Protesters condemn arrest of prominent Indian activist Teesta Setalvad 

Teesta Setalvad was arrested on July 25 on a host of charges, including forgery and criminal conspiracy. She had spent the last 20 years fighting for justice for the victims of the 2002 Gujarat anti-Muslim riots

June 30, 2022 by Peoples Dispatch
Teesta Setalvad arrest
Teesta Setalvad. (Photo: Zuhair Ali) 

Hundreds of teachers, students, activists, and civil society groups rallied in the Indian capital of Delhi on Monday, June 27, to demand the release of prominent activist Teesta Setalvad. The protest action held at Jantar Mantar condemned her detention as a “pre-planned conspiracy” and an attempt to “silence” other activists. 

Setalvad is a well-known journalist and activist, noted for her work with the victims and survivors of the anti-Muslim riots in the Indian State of Gujarat in 2002. She was arrested on June 25, alongside former Gujarat police official R.B. Sreekumar, on charges related to criminal conspiracy, forgery and false evidence related to the court proceedings in the Gujarat violence.

The riot was triggered after a fire broke out in a train at the Godhra Railway Station on February 27, 2002, killing 59 people, including “kar sevaks” or Hindu religious volunteers who were onboard. The kar sevaks were returning from Ayodhya, where the Hindu right-wing had been waging a campaign to build a temple at the site of the Babri mosque, after demolishing it in 1992. 

At the time, the Gujarat government was led by current Prime Minister and then Chief Minister Narendra Modi. After the Godhra fire, the government issued a press release quoting Modi who said that the incident was a “pre-planned inhuman collective violent act of terrorism.” In the aftermath of the fire, statements by various right-wing sections left no room for doubt that the Muslim community was to blame for the fire, setting the stage for one of the worst instances of sectarian violence in post-Independence India. 

Over the course of three days, up to 2,000 people were killed in Gujarat, the majority of whom were Muslim. Women were raped, and mosques, businesses and homes were destroyed. Among the acts of violence was the Gulbarg Society massacre. 

The 2002 riots in Gujarat: Zakia Jafri’s struggle for justice

On February 28, 2002, a Hindu extremist mob of almost 20,000 attacked the Gulbarg Housing Society, a Muslim neighborhood in Meghaningar. 69 people were killed or went missing in the massacre, including 72-year-old trade unionist and Indian National Congress leader Ehsan Jafri who was tortured and murdered. As per news reports, he had made several calls to authorities, including Modi, to ask for help during the attacks but to no avail.

In 2006, his wife Zakia Jafri filed a complaint against 63 people including Modi, certain State government ministers, and police officials to determine criminal and administrative liability in around 300 incidents that occurred in over 19 districts during the 2002 riot. Jafri’s petition built a case for a larger conspiracy, abetment, dereliction of duty by first responders, and hate speech.

The second petitioner in the case was Teesta Setalvad, secretary of Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP). 

In 2008, the Supreme Court appointed a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to look into the violence. The SIT filed its closure report in February 2012, stating that there was no “prosecutable evidence” against Modi and other senior government officials. In 2013, Zakia Jafri filed a petition in the Metropolitan Magistrate’s court seeking a rejection of the SIT report’s conclusion. The petition was rejected in December, and then again by the Gujarat High Court in 2017. 

Zakia Jafri moved the Supreme Court in September 2018, seeking to challenge the High Court verdict. Hearings were initiated in October, 2021. On June 24, 2022, the Supreme Court dismissed Jafri’s plea and upheld the SIT’s conclusion.

The court chided those who had “kept the pot boiling,” in reference to the demands for investigation. The three-judge bench also stated that “As a matter of fact, all those involved in such abuse of process, need to be in the dock and proceeded with in accordance with law.” 

These comments by India’s highest court were criticized, especially since the court itself had described the authorities in Gujarat as “modern-day Neros” in 2004. The remarks regarding Setalvad’s “intentions” were also condemned, given her years-long advocacy for the victims and survivors of the riot. 

Since 2003, Setalvad has been accused of illegally receiving and embezzling funds, violating foreign exchange rules, and tutoring witnesses. Despite this, CJP worked with other human rights organizations to secure 120 convictions in 68 cases involving nine major incidents by 2015.

A day after the Supreme Court delivered its verdict, Union Home Minister Amit Shah in an interview with ANI news agency accused Setalvad of “giving baseless information about the riots to the police.”

Hours later, Setalvad was arrested. 

