Citizens for Justice and Peace

In Challenging Modi, Indian Activists Risk a Legal Backlash The New York Times

18, Feb 2015 | Manu Joseph

February 18, 2015

NEW DELHI — Prime Minister Narendra Modi is an admirer of persistence, but perhaps not in India’s human rights activists. What many of them are persistent about is pursuing him.

On Tuesday, Mr. Modi gave a speech condemning religious violence of any kind. Yet many Indian activists and others see the prime minister, whose political origins are in nationalist Hindu organizations, as the archvillain in the 2002 rioting that claimed hundreds of lives, mostly Muslim, in the state of Gujarat, where Mr. Modi was the chief minister. In the years since, as Mr. Modi’s popularity has soared, two activists, Teesta Setalvad and her husband, Javed Anand, have been dogged in their efforts to bring him to trial, particularly in one case.

During the 2002 riots, scores of Muslims in Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s largest city, took refuge in the home of Ehsan Jafri, a former member of Parliament. As Hindu mobs surrounded his house, Mr. Jafri called several powerful politicians for help. Some people claim that he called Mr. Modi, too, which would have been a natural thing for a senior politician to do under the circumstances, but there is no evidence to support this.

In any case, no substantial help arrived, and more than 60 people were slaughtered, including Mr. Jafri, who was hacked to pieces and burned. Mr Modi, who was within a few miles of Mr. Jafri’s house that day, said he did not learn of the incident until many hours later.

For years, Ms. Setalvad and Mr. Anand have been using the resolve of Mr. Jafri’s widow to pursue charges against Mr. Modi. They accuse him of facilitating violence against Muslims, a grave accusation that Indian courts have dismissed as unsupported by evidence.

Now it is not Mr. Modi but the activists themselves who face the possibility of prison. They could be arrested as soon as this week on charges of misappropriating money donated to help survivors of the Gujarat riots.

The authorities in Gujarat allege that of $1.5 million in donations received over the past 10 years by two trusts that Ms. Setalvad and Mr. Anand operate to provide relief and legal aid to riot survivors, about 15 percent was appropriated by them for “personal use” from 2009 to 2011.

Those transfers, the state has alleged, include reimbursements for credit card transactions. The state is specific about a few of their purchases: shoes for Ms. Setalvad, for instance, which the prosecutors describe as “branded” — an adjective apparently meant to suggest extravagance. She also purchased wine and “beauty products,” the state noted, as though bemused that an activist should consume alcohol or groom herself.

These are not the first charges that the authorities in Gujarat have brought against Ms. Setalvad. She was once accused of coercing a witness into giving false evidence about the riots, a charge of which she was absolved by India’s Supreme Court. The state also accused her of illegally exhuming the corpses of riot victims, an accusation the Supreme Court found “100 percent spurious.”

In a detailed response to the current accusations, the couple say they used their personal credit cards for both official and unofficial purposes, claiming reimbursements only for official expenses, a small fraction of the funds in dispute. The rest, they say, represents their own salaries, as well as expenses incurred in running the trusts and reimbursements to a company they own, which shares office space with the trusts and has paid for staff, utilities and other expenses. Ms. Setalvad told me that none of the trusts’ donors have raised concerns since the police began their investigation in March 2013.

In a hearing last week, Gujarat’s High Court cleared the way for the couple’s arrest. The Supreme Court delayed their arrest until at least Thursday.

This week, about 200 academics, writers and activists issued a statement in the couple’s defense that contained an implicit rebuke for Mr. Modi: “We see this as a clear case of the politics of vendetta launched with explicit intent to whitewash and efface from public memory the misdeeds of those who today wield political power in the state and center.”

Manu Joseph is author of the novel “The Illicit Happiness of Other People.”


***This Article was originally published by The New York Times. It can be found here.



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