Teesta Setalvad tells the story of her crusade seeking justice for the victims of the 2002 Gujarat pogrom.
The 2002 Gujarat riot victims protest in Ahmedabad on the 13th anniversary of the 2002 pogrom
AN aggressive vilification campaign by the right wing has landed Teesta Setalvad in a situation where she is forced to divert her energy to protecting herself. The crusader who has relentlessly fought for justice for the marginalised and for minorities has been in recent times the target of attacks on her reputation and, in a few instances, on her life. She is one of the country’s most inexhaustible human rights activists and has tried hard to speak above the jingoistic nationalist din that appears to have taken over democratic India. Her attempts at justifying her work, mainly that of fighting the injustices that have rendered thousands violated, homeless and helpless, have often been dismissed or ignored by the mainstream media. Consequently, the debate has sadly gone silent—definitely a blow to the movement against communalism.
But Teesta Setalvad is not one to be put down. She makes herself heard in her book Foot Solder of the Constitution: A Memoir. The book is a testimony to the many controversies she combats and reflects her indomitable spirit in the face of the many curveballs thrown her way. The book makes it clear that Teesta Setalvad’s fight is not just about Gujarat. It is a battle for justice and for upholding the principles of the Constitution.
It comes out at a time when Teesta Setalvad and her husband, Javed Anand, are fighting a battle to defend their integrity. The couple have been accused of misappropriation of funds raised for a museum in memory of those who lost their lives in the 2002 Gulberg Society carnage. In this book Teesta Setalvad tells her story boldly and honestly.
Teesta Setalvad and her husband, Javed Anand, in August 2015 outside the CBI office in Mumbai where they had been called for questioning in connection with the FCRA violation case. Photo:VIVEK BENDRE
She begins her narrative by speaking about her exposure to communalism as a young journalist. She chronicles three major communal riots—Bhiwandi (1984), Ayodhya/Babri Masjid (1992-93), and the Gujarat riots (2002). The account of the Gujarat riots is meticulously researched and chilling. Her introduction to Gujarat, the State’s deep-rooted communal bias and how it all began is riveting, particularly for those who ask “why Gujarat?”
She writes: “In July 1991, I did a State-wide report on the surge of entrenched communal conflict in Gujarat.The BJP had, at that time taken out the Rath Yatra… I visited six or seven cities within the State, taking the intra-city trains. One conversation on one of these train journeys remained with me. It was with a Gujarati Hindu businessman. He was gleeful at the growing popularity of the aggressive and violent organisations that owed their allegiance to the ideology of Hindutva and the Hindu Rashtra. ‘They have removed the fear within the Gujarati to fight and kill, to take to violence. That is good,’ he said.”
Later, in the chapter titled “Opening”, she says: “Now since 2014 we have entered the age of the Gau Rakshak or Cow Taliban. What is happening across India was pioneered in Gujarat sixteen years ago. It is where the Cow Taliban mastered its acts of targeted violence.”
With Zakia Jafri and her son, Tanveer Jafri, at a panel discussion on the Gulberg Society carnage case, in New Delhi in May 2013. Photo:Shanker Chakravarty
The memoir is divided into four chapters: “Opening”, “Roots”, “Let Hindus give vent” and “Being their target”. The first two chapters trace her early years and include delightful anecdotes about her college years and her brush with activism then. She writes about becoming a journalist rather than a fourth-generation lawyer and her shift from mainstream reporting to starting the magazine Communalism Combat with Javed Anand, and about what eventually propels her into seeking justice for victims of mass communal crimes.
Teesta Setalvad belongs to a prominent and highly respected Mumbai-based Gujarati family. Her grandfather, M.C. Setalvad, was India’s first Attorney General and founder of the Bar Council of India. Her great-grandfather Chimanlal Setalvad was a contemporary of Motilal Nehru. Her father, Atul Setalvad, was a Mumbai-based lawyer.
Teesta Setalvad writes about her close association with the eminent Supreme Court lawyers Fali Nariman and H.M. Seervai, India’s foremost constitutional experts who advise her and keep her on track.
