“There Were Moments Of Depression And Loneliness In Jail” Says Teesta youthkiawaaz

13, Jan 2023

India is witnessing an unofficial emergency and clampdown on free speech and expression. Nation is going through the unfair act of witch hunting which has been carried out against rights activists, journalists, lawyers, students and academicians. They are getting continuous threats and have been haunted for the work they do.

In a journey to stand up for a relentless battle to uphold the core meaning of social justice, many of them are even sent to jail. Teesta Setalvad, is one among them. She is a well-known civil rights activist and a journalist who is adamant about keeping the constitutional values in consideration.

Teesta is associated with Sabrangindia.In (an online portal) and also the secretary of Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP), a human rights movement dedicated to defend the rights of all Indians: women and child rights, rights of minorities, Adivasis and Dalits, the freedom of expression, stands for criminal justice reform.

In 2007, Padma Shri award, one of the highest civilian honors bestowed on Teesta Setalvad when the UPA government was in power. She has always been a staunch voice against the state oppression and a fascist regime.

I have arranged an interview with Teesta, who is on bail in a case related to ‘falsification of evidence in 2002 Gujarat riots. She was arrested by the Anti- terrorism squad after a day when the Supreme Court upheld clean chit to then Chief Minister of Gujarat Narendra Modi and other 64 people in Godhra riots case.

The case related to a plea filed by Zakia Jafri, the wife of Congress MP Ehsan Jafri who was killed a day after the 2002 Godhra riots in Gujarat. In the interview she spoke about her jail experience, the topic of mainstream news hate propaganda, women safety in India and so on. The excerpts of the interview are here.

Sofia Babu Chacko (SBC): You were there at Sabarmati jail for 63 days. Can you brief me about the experience when the Gujarat Anti- Terrorist squad stormed in your residence on 25th June 3.30pm? What were the thoughts that went through your mind when you were in jail? How was your mental health while in jail?

Teesta Setalvad (TS): On the 25th of June, the Gujarat Anti- terrorism squad without a warrant and without showing a copy of FIR stormed into my residence, misbehaved and forcibly took me to Ahmedabad. Obviously there was shock and anger. Thereafter the next day the magistrate gave me a remand for 4-5 days. The same magistrate ordered a court inquiry on hearing my complaint (submitted to the Santacruz police station) about the way I was mis-treated. The matter is sub judice.

Regarding my experience in Sabarmati jail, jail is jail Sofia, until you are in jail you don’t understand what it means. Nobody outside can understand what loss of freedom and dignity is.The relationship you build, the moments of connection with other women prisoners etc; I lived like an ordinary prisoner in Sabarmati. There were other 30 prisoners including children around me.

And ofcourse there were moments of depression and loneliness. We have to navigate that while we are in jail. That is why human rights activists and journalists including me talk about issues related to jail reforms in a civilized society. To look at the issue about whether in Indian prisons there is adequate space and time for recreation, for reading, for basically treating under trial prisoners and convicts like human beings. Indian jails need reading courses for both men and women prisoners.

Teesta Setalvad receiving Padmashri from former President APJ Abdul Kalam (Source:Twitter)

SBC: ‘Political prisoner’ is a trending term now used in the public sphere. Is this term accepted? Why do we need to discuss on political prisoners in India, their life in jail, their thoughts, the ideas they convey and all?

TS: Basically, India does not have a concept of political prisoners, we had this concept when the Britishers colonized Indians. Therefore we need to campaign for the concept of political prisoners to be accepted or not by the state agencies and Judiciary. Who is a political prisoner? Why is he/she classified differently from those who commit normal crimes under IPC? How will those prisoners be defined? How do we need to classify the prisoners? All these need public dialogues and debates.

However, the state does not readily accept this, discuss these issues. The political prisoners are those who have been jailed for their views and actions of dissent. So it is a complicated process. We have seen a phenomenon in the last 7 and a half, 8 years of laws and the criminal justice system being weaponized to actually curtail civil liberties.

