Modi-hater rights activist is now a target of BJP government
MUMBAI: One of India’s
best-known human rights activists, Teesta Setalvad, was brewing her morning tea
on July 14 when she got a telephone call from her security guard. “CBI is at
the gate, ma’am,” the guard said, referring to the Central Bureau of Investigation.
Before long, 16 agents
were searching her family’s compound on the shore of the Arabian Sea in Juhu,
an upscale suburb of Mumbai. They searched all day, then all night, poring over
Ms Setalvad’s diaries, opening her jewellery boxes, digging through the linen
closet. Not even the bedroom drawers of Setalvad’s daughter escaped scrutiny.
The agents finally called it quits at sunrise, leaving with a haul of 3,179
Few critics have
pursued the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, more doggedly than Setalvad,
the driving force behind an unrelenting campaign to hold Modi criminally
responsible for riots in 2002 that killed more than 1,000 people in Gujarat,
the state Modi ran before becoming prime minister.
But on the eve of court
proceedings that could leave Modi facing criminal charges for the riots, it is Setalvad
who is feeling the heat from his government. In the past few months, as she has
assembled evidence in the case, Setalvad has been discredited, financially
drained and nearly overwhelmed by a merciless campaign of leaks and attacks
emanating from entities controlled by Modi or his political allies.
First came the raid by
the Central Bureau of Investigation, nicknamed “the caged parrot” for its
history of doing the bidding of its political masters.
Days later, a
prosecutor branded Setalvad a threat to India’s national security, so dangerous
that she should be locked up while the Modi government investigates whether it
was legal for her to accept funding from the Ford Foundation.
Soon after, the state
of Gujarat joined the rush to jail Setalvad, recipient of one of India’s
highest honors, the Padmashree Award. The state filed an affidavit in India’s
Supreme Court accusing her and her husband, Javed Anand, of perpetrating a
“colossal fraud” — to wit, raising $1.1 million “in the name of riot victims”
only to siphon most of it to pay themselves exorbitant salaries and splurge on
The affidavit, while
neglecting to mention that the Ford Foundation and other funders have found no
evidence of financial wrongdoing, dwelled at length on the couple’s
“conspicuous consumption,” noting, for example, that they had eaten at a
Subway, and, in boldface type, describing the purchase of sanitary napkins.
To Setalvad and a
growing chorus of supporters, the prosecutorial flurry is a pretext to
humiliate and silence a prominent critic. Mihir S. Sharma, a columnist for The
Business Standard, called it a vendetta that “looks like it’s being directed by
Francis Ford Coppola.”
In news outlets
sympathetic to Modi, however, the recent legal barrage is portrayed as an
overdue comeuppance for an “anti-Hindu hatemonger”, who uses foreign money to
spread “antinational propaganda.” The public outcry, Modi’s allies argue, only
proves that Setalvad is once again using her celebrity — in Indian newspaper
headlines she is often simply “Teesta” — to shield herself from legitimate
“If she has nothing to
hide, she has nothing to fear,” said Nalin S Kohli, a spokesman for Modi’s
Bharatiya Janata Party.
For now, thanks to
favorable judicial rulings, Setalvad and her husband remain free. But the
damage to their cause has been considerable, she acknowledged during an
interview at her home. Their organisations’ bank accounts have been frozen,
their passports have been seized, their family savings are dwindling and they
cannot afford to pay their lawyers. Worst of all, she said, they are so busy
defending themselves — they have turned over 25,000 pages of financial records
— that they have been distracted from their pursuit of Modi.
“It is a very heavy
cost,” she said. “But at the moment, I’m still not thinking of backing away. It
is too far down the road to back down.”
The Ford Foundation has
also paid a steep price for its association with Setalvad. Since 2004, it has
given $540,000 to Setalvad’s organisations, a small fraction of the $500
million it has spread to hundreds of groups here over the past six decades.