The case against Teesta Setalvad, R.B. Sreekumar and Sanjiv Bhatt

On June 25, Setalvad was detained by the Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) of the Gujarat police from her home in Mumbai in the State of Maharashtra. She was taken to a local police station and then driven to Ahmedabad in Gujarat. 

Just before she was taken away, Setalvad filed a handwritten complaint at the Santacruz police station saying that she “feared for her life.” She said police officials had barged into her bedroom and assaulted her when she demanded to speak with her lawyer. Setalvad stated that she had sustained a large bruise on her hand and was not shown the First Information Report (FIR) or a warrant until her lawyer arrived. 

Accused alongside Setalvad are two former members of the Indian Police Service (IPS) in Gujarat – R.B. Sreekumar and Sanjiv Bhatt. The latter was the deputy Inspector General of Police at the time of the 2002 violence. In 2011, Bhatt filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court stating that he had attended a meeting on the eve of the 2002 riots, during which Chief Minister Modi told police officials to let Hindus “vent out their anger against Muslims.” However, the SIT concluded that Bhatt was not present in the said meeting.

Bhatt also stated before the Nanavati-Mehta Commission (appointed by the Modi-led Gujarat government to probe the Godhra train incident and the subsequent violence) that he had personally informed Modi of the threat to Ehsan Jafri. Bhatt is currently in prison in a case related to a custodial death that took place over 20 years ago of a person he said he had never met. 

R.B. Sreekumar was an Additional Director General of Police in Gujarat in 2002. He also made several submissions to the Nanavati-Mehta Commission, challenging the government’s claims of peace in the aftermath of the riot and testifying to the alleged complicity of government agencies in the violence. He also pointed to the role of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, an far-right-wing organization, in the riots.

Setalvad, Bhatt and Sreekumar are facing charges under several provisions of the Indian Penal Code, including Section 468 (forgery for the purpose of cheating), 471 (use of a forged document or electronic records), 120 (B) (criminal conspiracy), 194 (giving or fabricating false evidence with the intent to procure conviction of a capital offense), and 211 (false charge of offense made to injure).

On June 26, Setalvad and Sreekumar were remanded to five days in police custody. They will appear before a court in Ahmedabad on July 2. A new Special Investigation Team (SIT) has been formed to look into the charges against them.

Condemnation and growing calls for release 

Setalvad’s arrest has sparked widespread outrage within India and abroad. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI-M) rejected the Gujarat police’s actions as an “ominous threat to all democratic-minded citizens not to dare to question the role of the State or the government.”

“The action of the Gujarat administration in her arrest has been enabled by the questionable verdict of the three-member Bench of the Supreme Court which has made the complainant into the accused…According to this verdict, any SIT established by the Court is to be considered outside the purview of judicial appeals and if anyone appeals against it, as did Zakia Jaffri and Teesta Setalvad in the present case, then they are charged with “abuse of process”. A fight for justice for 16 years is described in unusual derogatory terms as keeping the “pot boiling for ulterior design,” the party’s Polit Bureau added. 

The CPI(M) and its allies in the Left Front in the State of West Bengal organized a citizens’ rally to protest the arrests and demand withdrawal of the charges against Setalvad and others. 

In a statement issued on Sunday, the Mumbai Press Club called for the release of Setalvad and others, arguing that they had been “made scapegoats in a chilling process of vendetta unleashed by the executive and judiciary.” It added that the Supreme Court’s remarks had been used by the Gujarat Police to “punish those who who are essentially human rights defenders.” 

The arrest was also condemned as “ugly, motivated, and hasty” by the National Alliance of Journalists (NAJ) and the Delhi Union of Journalists (DUJ). The unions’ leadership added that the proceedings were suggestive of an increasingly undeclared [state of] emergency that was increasingly becoming visible in the continued attacks on press freedom and the democratic rights of citizens which were being bulldozed. 

Speaking to the Press Trust of India during Monday’s protest in Delhi, activist Shabnam Hashmi argued, “We know they’re giving a signal to all the activists who have been raising their voice. This is an attempt to silence and frighten them but this country will not be frightened.”  

A joint protest was held in the capital of Delhi’s neighboring State of Uttar Pradesh on Monday, organized by women’s organizations including the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) to demand Setalvad’s release. Solidarity demonstrations were also held in Mumbai and in the State of Jharkhand. 

United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders Mary Lawlor said that she was “deeply concerned” and that “defending human rights is not a crime”. 

Amnesty International’s India office also condemned the actions of the Indian authorities as a “direct reprisal against those who dare to question their human rights record.”

With inputs from NewsClick