When I talk about the laws being weaponized i mean counter-terror legislation like UAPA, Gunda act in Gujarat, security laws in Jammu & Kashmir, National Security Act. Even UAPA has been misused in Kerala against some activists who do not suit current political rule. UAPA has brought in, obviously to silent voices. The real problematic issue about this law is that bail becomes very difficult. In fact if we look back at the origin of UAPA it goes back to the Rowlatt act which was a British law.

The question is why do we need a kind of counter-terror law today which dates back to the colonial times? The Rowlatt act that led to the huge protests all over the country and finally to the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre. Do we need such draconian laws when we are celebrating the 75th year of independence in terms of development and economic progress? It is a question. More citizens need to ask such questions. So we need proper, meaningful discussion about the concept of political prisoners.

SBC: You are a journalist as well as a rights activist. If a journalist’s duty turns to be all about activism, how can journalism ensure factual and neutral works? And ofcourse an activist must take a side, is this applicable to a journalist also? How are you balancing both journalism and activism? Is the purpose of an activist and a journalist the same? What is your reaction to it?

TS: I think when we talk about being a journalist, a chronicler, the whole issue of objectivity itself is also subjective. If you posit, for instance, a  neoliberal scenario where you are promoting a model of development that displaces Adivasis, forest dwellers, fishermen community, farmers. Can we accept such a model of development without questioning it? If you just report the ‘objective’ thing by not looking at the origins of displaced people in that area, do they have a voice and control over the common lands and resources nurtured by them over centuries? The notion of the commons open to all.

What kind of Journalism do you mean? This kind of construction based, real estate based, capital intensive way of development; is that something we should accept without debate? On what it is doing to our lives, to the earth, to public health, climate change?

If you ask for debate, who is being objective and who is being subjective? There is no activist who is recognised in his/her field who does not deal with facts. We always deal with facts. In fact we are very careful to not allow hyperbole or exaggeration affect the argument. But we come from an understanding of structural inequality, patriarchy, natural resources, caste snd community driven exclusions.

But if the very definition of human rights doesn’t appeal to a section of people who believe that voices of people don’t matter, that the constitution doesn’t matter then this question becomes valid. Today we are living in a post truth world. We have seen the manner in which Shraddha Walker’s case is reported.

Does the gruesomeness of the objectification of crime be the same if the criminal does not belong to a particular religious community? Is pointing it out not objective? Recently we have seen the study of National Law University reveals about the death penalty. Many Adivasis, Muslims and Dalits are given the death penalty than those from other denominations. Is pointing it out not objective? The whole debate of objectivity is slightly skewed.

No human right activist, no journalists who represent decent, good journalism would ever not deal with facts. We would deal with the facts all around, but we will not selectively leave out certain facts. That’s the difference.

Sofia is in Conversation with Teesta Setalvad via Zoom

SBC: Have you noticed any sort of bias and discriminatory way of reporting by mainstream media on minority affairs especially when it comes to Dalits and Muslims?

TS: Yes, there is a sort of objectification of the minorities, stigmatisation, demonisation being indulged in by the commerce media. Let’s take the issue of the Sulli deal case. How many news channels have seriously discussed the horrifying nature of the Sulli deal case? Did they extend solidarity towards the young muslim professional women journalists who were the victims of Sulli deals? No.This is something that did not generate shame among mainstream journalists.

Our organization Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) has a campaign against hate. We complained to twitter about the Sulli deals case. We got 21 accounts to be pulled off from twitter. But I did not see any outrage among journalists, media persons and editors against this objectification of young muslim professional women who are vocal, standing up against a proto fascist regime. Most or all the large media houses are under the control of big business magnets. These businesses also have a large share in mining and telecom!

The issue is that there is no space for rationality for questioning. This approach of the media changing, happened over decades, not by a sudden night. I have seen biases in print media as well in the 80s and 90s before the onset of electronic media.

For example, when the entire movement for the demolition of Babri Masjid gained momentum, one of the prominent news magazines, an iconic fortnightly magazine, after the demolition carried out some wonderful pieces on the “blow/death of Indian secularism.” The same magazine two years before reported L K Advani’s Rath yatra, which polarized Indian society. The magazine wrote ‘Lotus blooms’, where Advani sits in a large, bright orange, lotus. The rath yatra was violent, wherever it went it spilt blood against minorities, before it reached a spot or after it departed! Do read issues of The Telegraph, The Sunday Observer, The Hindustan Times among others.

