So what is it about activist Teesta Setalvad that the ruling regime hates and fears her so much? She has been relentlessly targeted, along with hundreds of NGOs and human rights groups, with a zeal which almost seems like personal vendetta. Apart from being an independent journalist, her fight for human rights, the India-Pakistan peace process, and against communal politics, Teesta took up several cases following the Gujarat genocide of 2002. She, along with other activists, including women activists, fought and won several protracted cases in which scores were arrested and sentenced, including cadre and top functionaries of the Sangh Parivar inside and outside the Narendra Modi-led Gujarat government. In the 68 cases fought by the Mumbai-based Citizens for Justice and Peace, they managed 172 convictions, 126 of which were of life imprisonment.
Teesta’s new book, ‘Footsolder of the Constitution – A Memoir’, has been recently published (available online). Widely acclaimed, the book is a documentation of her struggle and the meticulous, resilient and painstaking narrative which accompanied it. Said historian Romila Thapar about the book and the author: “One wishes there were more such citizens.” Legal luminary Fali Nariman commented on the book: “Teesta has a distinguished lineage. Her grandfather, Motilal Setalvad, was India's first Attorney General; his son Atul (Teesta's father) was a leading Senior Advocate in the Bombay High Court. Each of them gave shape to our constitutional law. But, Teesta carved out a separate niche for herself -- as a worthy footsoldier of the Constitution.” Former Supreme Court judge, Justice PB Sawant, said, “A crusader in the cause of justice and human rights, Teesta's life is a saga of small and big battles fought by a person with firm conviction and strong determination.” Dancer Mallika Sarabhai said, “Teesta Setalvad is a woman of courage and deep convictions. This book is a testimony to her spirit and grit.” While academic Kancha Illaiah Shephard believes that, “The Gujarat riots produced, at one end, Modi, and at another end, Teesta. The story of her life is necessary reading for those who engage with the Indian sociopolitical system.”
Talking about her book, with the RSS calling the shots, violent vigilantism on the streets, and the public discourse hitting an all-time low, Teesta Setalvad in conversation with Amit Sengupta.
Q: What inspired you to write your recent memoir: Foot soldier of the Constitution – A Memoir? What is the essence of the memoir?
My publishers were persuasive. They felt that this narrative devoted to a struggle and cause through the personal lens was an important, even, critical, story. That needed to be told in today’s India, for the present and future. I began writing it around May 2016 and continued making changes till it went to print.
Q: Do you think the Indian Constitution is under threat? From what kind of forces? Or, do you think that a secular and plural Indian democracy can sustain itself?
We are being governed in the Centre and in 11 states (in another four, the BJP is an alliance partner) by a force like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) that is self-avowedly committed to the overthrow of the Indian Constitutional Order. Go to their website. They have removed ‘We and Our Nationhood Defined’ by MS Golwalkar, but, in the ‘Bunch of Thoughts’, there it is: the three internal enemies of the Indian nation are described (Christians, Muslims and Communists) as also the intention to install a Hindu theocratic State after the Indian Constitution has been overthrown. Then, we will have to return to the rigid caste order. Hence, today, the Indian Constitution needs to be defended with rigour, passion and exactitude. The foundational values of India that are enshrined in our Constitution, the very basis of egalitarianism, dignity and non-discrimination, are under direct assault today by the forces of majoritarianism.
Q: Do you think a Germany kind of situation, as during the Nazi regime, can appear in some form in India?
Yes. The RSS is proto-fascist. We have forces in positions of constitutional governance committed to an in-egalitarian citizenship privileging one section. Besides, we are seeing the transfer of public resources to crony capitalism, all over, in every form.
Q: Several NGOs have been targeted and hounded by the current regime in Delhi, including you and your organisation. Why is it that they are targeting individuals and voluntary organisations with such vicious intensity, with relentless precision and venom? It almost seems personal, but, surely, it is more than personal?
All manners of vicious and cheap pressures have been used to coerce us into stopping. We have men in power with small hearts and petty minds whose abiding motto is vengeance and vendetta. It is important that we calmly stay the course and fight the good fight. We have a regime in place that is putting all manner of repressive control on sectors that are fighting for fundamental rights, while political funding (and the BJP and Congress are together on this!) has been opened to foreign capital, apart from a cloak of secrecy shrouding it in non-transparency. The very FCR Act and its application need to be scrutinised.
Q: Do you think human rights and fundamental rights are being attacked in India? What is your opinion on the attacks on mutton shops in UP after the BJP’s victory, and the anti-Romeo squads?
We are on the verge of not just a civil war as Nayantara Sahgal so aptly put it recently, we are being turned before our eyes into a Banana Republic: lawlessness, fear and intimidation are ruling our streets. Investment is not coming in. There is an eerie silence from the academia and intellectuals. As Martin Luther King Jr said, “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamour of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.” Nowhere is this more apt than in the India of today.
Q: You have been running the journal, ‘Communalism Combat’, for several years, with Javed Anand, despite all odds. What, in your opinion, is the larger content and character of the mainstream Indian media, especially the television media?
