakery Case to given evidence against the government. The SC had later absolved Setalvad and sent Zaheera Sheikh to jail for a year. “This is a classic example of a case where evidence were tampered with and witnesses won over,” the court had then said.
This record of victimisation against Setalvad for the simple reason that she is standing up for her fellow citizens’ battle for justice is a warning to human rights activists and a reminder of the abominable misuse of power by the state.