While all this was visible on the ground, the magazine was silent, glorifying the man who orchestrated this bloodbath. The same magazine failed to talk about targeted violence against minorities and attacks on muslims. The campaign for building a ram temple in Ayodhya was not only about building a temple, it was about sending a message to the constitutional republic that this is a dark time of democracy.

Government along with the support of Indian media are trying to transform the nation from a democratic fabric to a theocratic majoritarian state, and sadly that began 20 years ago. We are witnessing this in its most crude form now.

Teesta Setalvad coming out from jail (Photo credits: Millenniumpost)

SBC: We have been celebrating the 75th year of independence. What do you think about the safety of women in India? When a rape case happen, society blames our judicial system and Indian laws. What changes do we need in the patriarchal structure of India’s social ecosystem?

TS: I think the safety of women in India will be ensured when our families and society becomes less patriarchal and when we have less mob violence on the street. Any society that has become authoritarian that attacks only one ethnic group community certainly attacks women. Look at the statements of those who are occupying extremely important positions of power. What did they feel about thinking, speaking, and rational women?

In 2012, after the ghastly Delhi Nirbhaya case there was an outcry and many amendments were brought which are adequate, so we don’t need any change in law. What we need is a change in societal, executive and judicial attitude. We can’t have courts telling the rape survivors to marry rapists. We can’t have political figures in constitutional positions to making unacceptable statements to the effect that a crime is happening due to the kind of dress a woman wears. We need to make our streets and homes safe.

We have to make sure that we bring up our boys with sensitivity and humility and not with a macho patriarchy. Do our families treat boys and girls the same way? Are we ensuring free choices to our daughters? Indian society needs change in all these attitudes. If a crime happens, the death penalty is not the answer, we need proper investigation. Women should feel confident to report on a crime that happens against them. Does a woman feel that confidence today?

SBC: Targeted violence, hate writing propaganda, witch hunting individuals. All these have become deeply polarizing issues in India now. Who are the responsible creators behind it? Especially via social media and digital space, a lot of hate has been spreading. What is the solution to it? How can we counter hate?

TS: Our organization CJP has a campaign against hate. We not only complain to authorities and police, we also try to build up on ground peace workers and communities who can have dialogue and debate with each other. Today at the district, city, village level who are the people who maintain contact with the local police station?

Right thinking Indians who believe in law and constitution are too scared to speak out now. If they came in contact with police they could be targeted. So nobody wants to hurt themselves by communicating with police. Inshort, people are afraid of police.

We need to foster a climate where citizens can collectively raise their voice against hate speech. The point is Indian investigative agencies and police do not see speech that insights violence as a crime which Indian law does!

It is very important to campaign on the whole issue of free speech, that is free speech is not hate speech. Free speech means to organize, protest, speak fearlessly and it should not be curtailed. Hate speech is to stigmatise, demonise, de/humanise, make already vulnerable sections open to physical harm, violence.

We have to understand the difference between free speech and hate speech. If my right gives the right to speak freely against anybody and that eventually curtails the rights of another person, that is not free speech.

The way I speak badly affects the fundamental right of another person in a targeted position to live with dignity, then there will be stigmatization and loss of dignity. In solution to this, we need to have campaigns on distinguishing between what is free speech and hate speech.

Apart from complaining to authorities, we need to develop a public understanding and campaigns against hate speech. Because when the damage of hate speech/ writings usually pose a threat to a particular targeted community, it demeans them and makes them prone to violence, and will make them unequal in a constitutional society.

It is not just that, if you continue to survive in a climate of hate that will continue affecting other sections of society too. Because once we weaponize and allow a mob mindset to control public discourse then we can not predict who will be their next target. Anybody/ any section would be their target, this is why we need proper adequate public campaigns against hatred.

