A civil society struggling to come to terms with the Supreme Court verdict in the Zakia Jafri case hit the streets on Monday against the arrest of human rights activist Teesta Setalvad and whistleblower police officer R.B. Sreekumar by Gujarat police.
During a protest on Jantar Mantar Road here, several Opposition politicians and civil society members asserted a citizen’s right to seek redress of injustice
“What it (the verdict) means for people like me is that the Supreme Court is saying, ‘Do not come to us for justice’,” scientist Gauhar Raza said.
“It also sends out the message that we are capable of turning a petitioner into an accused; and that if under the leadership of the chief minister a carnage is organised, then the political party, government machinery and perpetrators would be safe.”
Delhi University professor Apoorvanand said: “It is the quest for justice that is being criminalised…. This order will have a chilling effect.”
The apex court had on Friday accepted a special investigation team’s findings and upheld a clean chit to then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi and 63 others. Zakia had levelled charges of a larger conspiracy behind the 2002 violence.
In the context of the conspiracy allegations, the court spoke of a “devious stratagem to keep the pot boiling… for ulterior design”, which has been cited by the Gujarat police to justify the arrests of Setalvad and Sreekumar.
In attendance at the Jantar Mantar rally were Jairam Ramesh and Ajay Maken of the Congress, which has been accused of lukewarm opposition to the verdict and the police action despite Zakia’s slain husband Ehsan having been a former Congress MP.
Maken said: “The Congress is standing with all the Opposition parties who are in support of Teesta Setalvad. We are against her arrest. Everyone who is raising a voice is being arrested. It is the right of every citizen to point towards the wrongdoings of the government.”
Cadres from the CPM and CPIML Liberation, which were among the first to condemn the arrests, were present in large numbers.
Maimoona Mollah, president of the CPM-backed Janwadi Mahila Samiti, Delhi, said: “This is an attack on democracy. It is an attack on protests…. Those who go against the government are considered guilty and the judiciary is also playing to the gallery.”
Sucheta De, Delhi state committee member of the CPIML Liberation’s All India Central Council of Trade Unions, said: “History will ask who these judges were who refused to entertain the petition against the murderers, but sent those who were seeking justice behind bars.”
In Ranchi, CPI-ML national general secretary Dipankar Bhattacharya described the arrest as unfortunate. "Teesta Setalvad has a national and international reputation for her activism in anti-communal campaigns and fight for justice for the victims of the 2002 Gujarat riots. The arrest is like a warning to individuals and organisations active on such issues. We, on behalf of the civil society and the Left parties, condemn this arrest," Bhattacharya said, taking part in a protest staged by the Left parties along with civil society groups and human rights outfits near Jharkhand’s Raj Bhavan in Ranchi as part of a state-wide agitation.
The Working Group of Human Rights in India and the United Nations, of which Setalvad is a member, said in a statement: “As India is to appear before the UN Human Rights Council for its fourth review under the UN’s Universal Periodic Review in November 2022, the government will be required to respond to the comments and recommendations from UN member states on the issue of human rights defenders.
“WGHR calls for the immediate release of its member Teesta Setalvad. It also calls for the release of R.B. Sreekumar and Sanjiv Bhatt. The systematic targeting of human rights defenders by the Indian State must stop.”
Bhatt, a former IPS officer who had accused Modi of allowing the 2002 violence against Muslims, is serving a life sentence over a custody death.
On Sunday, the UN special rapporteur on human rights defenders, Mary Lawlor, had tweeted: “Deeply concerned by reports of #WHRD Teesta Setalvad being detained by Anti Terrorism Squad of Gujarat police. Teesta is a strong voice against hatred and discrimination. Defending human rights is not a crime. I call for her release and an end to persecution by #Indian state.”
A statement signed by more than 2,200 people has protested the arrests of Setalvad and Sreekumar. Among the signatories are the former navy chief, Admiral Ramdas, Congress MP Kumar Ketkar, actress Shabana Azmi, dancer Mallika Sarabhai, authors Gita Hariharan and Shamshul Islam, former Planning Commission member Syeda Hameed, former diplomat Madhu Bhandari, and former IAS officer and activist Aruna Roy.
“The State has now used the observations made in the judgment to falsely and vindictively prosecute those who had struggled for justice even in the face of State callousness and complicity,” the statement said.
“It is truly an Orwellian situation of the lie becoming the truth, when those who fought to establish the truth of what happened in the Gujarat genocide of 2002 are being targeted.”
They added: “We condemn this naked and brazen attempt to silence and criminalise those who stand for constitutional values and who have struggled against very difficult odds to try to achieve justice for the victims of 2002. We demand that this false and vindictive FIR be taken back unconditionally and Teesta Setalvad and others detained under this FIR be released immediately.”
The Samyukta Kisan Morcha, which led the yearlong farmers’ protest against three now-repealed central agricultural laws, said: “…Human rights activist Teesta Setalvad who fought for justice for the victims of 2002 Gujarat riots, and former administrative officer R.B. Sreekumar, were also arrested on 26 June. Simultaneously, another case has been registered against former IPS officer Sanjiv Bhatt. We strongly oppose and condemn this dictatorial behaviour by the Union government.”
The Delhi Union of Journalists, National Alliance of Journalists and the Mumbai Press Club too have condemned the arrests.