Teesta Setalvad, a Mumbai-based journalist, who, like former IAS officer Harsh Mander, shot to national and international fame due to high profile activism over the post-Godhra riots in Gujarat in March 2002, has been unmasked in a most unseemly manner. Over the past decade, Setalvad survived controversies with former protégé Zahira Sheikh and employee Rais Khan Pathan, besides a Gujarat Government investigation into illegal exhumation of graves, thanks to unstinted backing from the media, the Supreme Court, the Congress and the UPA Government.
But now she has fallen foul of the residents of Gulbarg Society whose cause she vociferously espoused. Setalvad has been publicly accused of the same crime that Best Bakery survivor Zahira Sheikh once accused her of — collecting money in the name of the riot victims and failing (or refusing) to distribute (or even share) it. She overcame the dispute with Zahira by demonising the young girl, but now residents of Gulbarg Society have sent her a notice demanding that she distribute the funds she collected among the riot victims. Relations have soured to the point that Setalvad failed to attend the memorial service for victims this year.
The residents (all Muslims) are demanding that the money “collected over the dead bodies of those who died in this society” must be divided among the riot victims as it “has been taken in our name”. Claiming that the residents were unaware that a trust had been formed for making the collections, they said that what the human rights activist had done “amounts to cheating”.
The dispute goes back to 2006 when Setalvad proposed to purchase the 5,200-square-metre Gulbarg Society land from the residents to set up a museum. The deal failed to materialise, but Setalvad’s Trust collected donations, which the residents say must be distributed among riot victims.
This is not Teflon Teesta’s first brush with controversy. Former aide Rais Khan Pathan accused her of tampering with witness affidavits when at least six women of Naroda Gam denied before the Supreme Court-appointed Special Investigation Team in 2008 that they were raped during the riots. The witnesses said they did not know this was being said in the affidavits as the documents were in English, a language they were not familiar with.
More recently, in January 2013, Rais Khan accused Setalvad’s NGO, Citizens for Justice and Peace, of violating the provisions of the Foreign Contributions Regulations Act regarding receipts of funds from abroad. He demanded cancellation of CJP’s FCRA registration and initiation of criminal proceedings against its trustees.
Pathan averred that CJP’s FCRA permission was under the economic and education categories, but the NGO had no such activities. Infact, CJP, as per its constitution is a non-political, registered social organisation established to promote communal harmony, make legal interventions to prosecute those guilty of killing innocent citizens and assist others petitioning before the courts for redressal of grievances.
Setalvad’s worst victim by far is young Zahira Sheikh who, like Rehmatnagar tailor Qutbuddin Ansari, was projected as the female face of the Gujarat riots, and exploited to the hilt to demonise Chief Minister Narendra Modi, while building the profiles and careers to his tormentors.
Now, as voices against Setalvad’s functioning get louder, it may be in order to mention some facts. Zahira Sheikh lost several family members in the attack on the Best Bakery, owned by them. Zahira’s testimony in the Vadodara fast-track court in June 2003 led to the acquittal of 21 accused persons. But in July 2003, she was airlifted to Mumbai where she was warmly received by Javed Akhtar; here she claimed she had testified out of fear.
Setalvad then whipped up great frenzy, drawing the National Human Rights Commission into the fray. The NHRC asked the Supreme Court to transfer the riot cases out of Gujarat. The Supreme Court duly obliged by sending the Zahira Sheikh and Bilkis Bano cases to Mumbai and directing the Gujarat Government to re-examine all other cases.
Then, in 2005, Zahira Sheikh accused Teesta Setalvad of physically controlling her from July 6, 2003 to November 3, 2004 and tutoring her to give a certain type of testimony in court. She said the affidavit submitted to the NHRC in the name of Zahira Sheikh by Setalvad (600-odd pages of documentation) was unsigned! They were, Zahira sneered, mere pamphlets.
In other words, the NHRC and the Supreme Court had acted without scrutinizing the documents – that is, without legal basis. Unfortunately, Zahira was denied the right to cross-examine the then NHRC chairperson AS Anand when she said that an oral testimony given to the chairman and two members of the Commission differed from the record NHRC presented to the Supreme Court. This was a serious allegation, but it was brushed aside by the Apex Court which continued to give a free run to Setalvad.
Zahira Sheikh was the first to demand a probe into Teesta Setalvad’s post-Gujarat assets. Instead, the Apex Court appointed a probe committee headed by Registrar General BM Gupta and punished the feisty victim for perjury, startling even senior jurists. The Court also ignored reports beginning to emerge in the media about witnesses claiming to have received money for giving testimony in the post-Godhra trial cases.
As if this were not enough, in December 2005 Teesta Setalvad illegally exhumed bodies of Gujarat riot victims from graves near Pandarwada. When the State Government initiated action against her on grounds of fabricating false evidence, tampering with evidence, criminal conspiracy and outraging religious feelings, the apex court stayed criminal proceedings against her and called it a mala fide case and a “spurious” case to victimise Setalvad.
Teesta Setalvad has been richly rewarded for her activism with a plethora of national and international awards, including the Nuremberg Human Rights Award 2003, Parliamentarians for Global Action ‘Defender of Democracy’ Award, jointly with Helen Clark, Prime Minister of New Zealand 2004; M.A. Thomas National Human Rights Award from the Vigil India Movement 2004, Nani A Palkhivala Award 2006, and Padma Shri 2007.
But now her aura of greatness is beginning to falter. With her, the National Human Rights Commission and the Supreme Court cannot evade public scrutiny of their actions and attitudes in the Gujarat riots cases. The young orphan, Zahira Sheikh, was made to suffer terrible victimization, and has since vanished into oblivion; she deserves a public apology and decent compensation.
It is also imperative that the accounts of Setalvad, and indeed all NGOs associated with the Gujarat riots, are audited to see how much money they collected and what relief was actually distributed to the victims.