Photo credits: Hindustan Times

SBC: I’ve learnt that the book ‘All the President’s men’ influenced you and that leads you to take journalism as a career. The Watergate scandal investigation leads to President Nixon’s resignation. When we come to India, if a journalist writes something against the ruling government, that person will be in jail. In such a context, In India, can a journalistic investigative work bring down the supreme person in power?

TS: There was a time in India when my grandfather Motilal Setalvad was India’s first attorney general. It was during that time the Mundhra scandal was being heard and it was a public hearing. A minister from the Nehru cabinet was involved in the scandal. It was a huge public scandal and the kind of coverage it got from the media, the kind of response it got from Nehru and his cabinet showed a certain accountability.

Today we live in a state in which so much propaganda is generated by the ruling party in government and sadly public money, tax payers money are being used for spreading this propaganda.

Most crucially, in a lived democracy, people have the right to question the government in power. And that sovereign right lies with the people, the constitution has given it to us.

Today it looks very unlikely from earlier times, that a public scandal will cause such an outrage and a person who holds power would resign. Why is this happening? One reason for that is the media. The Indian media does not do its job with a conscience, with a constitutional sense.

When we talk about ‘All the President’s Men’ book we are talking about two newspapers, The New York Times and The Washington Post, that together, one after another exposed the scandal and they were doing that with the spirit of what fourth estate must do.

Can you think about one newspaper or news channel that will rigorously pursue such type of investigative journalism now? I can’t find it. Even from those who claim ‘flagbearers of journalism’.

I think a lot of moral and actual responsibility for the dark times we are living in, is due to the abdication of Indian media towards truth.

Today we have all corporate ownership in the media industry, that is a harsh and monopoly way of handling policy assessments, the question of hunger, unemployment, lie factories generating hate and prejudice: Corporates (aiding the regime in power) are controlling the news desk and editorial rooms, so we can not expect that type of investigative journalism during this era.

However, true there are independent journalists and their news portals that are emerging and sadly they too are targeted.

Overall, this is a very difficult time for Indian democracy. We are witnessing a kind of fading away of Indian media. We have to find our spaces to express and it will be a test for Indians. Of Course we need a lot of investigative stories. There are journalists who really want to pursue them. But the question is will the established newspapers, news channels carry them? Where will the journalists go to get it published? That is the question to anybody who is concerned about the state of Indian democracy and media.

I think it would really do good for established newspapers to tell the truth. We know that TV channels are gone, but the established newspapers have a slightly different pattern of ownership. Why are they succumbing too? It’s a question we need to ask.

SBC: In 1997, you worked on Khoj which aims to rewrite sections of Indian school history and social textbooks in order to impart secular education to students. Do you think that there is a narrative to distort the historical facts in academics? Is it relevant to educate the students about the secular fabric of nation and tolerance?

TS: Distorting historical facts is a part of the political agenda by the state. It is proudly claimed by our regime that “we will rewrite our history”. Does our history represent every section of Indian people which is a democratic necessity for any central government?

Coming to the syllabus does this regime believe that it represents all sects of Indians? When I say all Indians i mean, does it represent the south- north-west-east people equally? Does it include non-hindi speaking sections? Also, does it represent the working sections of people, migrant and agricultural laborers? They have a history too.

My association with adivasis, forest dwellers helps me to find out that the adivasis, agrarians and tribals were the first to challenge British colonial rule in India long before 1857. We had 70-80 rebellions against the Britishers 100 years before 1857 all over the country. All those adivasis were protesting against the looting of colonial rule. Have we ever learned this part of history? These stories are not coming up in our academic syllabus.

We need to realize that the whole matter of projecting Indian history is a work in progress thing. Today we live under a regime who openly tells you and me that we will rewrite history. Is there any academic concern or not?

In the past too, there were exclusions and dark spots in history. We must allow minorities, Adivasis, forest dwellers, agrarians to tell their stories.

Are we ready to listen to them? Syllabus needs inclusion from all diversity. By doing this, eventually we can make the students aware about the real stories of untold India. The question is who will do that? We need to have a collective endeavour and process to protect constitutional values and principles.

The original piece may be read here


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