Human Rights organisations issue statements of support for Teesta Setalvad

With each day, support for the veteran journalist and activist continues to grow

Teesta SetalvadImage: PTI

It’s been just three days since activist and Citizens for Peace and Justice (CJP) secretary Teesta Setalvad was picked up from her Mumbai home and whisked away to Ahmedabad by a unit of the Gujarat Anti Terrorism Squad (ATS) after a brief pit stop at the Santacruz Police Station. But statements of support are pouring in from different national and international quarters.

The Working Group of Human Rights in India and the United Nations (WGHR) on June 27, 2022 expressed deep concern about the arrest of member Teesta Setalvad by the Government of India.

“It reflects an aggressive abuse of power and law by the State machinery, in grave breach of the rights and freedoms guaranteed to citizens under the Indian Constitution. This turn of events has also raised questions about the Government’s commitments to human rights and Human Rights Defenders (HRDs), not just domestically but also at the global level,” said the WGHR in a statement.

Setalvad was picked up shortly after the Supreme Court judgement in the Zakia Jafri case endorsed action against people who allegedly brought about a malicious prosecution. But according to Setalvad, she wasn’t shown a copy of either the warrant or the First Information Report (FIR) until her lawyer arrived. Setalvad says she was roughed up by members of the Gujarat ATS when they barged into her home on June 25. Setalvad now stands accused of criminal conspiracy, forgery and giving or fabricating false evidence among other IPC sections. Two former police officers, RB Sreekumar and Sanjiv Bhatt have also been named as her co-conspirators in the FIR. While Bhatt is already in jail under trumped-up charges in a custodial death case, Sreekumar was arrested shortly after Setalvad was picked up.

Condemning this move, the WGHR hailed Setalvad for fighting tirelessly for victims of communal violence. The WGHR called the arrest a retaliation and reprisal for seeking accountability from those in positions of power and for standing with victims of the 2002 riots in Gujarat.

Many notable Indian activists such as People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) General Secretary V. Suresh, National Association of People’s Movements (NAPM) Convenor Medha Patkar, former Navy Chief Admiral Ramdas, and thousands of others signed a statement condemning the government’s prosecution of the activist and former IPS officers. They say, “The state has now used the observations made in the judgment to falsely and vindictively prosecute those who had struggled for justice even in the face of state callousness and complicity. It is truly an Orwellian situation of the lie becoming the truth, when those who fought to establish the truth of what happened in the Gujarat genocide of 2002 are being targeted.”

The signatories pointed out that the FIR marks the period of offence from January 1, 2002 to June 25, 2022. This means that every effort for justice for victims of 2002, be it petitions filed in the High Court, Supreme Court or the Magistrates’ court, is sought to be criminalised.

“The ordinary process of litigation to make the state accountable by establishing guilt of those accused of serious crimes is tarred with the criminal brush,” said the activists, adding, “We condemn this naked and brazen attempt to silence and criminalize those who stand for constitutional values and who have struggled against very difficult odds to try to achieve justice for the victims of 2002. We demand that this false and vindictive FIR be taken back unconditionally and Teesta Setalvad and others detained under this FIR be released immediately,” said signatories.

Similarly, the Network of Women in Media, India (NWMI) pointed out that none of the provisions against the activist are cognisable. As such, the Gujarat ATS requires court permission and a warrant to arrest a person.

“The ATS’s dubious explanation at the time that Setalvad was not arrested but detained for questioning also holds no water. A 60-year-old activist with strong roots in the community, Setalvad is not a flight risk and should be questioned by female officers in her home as per law,” said the NWMI in a press statement.

It demanded that the police withdraw the FIR against Setalvad. Members called it an attempt to intimidate and silence citizens seeking to uncover the truth about the communal violence. They also expressed solidarity with Setalvad and called upon the Gujarat government to protect activists pursuing legal and legitimate means for justice instead of browbeating them.

Regarding the Zakia Jafri case itself, NWMI said the petitioners followed due process but the apex court took a long time to dismiss their petition. For this reason, the delay cannot be considered an abuse on the part of the petitioners. Instead, it pointed out how the court’s observation was utilised by the Gujarat police to put at risk all citizens pursuing claims against the government.

Along with rights groups, journalists’ bodies also called for protests against the witch-hunt. In a joint statement, the National Alliance of Journalists (NAJ) and the Delhi Union of Journalists (DUJ) condemned the “ugly and motivated, hasty arrest” of Setalvad. NAJ President S. K. Pande and DUJ General Secretary Sujata Modhak among others said, “The arrests smack of an increasingly visible undeclared Emergency that is increasingly becoming visible in continued attacks not only on the freedom of the press but on the democratic rights of citizens which are being bulldozed. Simultaneously, the police seem to be increasingly utilised in witch-hunting of selected persons.”

Members lamented that Teesta Setalvad, a veteran journalist and human rights activist is treated as a criminal.

The New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI) said in its solidarity statement, “Democracy is a struggle between people and the state in which people challenge government and its agencies for violating and undermining their rights, very often with complete impunity.”

It argued that such circumstances allow people to approach courts that are supposed to be independent arbiter in case of denial of people’s rights. Yet the apex court judgement said a campaign for justice and accountability in this ‘democracy’ is not an inalienable right.

“The Supreme [Court] has handed the government the license to act against anyone who stands up to power and questions it. It has in fact said the government is entitled to be vindictive if the most powerful in the land are questioned,” said General Secretary Gautam Modi. Regarding claims of lack of cooperation from Setalvad and Sreekumar, Modi said that neither were asked to join a police investigation and so the question of cooperation does not arise.

“Lack of cooperation has become part of the unwritten police manual. Courts for the most part allow such arrests to go unchallenged allowing a vindictive authoritarian government to ensure that process of criminal investigation is the punishment itself. It has now become an unwritten element of our constitution that one is guilty unless proved to be otherwise,” he said.

The NTUI has demanded the withdrawal of the FIR against the two people and asked that the Supreme Court ruling be rescinded. It called upon all progressive organisations to join forces in seeking a comprehensive review of the case. Farmers umbrella body Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM) too supported this demand.

Another group, aside from rights collectives and unions, to support Setalvad was the International Union of Left Publishers. In 2017, LeftWord Books published the memoir of Teesta Setalvad, Foot Soldier of the Constitution. The book details the work of Teesta Setalvad’s quest to create a just world, a world that remembers the atrocities of the past to not repeat such violence in the future.

“All those who have tried to make the case for the government’s role in the 2002 pogrom in Gujarat faced sustained persecution. The Indian Supreme Court has now weighed in and suggested – in very strong words – that Setalvad should be investigated for her role in the campaign to bring justice to the victims and survivors,” said LeftWord in a press statement.

The publishers called upon the government to cease its persecution of writers such as the journalist.


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