Unapologetic of her privileged background, and in fact proud of the larger-than-life figures in her life, she writes with nostalgia of her growing-up years, in particular her father’s deep influence in shaping her. She says: “Bombay had opposed the horrors of the Emergency both on the streets and even within its institutions…. All our homes had been seats of hectic parleying and meetings. I remember Atul telling me not to worry about studies but to campaign against the Emergency and the Congress party.”
She reiterates throughout the book that her faith in the Constitution is absolute. She believes that democracy cannot work without strong institutions that adhere to constitutional principles. The past 15 years have been tumultuous for Teesta Setalvad, but her tone is even as she lets incidents speak for themselves. Her frustrations and disappointments do break through at times, but her research is meticulous always and her journalistic experience ensures that the reports are factual. She writes about visits to Delhi in 2001 to appeal to Fali Nariman to consider public interest intervention in the Supreme Court as her documentation was pointing to a disaster in the making in Gujarat: “I pleaded with fellow activists as well as senior politicians and bureaucrats to train their lens on the State. I had absolutely no idea what form or shape the disaster would take but [it] was eerily clear that, given the planning and build-up, something ghastly, and irretrievable would happen.” She repeatedly acknowledges the support and encouragement she gets from a range of family, friends and associates.
With Javed Anand at a rally to condemn violence against Dalits and Muslims by vigilante squads in the name of cow protection, in August 2016. Photo:Vivek Bendre
While the first two chapters set the scene for Teesta Setalvad’s crusade, the third and fourth chapters get to the heart of it. With a group of intellectuals, she set up Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) as a first step in the battle for justice. At the start of the chapter “‘Let Hindus give vent’”, she says: “If Bombay ten years ago was bad, then Gujarat is one thousand times worse.”
About the start of her legal battle, she writes: “Within days of the coverage , a resolve shaped into a dogged commitment based on the dual experiences: of having lived through Bombay 1992-1993 and now Gujarat 2002: mere documentation and advocacy and campaigning on the targeted mass crimes that exposed bitter fault lines of bias and prejudice in our institutions of democracy and governance would not be enough. It was time to test the criminal justice system, from several angles; can justice ever be done when mass violence happens?.”
The compelling narrative makes this chapter a definite page-turner with its detailed description of the violence that spread across Gujarat. Teesta Setalvad, by virtue of being very well known in Gujarat, virtually functioned as a “control room” during the weeks of rioting. She provides information that is new and shocking even for those who consistently followed the communal pogrom.
She does not hesitate to take on former Gujarat Chief Minister and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Along with the slain Ehsan Jafri’s (former Member of Parliament) family, she accuses him of complicity in the Gulberg Society killings.
She has faced not just a protracted legal battle but has been the target of nothing less than a witch-hunt. Ever since the CJP began taking on riot victims’ cases, she and her team have been accused of tutoring and kidnapping witnesses (Zahira Sheikh, 2004), submitting false affidavits (2010) and financial embezzlement (2014). She was almost arrested in 2015 and her bank accounts remain frozen.
The final chapter, “Being their target”, provides details of the harassment: threatening and abusive phone calls and insults and abuse that came from all quarters, including Supreme Court lawyers. The mainstream media, once supportive of her, changed its tone to insulting. There are hints of despair in this last chapter as there is no end in sight as yet to the suffering. The Zakia Jafri case and the Gulberg museum case are still in court.
But Teesta Setalvad will not go down without a fight. She does not spare any details in speaking of the Gulberg massacre case, the damning evidence collected by her team and the inefficiency of the Special Task Force (STF). She justifies the museum project and leaves it to the reader to understand that it was an honest effort that went awry.
There have been just over a 100 convictions in the riots that killed 790 (official number) people (activists say thousands actually died). It has been widely agreed that if it were not for Teesta Setalvad, even this number would not have been found guilty. The book could have been voluminous given Teesta Setalvad’s experiences and research, but she keeps it an easy read which makes it accessible to a larger audience. It is an inspiring story, a handbook for activists that gives the true picture of communal incidents that have been a blot on India’s history.
While Teesta Setalvad does narrate the constitutional failure of the executive, the legislature, the judiciary and the media in the book, she does not give up hope. Truly a foot soldier, she continues to march on even in the direct line of fire.
