13, Jun 2018 | CJP Team
On a rainy Saturday in June, Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) Secretary Teesta Setalvad sat down with stand-up comedian Kunal Kamra for conversation about her work, the allegations against her, and the situation of human rights in India (the complete video may be viewed here). This was our first Ask Me Anything, in which Setalvad fielded a range of questions that we had received in the run-up to this chat, questions from ‘trolls’ and haters, as well as questions from supporters and those genuinely worried about the growing communalism in India today. At a time when several sections of the media continue to parrot the official stance regarding the allegations against Setalvad, and refuse to consider her side of the story, this was a way to reach out to the public directly, and address the questions and thoughts firsthand.
The conversation was a wide-ranging one, kicked of by a question was perhaps an obvious, albeit unexpected one, posed to Setalvad: ‘Who are you?’ The response was, “I am the name of a river, and this river flows right from Sikkim, through Bengal, into Bangladesh, and it is a tributary of the most gorgeous river, which is the Brahmaputra. So that’s who I am: Teesta.”
Setalvad and Kamra discussed the current climate in India today–”We’re sitting on a time bomb,” and that “it’s about time that the influential sections of Indians, the majority, acknowledges that we’re actually causing a lot of fear and anxiety among large sections of Indians.” What keeps her going? “A belief very deep down that this country belongs to everyone,” and the conviction that “if some of us don’t stake everything, life and limb sometimes, for this, we are going to be really up a very, very dangerous path”. Setalvad explained that “if ever this country gets formally converted into a theocratic autocracy, then that’s going to be a road to chaos and violence, and that’s a frightening scenario for the generations that come. That’s what keeps me going.” When asked if she thought that justice would be delivered in the 2002 Gujarat riots cases, Setalvad noted that the work has already seen “some measure of success,” with more than 170 convictions related to the Gujarat riots, but also opined that “sometimes the process itself is the challenge,” since the effort is “to make our systems of democracy accountable”.
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Setalvad acknowledged that the cases against her have forced her to devote time not just to fighting for the rights of minorities, but also for herself, but maintained that “it has not stopped our work. It is demanding, emotionally and otherwise. It also wears you down. It also tells you who your true friends are.”
Addressing a question from seemingly “a staunch critic” of Setalvad, she and Kamra discussed the allegations against her regarding her alleged personal use of funds collected for riot victims.
Setalvad, who in 1993 launched the magazine Communalism Combat with her husband, Javed Anand, in response to the increasing communal violence that India was seeing, also addressed a question about the solution for religious discrimination. She noted that this would take “multiple struggles,” ranging from working housing societies, small towns and villages, to working with textbooks and in classrooms, and questioning, “What demon are we fighting? Does this demon really exist?”
Responding to a question from Kavita Krishnan of the All India Progressive Women’s Association (AIPWA), about whether love for one’s country means hate for some other, Setalvad was firm in her opinion: “Hate can never be the foundation of a nation, and othering can never be the foundation for patriotism.”
Even as the media ignores Setalvad prolonged efforts to clear her name, and, perhaps more egregiously, the struggles for basic human rights by communities across the country, Setalvad knows that minorities are vulnerable in India, and that “a minority can be anywhere,” and that, as is our credo, “there can be no lasting peace, sustainable peace without justice.”