Firebrand activist Teesta Setalvad is almost a household name today. In the last 15 years, the journalist turned civil rights activist has fought a relentless battle to get justice for the victims and survivors of the 2002 Gujarat riots.
This activism has, at times, also landed her in trouble. While the Gujarat government once accused her of tutoring witnesses, the current government at the centre accuses her of misappropriation of funds. She calls the actions initiated by the police, CBI, and the government against her a ‘political vendetta’ and continues to wage her own battle against the might of the state. Citizens for Justice and Peace, an NGO she founded in the aftermath of the Gujarat riots, was relaunched in November 2017 to work on the rights of a wider group of people.
In an email interview with YKA, Setalvad spoke about the problems with India’s justice system, the Gujarat development model, and what it will take for India to become a truly inclusive country. Excerpts:
Abhishek Jha (AJ): CJP has worked on about 68 cases related to the Gujarat riots. How many of these have concluded? What’s the status of the remaining cases?
Teesta Setalvad (TS): We have striven for justice for the survivors of individual carnage cases, filed suits for compensation and rehabilitation, ensured (to some measure) fair investigation, secured protection for 570 witness survivors (to date). In toto, this had led to convictions for the first time for survivors of targeted communal violence in post-independent India’s history.
Of the 172 convictions in the first rounds, 124 led to life imprisonment (we stand against and, therefore, did not ask for death penalty). In two cases in appeal, few of the accused were thereafter acquitted but many still serve.
To date, we are defending the appeals in the high court. And the mother of all cases – a first-ever legal case to establish administrative, constitutional and criminal culpability – the Zakia Jafri case is still pending.
AJ: What are the systemic flaws in our criminal justice system, which allow such mass violence repeatedly? How can we make our public institutions more accountable in such a situation?
TS: The absence of a professional police force (despite repeated reports of the National Police Commission and an order of the Supreme Court in 2006 in the Prakash Singh case) means there is a complete absence of a fair and independent investigation machinery. Even the CBI has not been freed of its political masters and been made accountable to all of Parliament.
Then comes the defence-police-politician nexus and the absence of witness protection in turning witnesses hostile. Third is the failure of the executive and judiciary to ensure integrity and independence in prosecution. Finally, what we need more than anything else are time-bound criminal trials. India is good at laying down rules but our implementation is pathetic.
Look at the conditions of our jails. Should not these be monitored? Look at the status of our police stations. Should we not have CCTVs there? Look at how witnesses are treated in lower courts. Should we not have CCTVs that work there? The entire system is biased against the marginalised and voiceless.
AJ: How can we better measure how much progress we have made in reducing inequalities in accessing justice?
TS: Courts need to be unequivocal and show the way. Assess and make public data that either convinces people that we are doing justice to our people or deliver the shock treatment and reveal that we are not.
AJ: How can citizen survivors of individual or mass and targeted crimes be expected to navigate a system that is so distanced from them in terms of language, class and other forms of othering?
TS: Legal Aid systems need to be restructured and made more open and vibrant where citizens forums interact with the authorities to ensure that quality (at least in terms of integrity and independence) is available for whosoever needs it.
A simple formula is that young counsel/advocates be given an incentive to serve in the Legal Aid teams and as prosecutors, so they can compete shoulder-to-shoulder with defence counsel that today earn substantially more.
AJ: After the violence, Gujarat became known for its development, which has also been criticised. How do you think such a perception of development is possible despite a huge breakdown of law and order? What is your idea of development?
TS: Actually, the Gujarat development model—that with Hardik Patel phenomenon is finally being acknowledged as ‘jobless growth’- was a clever (even sinister) way of white-washing the criticisms that the 2002-onwards regime of Modi was facing with the Vibrant Gujarat summits.
It was a very well-orchestrated exercise. But as economists began to show from 2011 onward, it had also generated ‘poverty amidst prosperity’ (Prof. Atul Sood). Gujarat has also performed poorly on human development indicators, such as nutrition, universal education, health, sanitation, etc.
A wholesome model of development needs to ensure that human needs, dignity, and rights are central to the state project. Here aggrandisement of a few, who then curry favour with the powerful and also dominate sections of the electronic media, has resulted in an oligarchy that is dangerous for the deepening of democracy.
AJ: The Narendra Modi government has been described as a government for the upper-caste and class. Despite that, barring a few exceptions, he has led the BJP to power in elections after 2014 too. Why do you think this happens even when large sections of society are being left out of the country’s development programmes?
TS: The success of the BJP, which rose from 2 to 182 in the 1980s-1990s periods, has been due to the control of society structures and the election machinery by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Even Modi’s significant electoral gains would have been reduced but for this.
At heart of this success is the consolidation of a section of votes among the majority – first to 24% and later to 31%. This consolidation has been accompanied with the opposition remaining divided. There is no way a force like the RSS-BJP (majoritarian, proto-fascist), backed as it is by significant corporate capital, can be defeated without the political opposition recognising that to overcome this consolidation, people must be given a coherent, not divided choice. This happened in Bihar. It happened de facto in Delhi and Punjab.
AJ: What can India do to ensure that minorities don’t feel left out?
TS: Acknowledge institutionally, in policy and practice, that there has been othering and discrimination. Ensure that the police force and security agencies are wedded to constitutional principles of equality and non-discrimination to protect lives and property of one and all. No Afrazuls, no Akhlaqs, no Junaids, no Pehlus.
The Sachar Committee report, in some measures, did that. But so insidious is the hold of the extreme right on public discourse that any attempts at setting this right are dubbed as ‘appeasement’. This term was manufactured way back in the 1980s-1990s!
AJ: Since the last presidential elections in the United States, WikiLeaks has been accused of acting as a conduit for Russian influence on the elections. In 2014, the Delhi High Court also pulled up both the BJP and the Congress of receiving funding from Vedanta in violation of FCRA rules. Given the secrecy around such influence, are there ways other than laws such as FCRA to protect democratic processes and sovereignty of a country? How do we balance this concern with allegations that the Indian government is cracking down on NGOs?
TS: The amendments in the Finance Bill giving political parties the freedom to have secret access to foreign funding while all other citizens are subject to a hounding by the same state, bodes ill for democracy and deepening culture of human rights.
The fact is that monopolies, industry, pharma companies, etc – all have a stranglehold on politicians across the board, in our country too. Do you know that the way the Election Commission sees it today, monies spent by a party machinery on elections are not, in toto, counted while holding individual candidates accountable?
Indians will need to realise that we still have a long and bitter struggle ahead to ensure that democracy is deepened and meaningful. We need electoral reform (the debate over proportional representation is crucial, elections needs to be state funded), police reform, judicial and administrative reform.