Also available as e-book here.
The Law, Public Ethics and Family – the Influences on Teesta Setalvad
This excerpt from Foot Soldier of the Constitution: A Memoir delves into the activist’s roots, explores how her family shaped her childhood and the role Parsis have played in her life.
We had a good childhood. Always in Bombay, living by the sea in Juhu.
I was born in Purandare Hospital on Chowpatty in 1962. My mother had gone to her parent’s home for my birth. My maternal grandparents had a small flat in Girgaon. My sister and I were both born in the same place – she after me. My parents were second cousins. My mother’s side of the family was clearly middle class. My maternal grandfather worked in an insurance company and I spent many weekends with my maternal grandparents at Temple View, often donning a cap to watch the races at Mahalaxmi where Bakukaka – as my maternal grandfather was called by all of us – took me. My sister and I were both father’s pets. My relationship with my mother was turbulent, but I nonetheless always carried some sound values, my grounding, from her. For instance, that the value of money can and should never be taken for granted.
My parents lived at our present home at Juhu Tara Road in Mumbai before I was born. The bungalow where my father and I were born was next to the one we now live in, where we moved in 1965. It was where my grandfather M. C. Setalvad, the eldest son of Sir Chimanlal Setalvad, had moved in 1933. My grandfather was the eldest son of ten siblings. He preferred the wide-open spaces of Juhu with a view of the sea. It was better for him than the family home, which also had a sea view, at Nepean Sea Road – the home of his father – in South Bombay.
The road on which the house sits is now called Setalvad Lane. At the time of the Setalvad shift into Juhu, the British government was offering incentives for moves of residents, northwards.
My grandfather – M. C. Setalvad or Dada – was India’s first attorney general, having served from 1950 to 1963. He was the first chairman of the Bar Council of India, founded in 1961. He was also the voice of the government in the United Nations (vociferously making the case on Kashmir, for instance, after Pakistan’s invasion in October 1948). He was a stoic man who loved children and had a piquant sense of humour. Dada was a great lover of the outdoors and chose his homes around that passion – by the sea or up in the Ootacamund hills. He would come away to Bombay and Ooty from Delhi for four or five months of the year….
Dada was very disciplined. One memory I retain of him is his regular evening walks across our lawn. It always felt very special to walk along with him on these strolls. I took my first steps (just past three-years-old) in the Ooty home. He had this habit of walking with his hands behind him and I would imitate him. There is a photograph in the family album where he and I are walking together, and I, a sixth of his height (he was a tall man), have my hands crossed behind my back in careful mimicry. I was 12 when he died on August 1, 1974. He was afflicted with fever for just a few days.
There were many stories about Dada and Chimanlalkaka that we heard about as we grew up.Chimanlal Setalvad, Dada’s father, was a contemporary of Motilal Nehru. He was one of the eminent Indians on the Hunter Commission, which investigated the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. His role in cross-examining General Dyer was a favourite anecdote in the family. Here is an extract of the exchange:
Chimanlal Setalvad: You took two armoured cars with you?
Chimanlal Setalvad: Those cars had machine guns?
Chimanlal Setalvad: And when you took them you meant to use the machine guns against the crowd, did you?
Dyer: If necessary. If the necessity arose, and I was attacked, or anything else like that, I presume I would have used them.
Chimanlal Setalvad: When you arrived there you were not able to take the armoured cars in because the passage was too narrow?
Chimanlal Setalvad: Supposing the passage was sufficient to allow the armoured cars to go in, would you have opened fire with the machine guns?
Dyer: I think, probably, yes.
Chimanlal Setalvad: In that case the casualties would have been very much higher?
Chimanlal Setalvad: And you did not open fire with the machine guns simply by the accident of the armoured cars not being able to get in?
Dyer: I have answered you. I have said that if they had been there the probability is that I would have opened fire with them.
Chimanlal Setalvad: With the machine guns straight?
Dyer: With the machine guns.
Chimanlal Setalvad: I take it that your idea in taking that action was to strike terror?
Dyer: Call it what you like. I was going to punish them. My idea from the military point of view was to make a wide impression.
