​​Who is Teesta Setalvad? From 2002 Gujarat riots to 2022 SC verdict

File photo of activist Teesta Setalvad. | Source: Teesta Setalvad Facebook

The arrest of Padma Shri awardee Mumbai-based activist Teesta Setalvad has been widely condemned.

Muhammed Nihad P V | TwoCircles.net

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NEW DELHI — The detention of prominent civil rights activist Teesta Setalvad by the Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) of Gujarat police at her home in Mumbai on Saturday has been condemned widely by international rights groups and United Nations officials.

Setalvad was booked in a first information report (FIR) registered against her by Ahmedabad (Gujarat) crime branch. She was subsequently brought to Ahmedabad and arrested on Sunday. The FIR against her was filed after the Supreme Court dismissed a petition challenging the clean chit given by the Special Investigation Team (SIT) to then-Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi and others in 2002 Godhra riots case.

A United Nations official expressed concern over her arrest and demanded her release. “Teesta is a strong voice against hatred and discrimination. Defending human rights is not a crime,” UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders Mary Lawlor said on Twitter. Amnesty India described her arrest as a “direct reprisal by the Indian authorities against those who question their human rights record”, while Frontline Defenders, an international organisation in support of human rights defenders, said, “it was alarmed by attempts to arrest Teesta Setalvad.” “Gujarat Anti Terror police forcibly entered her home and detained her without reason. We call for her immediate release and an end to her legal persecution for her peaceful human rights work,” Frontline Defenders said.

Who is Teesta Setalvad?
Teesta Setalvad, a journalist and an activist, serves as the secretary of Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP), a group established to legally and financially support the survivors of the Gujarat Muslim genocide in 2002. She, along with her husband Javed Anand, also a journalist and a civil rights activist, co-edits Communalism Combat – a monthly magazine by Sabrang Communications. Both of them were co-petitioners in the Zakia Jafri case. Jafri’s husband and former Congress MP Ehsan Jafri were killed by the Hindutva mob during the pogrom. The petition demanded that the then chief minister Narendra Modi and other 63 top politicians and officials be held accountable for their role in the entire chain of events, citing a criminal conspiracy to inflame communal tensions in the state in the wake of the Godhra train burning incident.

Setalvad spoke at the United Nations Commission on International Religious Freedom on June 10, 2002, a few months after the Gujarat pogrom, criticising the Gujarat government, which was then led by Narendra Modi, for its role in the violence. Active involvement in the case made her be on the radar and several attempts were made to stop her. Setalvad was charged in November 2004 with coercing Zaheera Sheikh, a crucial witness in the Best Bakery case, into making certain statements. Later, in August 2005, the Supreme Court of India committee cleared her of the inducement accusations made against her by Zaheera and sentenced the latter to one year in prison for perjury.

Setalvad became a prominent face in the fight against the culprits in the Gujarat massacre and forced the Supreme Court into launching a new probe. Apart from the Gulbarg trial on the killing of Ehsan Jafri and 68 others, Zakia Jafri’s petition aided by CJP asked for the criminal trial of top politicians and officials including then chief minister of Gujarat Modi, other cabinet ministers, VHP leaders Praveen Togadia and Jaideep Patel, as well as the then DGP PC Pandey. Setalvad had also sought an FIR against Modi for his complicity in the conspiracy. In response to the petition, the Supreme Court-appointed an SIT in 2009. After three years, in 2012, a trial judge noted that the SIT had not discovered any evidence to bring charges against Modi or any other prominent government figures or bureaucrats in relation to the case.

In 2013, Zakia Jafri and Setalvad’s CJP filed a protest petition. Fourteen years after the incident, in 2016, the trial was concluded convicting 24 persons. 11 people were convicted for life, one convicted for 10 years, and the remaining 12 given seven years of rigorous imprisonment. However, the court and the SIT both emphasised that Ehsan Jafri’s private shooting enraged the mob, which is why it became out of hand, therefore the verdict was not a victory for Zakia Jafri or the CJP. They filed a lawsuit to contest the SIT’s conclusions. The Supreme Court finally consented to consider the request for a review and investigation of the SIT’s clean chit after years of struggle. The accusations of a larger conspiracy by high-ranking state officials, including Narendra Modi and others, were rejected by the Supreme Court on June 24, 2022, leading to the petition’s dismissal.

In the judgement, the court referred to the statement made by the state government that Setalvad, a co-petitioner in the case, “exploited the emotions” of Zakia Jafri. Quoting the SC order clearing Modi, Gujarat Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS) arrested Teesta Setalvad. The arrest out of vendetta took place hours after Union Home Minister Amit Shah criticised the role of “Setalvad’s NGO” in the case against Modi in an interview with ANI.

Teesta Setalvad was earlier continuously troubled with accusations of manufacturing fake evidence, trespassing on burial places, tutoring witnesses, and misusing the legal system by framing people. She had previously been under attack by the BJP’s defamation campaign against her for vilifying Narendra Modi without “substantial evidence.” It was also alleged that Setalvad’s Sabrang Communications, which was not registered under the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (FCRA), accepted donations from the US-based Ford Foundation without first receiving permission from the authorities. The current detention is based on an FIR registered on Saturday which named her and two former IPS officers – R B Sreekumar and Sanjiv Bhatt.

She has already raised her speculations regarding the nature of custody in a complaint lodged at the Santa Cruz police station soon after the arrest. In her detailed statement, she reveals that before the arrest; a person from CISF Noida had called her colleague and asked about her security arrangements. Within half an hour from the strange call, two armed CISF officers from BJP Rajya Sabha MP Narayan Rane’s bungalow, situated in the same neighbourhood, reached the gate. They were soon followed by eight to ten ATS officials who had barged into the compound of Setalvad’s residence. They assaulted her and forcefully took her into custody without stating the reason or producing a warrant. “I fear seriously for my life given the animosity of the Gujarat state police”, she added in the Handwritten complaint. The Gujarat Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS) handed her over to the Ahmedabad crime branch early on June 26 in connection with a new case of forgery, criminal conspiracy, and insulting criminal proceedings to cause injury filed against her.

Setalvad has received numerous national and international honours over the years, including the Chameli Devi Jain Award for Outstanding Women Media person in 1993, the Hakim Khan Sur Award from the Maharana Mewar Foundation in 1999, the Human Rights Award from the Dalit Liberation Education Trust in 2000, the Nuremberg International Human Rights Award in 2003, and a Padma Shri from the Indian government in 2007.

Muhammad Nihad PV is a sociology student at the University of Hyderabad. He tweets at @nihadbinnisar