When we started ‘Communalism Combat’, one of the reasons was the shrinking space and short attention span of the mainstream media: not allowing space to report or analyse the build-up to conflicts (communal and otherwise), nor report on the fallout. The inability to go beyond the sensation of the story/tragedy. Today, the situation seems much worse because the media seems blind towards the concerns or the issues of a vast majority of the Indian people: food and ration, jobs, high inflation, quality of life of the urban poor, rural India — the media lens just not go there.
Q: Most of the television media, and at least one big English newspaper, among other Hindi newspapers, seem to be openly toeing the ruling party line. So much so, pujas conducted by the prime minister in temples were shown live before polling in UP. It is also believed that the illegal Dainik Jagaran exit poll was widely circulated by the RSS apparatus, and it did help the BJP. Do you agree?
It is an outright dangerous situation. An undeclared emergency. A proto fascist condition. The inability of not just the media but even the Election Commission to put a stop to such brazen invoking of religious symbols by the prime minister is sinister and shocking.
I remember a shocking story authored by journalist Bharat Bhushan in August 2014: ‘PM as Pilgrim’. Commenting on media reports of Modi’s visit to the Pashupatinath temple in Kathmandu, Nepal, the journalist commented on the offering: 2,500 kgs of sandalwood and 2,400 kilograms of asli ghee. At 2014 rates (in the Cauvery state government emporium), this offering cost Rs 4 crore for the sandalwood (Rs 16,000 per kg) and Rs 9.6 lakh for the ghee (Rs 390 per kg). There was no television debate, not even an editorial in any Indian newspaper asking -- who paid? Bhushan commented: ‘However, Lord Shiva is not the head of the Nepalese state. Had the Indian government wanted to gift sandalwood to Nepal, should it have been linked with Modi’s personal visit to the temple?’ Indeed, there was just no debate on this.
Q: Is there a possibility for an alternative media in India to succeed? What is your idea of hope and resistance in contemporary India?
Efforts are being made, we are all at a fledgling stage (www.sabrangindia.in, hindi.sabrangindia.in) and others too, but the challenge is to make these platforms viable and sustainable. Internet has opened up huge possibilities, as has the mobile android phone for crypt video interviews. Time will tell if we manage to cross the hump!
Q: In terms of secular politics, the opposition, including in civil society, often seems to be divided. The big push and the big picture is missing, including within the Left. There are also sectarian and ego issues. In your opinion, how can the bridge be crossed?
In the short term, the challenge is for every political party to unite against the RSS; bury egos and just do it. So that no more states are lost to them and the threat of a basic change in our constitutional order is averted. Thereafter, there is need -- genuine need -- for the re-articulation of a people’s agenda that is not bogged down in the semantics of ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ but seeks to re-invent a language that responds to democratic concerns and aspirations, while not compromising on constitutional principles of egalitarianism, non-discrimination and a welfare state.
More than anything else, I believe, a political re-education of all young Indians is needed, creatively; on how we were born; the national movement; our history; the world’s etc. The danger is that on this day and age when the poison is being spread through What’s App and Facebook, we have to re-invent a discourse of clarity, rationality and compassion.
What the current rulers, RSS-Modi-Amit Shah have achieved is to sink public discourse to an all time low and to establish (perception wise, at least) a substantial mass support for this. Our challenge is to nuance and enhance this discourse, deepen it, while also be able to demonstrate a mass and huge numbers for this. We know that there base is not more than 31-35; the rest of the 65 percent has to be vocally perceived as a response. We are scattered, presently.
Q: Among other cases of injustice during the Gujarat genocide, 2002, which you have relentlessly fought, tell us about the ongoing case regarding the massacre at Gulberg Society, Ahmedabad. How has Zakia Jafri, with the tragedy weighing on her each day, coped with the struggle?
These are two separate cases. The Gulberg case saw a shocking verdict last June which we have challenged in appeal. The judge not only convicted a handful of accused but refused to hold to any conspiracy behind the killing. As Tanvirbhai Jafri, son of Ehsansaab (Ehsan Jafri, former Congress MP, who was murdered along with 68 people in the residential society) put it, it’s as if the 15,000 strong mob had gathered there to have tea and samosas!
The other and much more critical case, ongoing presently in the Gujarat High Court, is the criminal revision application by Zakia Appa Jafri seeking to chargesheet Narendra Modi and 59 others. This case, galavanising 23,000 pages of evidence, seeks to build a chain of command responsibility behind the genocidal killings in 300 locations over 19 of Gujarat’s 25 districts. The case seeks to make politicians, administrators, policemen, and non-state actors (VHP, RSS and Bajrang Dal men) administratively and criminally responsible for the mass targeted violence.
The criminal complaint was filed in June 2006; the Supreme Court ordered investigations by the SIT in 2008 and 2011. The SIT found the evidence laid down in the criminal complaint correct, but concluded it was not enough to prosecute the accused. The Amicus Curie appointed by the apex court, Raju Ramachandran, found the opposite. The matter has been remanded to a magistrate’s court; we filed a protest petition. It took us a year-and-a-half to source the investigation papers (the SIT had turned hostile to us by then). The magistrate rejected the petition and we have now challenged this in the high court. The struggle is well and truly on.
In the 68 cases fought by the Citizens for Justice and Peace, in which we represented the survivors with exemplary legal aid, we have managed 172 convictions, 126 of which are of life imprisonment. On principle, we have not asked for death penalty. It has been a grueling, exacting, and, often, lonely battle.