By Gaurav Sharma
Human rights activist Setalvad and her spouse Javed Anand have landed in the dock for allegedly embezzling funds from their NGO and using them for their personal use.
Apart from accusing Teesta of invoking reimbursements for hairstyling expenditure incurred during “visits to Rome and Pakistan”, the Gujarat government has also accused her of the insidious charge of tampering with evidence to hinder investigation into the misappropriation of funds.
The startling charges were made by the state police while contesting Teesta Setalvad’s plea for anticipatory bail against cheating allegations made by former residents, who were also victims of riots in the 2002 Gulberg Society massacre. The hearing was related to a First Information Report which had been filed against her by the Ahmedabad Crime Branch last year in view of the fraud accusation.
A week ago, the CBI had fueled the heavy fire against Teesta Setalvad by filing cases of criminal conspiracy and receiving illegal foreign funding, charges which Teesta out-rightly denied. The CBI barraged through her premises in spite of the anti-communal stalwart agreeing to co-operate with the investigations.
Intriguingly, the CBI raid and local police charges took place barely a day before the appeals by those convicted for the Naroda Patia Massacre case and just two weeks before the final hearing of Zakia Jafri’s petition against the closure report of SIT, a report which had cleared Prime Minister Narendra Modi of criminal liability in the 2002 Gujarat riots.
The sudden burst in legal activity against the civil rights campaigner has cast her in bad light and begs the question; whether the centre is right in making such outlandish charges against a venerable public figure or is it merely a sinister ploy to sink the credibility of the supporting voice of victimized people?
To answer the question, we have to look at what Teesta Setalvad stands for because the ire of the authorities is deeply connected with her persona as protector of victims of communal riots, specifically the 2002 Gujarat riots.
Zakia Jafri and the Gulberg Society Case
On 28 February 2002, the Gulberg society, a predominantly Muslim neighborhood in Chamanpura, Ahmedabad was attacked by a Hindu mob. Taking cognizance of the brewing violence, the residents who belonged to upper-middle-class Muslim business families, took refuge in Congress MP Ehsan Jafri.
Ehsan Jafri tried to call the state chief minister and the police but failed to reach the ears of those endowed with the responsibility of protecting citizens. And, soon the mob transmuted into a violent storm. Breaching the boundary wall of the society, the mob alighted the houses on fire and attacked those trying to flee the enraging fire. During the following six hours, 69 people were charred to death and at least 85 were brutally injured, scarred beyond recognition. Ehsan Jafri was among those killed.
In 2006, Zakia Jafri, the widow of Ehsan Jafri took the bold step of filing a complaint against the then Chief Minister Narendra Modi and a host of other ministers and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leaders such as Praveen Togadia and Jaideep Patel alleging complicity, aiding and abetting in the riots.
This is the time when the contentious argument that several policemen and bureaucrats were instructed not to listen to the pleas for helping Muslims being attacked during the riots were spelled out into the public sphere.
Although Zakia had to undergo an arduous journey of more than 2 years before her complaint could see the light of the day (the local and the high court refused to entertain her plea, before the SC directed a Special Investigation Team(SIT) to look into the charges), she managed to set the ball rolling for bringing the collusion of the state machinery with the Gujarat riots into public glare and legal scrutiny.
Teesta–Zakia’s source of strength
At the heart of Zakia Jafri’s fight for justice lies the Citizens for Peace and Justice(CJP), an organization formed in the aftermath of the Gujarat riots for providing legal aid to its victims.
Teesta Setalvad is the secretary of the non-governmental organization and was instrumental in providing legal support to Zakia. Her organization served as co-petitioner in seeking criminal trial of Narendra Modi and other officials for complicity in the riots. It has successfully secured 117 convictions in the case so far, including those of Dr. Maya Kodnani and Babu Bajrangi.(Bail orders have now been issued by the court in regard to the two controversial leaders)
Even though the SIT in its closure report of the Zakia Jafri case said that Ehsan Jafri was killed because he had provoked a mob that was hell bent on taking revenge from Muslims for the Godhra riots, Zakia while working in tandem with Teesta Setalvad filed a Criminal Revision Application and thereby managed to extend the hearing of the case to 27 July 2015.
And so when the sudden counter-filing of complaints against Teesta Setalvad by the Centre uncannily lies on the same timescale as that of the hearing of Zakia Jafri’s review petition, should it not raise suspicious eyebrows?
It ought to.