Chimanlal Setalvad: To strike terror not only in the city of Amritsar, but throughout the Punjab?
Dyer: Yes, throughout the Punjab. I wanted to reduce their morale; the morale of the rebels.
Chimanlal Setalvad: Did it occur to you that by adopting this method of ‘frightfulness’ – excuse the term – you were really doing a great disservice to the British Raj by driving discontent deep?
Dyer: I did not like the idea of doing it, but I also realised that it was the only means of saving life and that any reasonable man with justice in his mind would realise that I had done the right thing; it was a merciful though horrible act and they ought to be thankful to me for doing it. I thought I would be doing a jolly lot of good and they would realise that they were not to be wicked.
History has adjudged that it was Chimanlal’s cross-examination that actually pinned Dyer down. When the British on the Hunter Commission would not go along with the facts, the Indians on the commission filed a separate report (it was drafted by Chimanlal Setalvad).
Dada had an abiding interest in historical studies, and in the history of law in particular. The values of parity and nondiscrimination – basic constitutional values – were very important to him. Even more important, however, was faith in the law itself. He believed that the fundamental rights granted by the law would or should become reality at some point. Dada occupied many important posts in post-Independent India and each post he held became a place for him to enact his values.
As a child, I remember meeting Sheikh Abdullah when we had gone to Kashmir. He had been a close colleague of my grandfather and had lived with us when he was underground. The betrayal of Sheikh Abdullah’s cause by Nehru framed how we saw the Kashmir problem…. Then there was the visit and audience with the Dalai Lama when we went to Dharamsala as ordinary tourists; the evening when we had tea together was special. These visits were a benchmark for me – showing me where we came from and what we had to fight to get. It was awe-inspiring and also humbling as we sat in the presence of these people, awkwardly squirming.
My father – Atul Setalvad – was the younger of two siblings. My sister and I always called him ‘Atul’ – not Papa or Daddy. This was at his insistence. He was an innately egalitarian man who rejected hierarchy in all things. As we grew older, we would rile him by calling him ‘Paaaapa’ with an exaggerated Gujju accent. He hated it.
Atul’s sister Usha, 13 years older than him, died relatively early in 1983. She lost her husband nine years before her death. She had been active in the freedom movement, organising girls and women in Tara village as part of the satyagraha campaign. My father had gone to prison for a day at that time.
….While the Setalvad name and heritage had been so much a part of our growing up, we did not have much contact with our extended family. Family for us comprised of our grandparents, paternal aunt Usha and her husband Sundar, as well as a large number of family friends – who always were and remain our real family.
Among them is Priti Desai. Her story influenced me as a child and as a woman. The Desai family came from Gamdevi, a street dividing my mother’s family home and their home. Preeti and my mother went together to the New Era School, steeped in the traditions and values of the national movement. There were four sisters and one brother in the Desai family. None of the sisters married because the dowry in their mid-level Gujarati caste was too high. So, in what must have been a radical and painful choice, after much deliberation, the sisters decided never to get married. The brother, Asit, was the only one to marry amongst the siblings….
For the Desais, the world was vast and challenging, not inward looking: they looked at the world from Palestine to Ireland with shared human concerns. I would receive long notes from Preeti and Bindu, with newspaper clippings from difficult to get Left foreign publications, on the struggle in Ireland, Palestine and various African countries. I had a vibrant childhood that spanned the five thousand-book library that my father built at home to this wider mentoring and education from family friends. I still recall the books that Navroz Seervai would send me to read as I matured into womanhood. One, in particular, The Scalpel, The Sword, on the journey of the communist doctor Norman Bethune through conflict-ridden China and Spain, marked me.
Ma has always been fond of classical music, especially stalwarts like Kesarbai Kelkar. This was a passion she shared with Preeti. My mother – Sita – and Preeti continued to be close friends after my parents married. They would often go to music concerts together. My father was the Desais’ best friend. The Desais became part of our childhood….
My mother and father got married on April 27, 1959, through a civil marriage, another radical first in those days. Atul was an unashamed atheist and self-proclaimed beef eater. He would taunt my mother on issues of religion, saying that they should marry on amavasya – the moonless first day of the lunar month. A marriage on that day would have been a clarion call, a tempting of the fates as it were.
