Feb 13 2015 : The Economic Times (Mumbai)
Cursor - Stop Harassing Teesta Setalvad
Indian democracy has gained significantly from the actions of the activist couple.
They deserve to be hailed as heroes, not harassed as criminals Offence is the best form of defence, it is true. But that still leaves such defensive use of offence pretty offensive on occasion, especially when it is employed by the all-powerful state against an individual. As in the case of lawyer-activist Teesta Setalvad, who has been waging a long and difficult battle against the perpetrators of the 2002 Gujarat riots and finds herself at the receiving end of charges of embezzlement and worse.
It is welcome that the Supreme Court has stayed the arrest of Ms Setalvad and her husband Javed Anand, after the Gujarat High Court denied them anticipatory bail in a case arising from a charge that the couple diverted money meant for riot victims. Policemen from Gujarat landed up at their home in Mumbai.
In India, communal riots had been very common in the seventies and the eighties. There was a lull, in the nineties, after intense rioting in the wake of the demolition of the Babri mosque.Some sporadic riots broke out towards the end of the decade. Then came the killings in Gujarat, in 2002. Riots have been many , conviction of those who killed, raped and pillaged during the course of the riots, few.
And this is where the Gujarat riots stand out. Over 120 people have been convicted so far, including Maya Kodnani, a minister in the state government then headed by Narendra Modi. These convictions took place only because of valiant persistence on the part of victims and activists.Their vigilance and activism ensured that the Supreme Court monitored investigations and trial proceedings.And foremost among the activists stands Teesta Setalvad.
The charge of embezzlement of funds had been raised against her in the past, the case investigated and dropped when found false. The case has been raked up again, in the background of Setalvad and her Campaign for Justice and Peace pursuing the appeal against the lower court order that gave a clean chit to chief minister Narendra Modi, based on the report of a Special Investigation Team.
The charges against her are that the money collected by the trust for the benefit of the victims has been used to pay personal credit card bills and that a sum exceeding Rs 1 crore has been diverted from the fund. The credit card bills certainly contain personal items of expenditure, but the money taken from the trust was used to pay for travel between Delhi, Mumbai and Ahmedabad for fighting the cases and related expenses, and for paying their salaries as employees of the trust.The diversion of funds of the order of magnitude of a crore turns out to be a simple case of the money having been put in a fixed deposit in the name of the trust to earn a higher rate of interest, before being returned to the trust's savings account, along with the interest earned.
Setalvad and Anand run two trusts and their accounts are meticulously audited by reputed chartered accountants. There is absolutely no call to arrest anyone to investigate the veracity of the charges against the activist couple. The sole purpose of the case and the threat of arrest is to con sume their time and energies in defending their own liberty, instead of pursuing the legal battle relating to the riots.The cause of securing justice in the Gujarat riots and the larger cause of advancing Indian democracy have both gained significantly from the actions of the activist couple. They deserve to be hailed as heroes, not harassed as criminals.
On May 16, 2014, the Supreme Court of India set aside a conviction by the Gujarat High Court of six Muslims for alleged involvement in the attack on the Akshardham temple in September 2002. The Court named police officers responsible for picking up and framing six innocent people, torturing them and fabricating evidence.
The government of Gujarat has not so far acted on this damning verdict.
If the state's policing energies have to be spent on anything, it is on acting against these policemen who violated the Constitution, their oath of office and maimed the lives of six people, not on tormenting human rights activists who advance the cause of justice and democracy .