Case Against Teesta
The allegations of cheating residents of Gulberg society basically contend that the money which was received from foreign donations was not utilized for the intended purpose. However, Teesta Setalvad had specified the nature of the donations and the purpose for which they were used in 2013
Teesta Setalvad’s other establishment, the Sabrang Trust, had proposed to raise money through donations for purchasing properties from residents of Gulberg society at market rates, a proposition which the residents happily accepted. But as the market rates began to escalate rapidly the idea was given up altogether in 2012.
As the sweeping development in real-estate spiraled-up, the Gulberg society was informed of the rising land prices following which a resolution was passed allowing the owners to sell the flats. However, such a dynamic plan could not last for more than six months due to the obduracy of the Gujarat government to make use of an archaic law to prevent the citizens of a community from selling their property to people outside the community.
Again, the decision to extend the application of the aforementioned law to communally fragile places such as Gulberg Society and Naroda Patiya came close on the heels of Zakia Jafri filing her review petition and the Gulberg Society resolution.
Moreover, underscoring the conspiratorial nature of allegations leveled against Teesta, the authorized representatives had released an affidavit, unequivocally denying any conflict with her NGO.
Relating to questions of foreign funding, Teesta Setalvad alleges that the Ahmedabad Crime Branch manipulated their bank accounts to arrive at exaggerated figures of Rs 2.62 crores and Rs 1.15 crores for the foreign funding of the Sabrang trust and CJP respectively.
The BJP on its part denies any wrongdoing.
BJP’s misplaced belief
The closure report which the SIT filed before the Ahmedabad Metropolitan Magistrate NS Bhatt, cleared Modi of criminal liability in the Gujarat riots. Modi devotees hailed the pronouncement as a “clean chit”, a self-concocted fallacy.
Raju Ramachandran, the amicus curae appointed by the Supreme Court to monitor the development of the investigations, though concurred with most of the SIT findings but as a matter of fact concluded that Narendra Modi should be sent to trial.
Tehelka scooped up the report of the amicus curae and chronicled his extensive findings which elucidated different sections under which Narendra Modi was implicated. It went on further to argue that “SIT’s repeated insistence on dropping all charges against Modi was highly questionable and even a perhaps a matter of investigation by itself”.
Arguing against the SIT’s assertion there was no prosecutable evidence against Modi, Ramachandran concluded the report by saying: “There may not be overwhelming evidence but there is “some” evidence. The only logical step that an agency could take under these circumstances is to prosecute the accused on the basis of the evidence thrown up during the investigation.”
The unprecedented support that Teesta Setalvad has received from eminent professors, academicians, artists and activists from all over the country is a testimony to the veneration that Teesta Setalvad commands as a defender of human rights.
On the other hand, Narendra Modi, ever since coming into power has unleashed a crackdown on international NGO’s and global charities.
Greenpeace has been accused of interfering in the domestic policies of the nation even as the Ford Foundation has been put on watchlist while being dubbed as “anti-India”.
Greenpeace India’s funds were frozen and restrictions were placed on the movement of some of its workers campaigning against issues that included nuclear power and coal-mining, areas that Modi considers critical for India’s economic growth.
On the other hand, the Ford foundation got caught in the clampdown after it came to light that Anna Hazare’s India against corruption(IAC) got a boost from the foundation, with Arvind Kejriwal’s NGO, Kabir receiving abou $400,000.
The scrutiny intensified over allegations that $250,000 had been granted to Teesta Setalvad’s NGOs between 2009 and 2013 by the Ford foundation.
Subsequently, Teesta was also implicated for supporting “anti-India forces” and a case was registered against her for violating Foreign Contribution Regulation Act and for criminal conspiracy under the Indian Penal Code.
Meanwhile, Teesta Setalvad has argued that her arrangements with the foundation were “permissible under the law” even as the CBI has hawkishly sought her arrest.
In this regard, it would be pertinent to highlight the fact the CBI itself carries a dubious reputation, particularly when the SC has previously called it a “caged parrot”, a reference to it being precociously prone to political influence.
As the case takes its course, Teesta Setalvad’s image has been tarnished with monikers such as “five-star activist” and her efforts to bring justice to the victims of the 2002 Gujarat riots have been stymied.
While there is no doubt that the veracity of charges leveled against Teesta Setalvad should be decided in the country’s courts, the aura of Modi as a pro-development leader has metamorphosed into a defensive personality too uptight to accept a genuine critique of his governance modus operandi.