05, Mar 2018 | Sharmistha Ghoshal
Teesta Setalvad, the liberal-secular civil rights activist, better known for her battle for the victims of Gujarat Riots (2002) doesn’t need any introduction. As the secretary of Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP), she is a co-petitioner in the Zakia Jafri case, seeking trial of then Gujarat chief minister and now Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and 62 other politicians and state officials for alleged complicity in the riots. Born into a Hindu Gujarati family in Mumbai, 55-year-old Setalvad is married to former journalist and minority rights activist Javed Anand and has a son and a daughter with him. A Padma Shri awardee, she is now facing a case of misappropriation of NGO funds, though her supporters see it as political vendetta.
Recently in Kolkata for a seminar, Setalvad — soft-spoken and ever smiling — squeezed out some time to answer a few questions. Here are the excerpts of a chat with TAF deputy editor Sharmistha Ghosal
Do you think the BJP will pick up lessons from the outcome of the Gujarat elections? What do you think contributed to such a narrow margin?
The BJP has a powerful organisation and unlimited funds, so, they will work on their weak points and failures. I fear, however, that their core ideology — perpetuating hatred and division — will become stronger, more strident, and shriller.
The narrow margin is largely due to, I am sure, their failure to deliver — on jobs, on inflation, on the economy. There is an acute agrarian distress, farmers are suffering, workers, who have had their rights hard won after long battles, saw them snatched away. In Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh — both Adivasi (tribal) states — the rights of the Adivasis are being trampled, with forests and lands being given away to industrialists.
How do you think it’s going to impact the 2019 Lok Sabha elections?
If the Opposition — including the organised left — responds to a sense of history and urgency and ensures a broad spectrum platform, where Leftists, socialists, progressives, liberals, centrists also have a place, then these proto-fascists can be defeated. For this, the Congress has to show they have a vision and ensure that the Ambedkarites, Left-ists, and socialist movement representatives are well accommodated. In turn, these movements, too, need to show the maturity to recognise the essential difference between the Congress and the RSS.
Do you see Rahul Gandhi shaping up rightly for being the prime ministerial candidate of the Congress?
Yes, absolutely. Under his leadership and with other leaders like Siddaramaiah, Sachin Pilot, Jyotiraditya Scindia, apart from the sagacious seniors, the Congress can go from strength to strength.
You set up Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) to seek justice for the victims of 2002 Gujarat riots. How far have you travelled towards your goal?
We toiled hard, organised. In these years we took about 68 cases rigorously, fought them with all sincerity and are still defending them in higher courts. Our band of survivor families is our strength, the vanguards, who are staunch human rights defenders today. We have achieved 172 convictions of which 126 were life imprisonment in the sessions courts. We have deepened human rights jurisprudence. We have faced the wrath of the state for our work and battled vicious cases. It has been a trial by fire. Our battle, especially in the Zakia Jafri cases, still continues.
The website of CJP has also been launched. How helpful would it be?
The cjp.org.in platform intends to take forward our vision: Defending the human rights of all, in the courts and beyond. We wish to concentrate on all kinds of minorities, religious, genders, Dalits, Adivasis, the freedom of expression, human rights defenders, children, judicial, legal, police and electoral reforms. It is an ambitious target of becoming a vibrant civil liberties platform that showcases its own work and also the work of other organisations. We invite your readers to become members and donors, too.
Majoritarianism seems to be increasingly becoming a bane for India’s democracy. How do you see the future?
India as we know it, with the Constitution and egalitarianism and non-discrimination as its bedrock, is under serious threat. We have a proto-fascist force, the RSS, in power that believes in the overthrow of the Indian Constitutional order and the onset of a discriminatory, violent theocratic Hindu state. It’s a dangerous situation we have in hand and we have to devote our time combating it for sanity, dialogue and peace to reign. Would you have believed even five years ago that mobs and individuals with allegiance to the ruling dispensation would go around lynching and thereafter celebrating the violence on ‘social media’? That saffron and green, colours of nature would be so deeply polarising and communal? Hate flows amidst us and has been legitimised, normalised. We have to fight in multiple and creative ways to ensure that hate-filled worms return to the woodwork and are shred of their legitimacy.
We have the RSS in power that believes in the overthrow of the Indian Constitutional order and the onset of a discriminatory, violent theocratic Hindu state
What do you think about the Gauri Lankesh murder case and that her killers are yet to be nabbed?
It was a shocking, ghastly act of cowards with hate and aggression in their minds and with access to money and weapons. Gauri was a sister in battle, a dear friend, whose loss has been both personal and political. Her sister Kavitha has emerged as a beacon of strength and compassion, even in her grief. On her killers and the plot and conspiracy, we are hopeful of a break-through very, very soon but are disappointed that it has not yet come.
You have reached a position in life where joining politics seems to be naturally the next step. What are your comments?
For anything that one does in life, full application of mind and heart is necessary. Today, my priority is to establish a national, vibrant, civil liberties platform that echoes the alliances of multiple social and constitutional battles. If the day comes when Indian politics has the maturity to see the importance of this in mainstream politics, so be it.
The complete original interview may be read here.