Ma put her foot down by quietly agreeing to the civil ceremony. For her, ritual and religion is part of a whole, never entirely wished away, even if her commitment to it is far from all consuming. She did manage to ensure that my father bowed to her wishes to the extent of visiting the Hanuman mandir at Santacruz for a quick round every Saturday morning.
My father and mother had both been sent to Gujarati medium schools in the best traditions of the national movement. Atul went to Pupil’s Own, a school started during the independence movement in a small abode in Ville Parle, which then moved to Khar.
His friends from school included Dileep Purohit, Dilip Dalal and Hamir Doshi. They made up a jolly foursome who stayed close to the end. My father had this unique and rare capacity to keep and stay in touch with all his friends, even if their paths had diverged.
Friday morning before court at the Neo Coffee House is where they would often gather.
My father’s friends would include his colleagues from the bar – including his juniors. Sam Bharucha – Samkaka or Sammy to us – joined the Bench at the Bombay high court and rose to become the Chief Justice of India. The moment Bharucha was elevated to the bench my father simply stopped appearing before him; those were the ethics by which we were born and bred. H. M. Seervai was India’s constitutional expert. He was also a wonderful humourist and conversationalist.
Seervaikaka would sit with us children and have us in wonderment at his antics. He had the unique ability of performing a weird kind of act, maintaining a poker straight face even as his ears twitched and trembled. It was awe-inspiring. Sammy and Perin Bharucha, Rusi and Arnoo Sethna, the Desais, Seervaikaka, Pheroza aunty and the family – especially Navroz – were prominent figures in our lives: people with whom we went on holiday.…
I remember always feeling that of all communities, Parsis have played a huge role in our life, especially the growing up years. It is not surprising then, that in public life, when people are unable to place me through the name that bears no label of community or caste – I am often dubbed a Parsi!
Atul’s young colleagues also became part of our family. The list is long. Mohan Korde, Kasim Master, Rafique Dada and Darius Shroff. One person – Ravi Kulkarni – stands out, as he has remained the most special. His romance and marriage to the middle of three vivacious sisters, Shakuntala, was a great source of excitement and thrill for us onlookers at the budding romance.
My sister and I are deeply influenced by the way Atul related to women colleagues. He was extremely egalitarian in the way he engaged with women in the family, with women friends socially and also women in the legal profession.…
Indira Jaisingh, who is now a friend, and my father would sit in the quadrangle of our lawn and have intense discussions….
It was not all law and the courts, though. I remember the excitement when a distant family acquaintance by marriage (Mayur Madhwani) married the actor Mumtaz, and we actually got to attend the reception at the Sun-n-Sand hotel in Juhu! We were watching and counting the celebrities: I remember Dimple and Kaka Rajesh Khanna, Dimple had just then starred in Bobby (1973). Once I was with my friend Vinita Vaid at Carter Road, Bandra, on our morning walk, when we encountered the flamboyant poet Harendranath Chattopadhyay. Vilayat Khan – the sitar maestro – was part of our lives, as was his family. I flirted with learning the sitar though never very seriously, I must admit….
Family holidays and family time were sacrosanct for us…. The Diwali and December holidays were in Delhi as my grandfather – Dada – was a member of parliament after his long tenure as India’s attorney general. Shorter sojourns were with my mother’s maternal uncle in Ahmedabad. The idea of a family holiday remained with me and despite the pressures on Javed and myself we have always tried to do this for our kids and ourselves.
The law, public ethics and family: these are the influences on me. Examples of commitment and integrity from my larger family have stood me in good stead, as the challenges life has thrown at me have demanded that I dig deep into these reserves.
The sea and its tides outside our house in Bombay have been a close companion and abiding friend. When tumultuous questions, great anger and resentment bubbles within me, I turn to the sea. It somehow reflects my moods: the lashing, forceful waves on a moonlit night at high tide or the serene low tide spectacle of the beach with the sea ready to come in or else the light of the moon reflecting on the water. In calm anticipation.