According to Setalvad and the Ford Foundation, the money supported specific
projects, like building an online archive of human rights cases. None of the
money was used to build legal cases against Modi and other Gujarat officials, a
point Ms. Setalvad and foundation officials say they have repeatedly made to
government investigators who suspect Ford money was improperly diverted to fund
Even so, the foundation
suddenly found itself the subject of damaging leaks to Indian news
organizations. Starting in March, and continuing into summer, foundation
officials learned from news accounts that they were under investigation by the
federal Ministry of Home Affairs; that the state of Gujarat was accusing them of
“abetting communal disharmony”; that new restrictions were being placed on
foundation bank accounts; and that the government would have to approve any new
governments have taken steps to curb the influence of foreign-funded nongovernmental
organizations perceived as overly adversarial. But the Modi government’s
actions were enough to provoke a rare public rebuke from Richard R. Verma, the
United States ambassador to India, who said during a speech in New Delhi in May
that he was worried about “the potentially chilling effects” of India’s
crackdown on the Ford Foundation and other nongovernmental organizations.
Setalvad, 53, comes
from eight generations of lawyers. Her grandfather, MC Setalvad, was India’s
first and longest-serving attorney general. Her father, Atul Setalvad, was a
renowned lawyer in Mumbai. Setalvad said it was Watergate and “All the
President’s Men” that inspired her to pursue journalism instead. “I still have
the book,” she said.
In 1993, as a response
to months of bloody Hindu-Muslim riots in Mumbai, then called Bombay, Setalvad
and her husband started a monthly magazine, Communalism Combat, dedicated to
covering the manipulation of religion for political gain. (The magazine’s
motto: ‘Hate Hurts. Harmony Works’). More and more, their work blended
journalism with activism, a transformation accelerated by the Gujarat riots of
Modi had been chief
minister of Gujarat for only a few months when the violence began. On Feb 27,
2002, just before 8 am, a train carrying Hindu pilgrims pulled into Godhra, a
town with a large Muslim population. A scuffle broke out, stones were hurled,
and then one of the train cars caught fire. The charred remains of 59 people
were then put on public display in Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s largest city,
inevitably stoking anti-Muslim fury.
For the next two
months, as the Gujarat state police often sat idle, mobs of Hindus descended
into savagery, hacking and burning Muslims to death, destroying Muslim homes by
the thousands. The National Human Rights Commission, led by a retired chief
justice of the Indian Supreme Court, called the state’s response to the riots
“a serious failure of intelligence and action.” Modi’s government, the
commission said, did not take basic steps to prevent violence and then failed
to respond to specific pleas for protection. Modi, in an interview with The New
York Times in 2002, said his only regret was not doing a better job of handling
the news media.
Setalvad’s family is
from Gujarat. The riots, she said, triggered in her a determination to break an
age-old pattern in India: religious bloodletting followed by shoddy
investigations that studiously avoid the leaders who stoke the rage in the
first place. Two months after the riots began, Setalvad and her husband formed
a new organisation, Citizens for Peace and Justice, with the aim of shaming the
authorities into doing a thorough investigation.
They began tracking
down witnesses, demanding records and lining up lawyers for victims. They
convened their own tribunal of retired judges to take public testimony and
produce a scathing three-volume report. “Modi cynically tried to use the
politics of division and violence to gain a fresh mandate from the people,” the
The work of Setalvad’s
network is widely credited with helping prosecutors win more than 100
convictions, the most notable resulting in a 28-year sentence for one of Modi’s
former top lieutenants.
But the deeper they
dug, the more vitriol and opposition they encountered. They were accused of
taking “Arab money” and “brainwashing” riot victims. Death threats were as
regular as the monsoon rains. It did not help when Setalvad promised with great
fanfare to build a museum as a memorial to riot victims, only to cancel the
project for lack of funds. Her penchant for overheated rhetoric also cost her
The Supreme Court has
come to Setalvad’s rescue again and again. When a witness in one of the riot
cases accused Setalvad of kidnapping, the Supreme Court dismissed the witness
as a “self-condemned liar.” When Setalvad was accused of coaching witnesses to
make false allegations, Supreme Court justices repeatedly rejected the charge.
In 2011, when the Gujarat government accused Setalvad of illegally arranging to
have riot victims exhumed, the Supreme Court dismissed the case, calling it
“100 percent spurious.”
Indeed, after almost a
decade of investigations, neither Setalvad nor her husband has ever been
formally charged with anything. And as Setalvad is quick to note, she and her
husband became the focus of a federal investigation only after Modi was elected
prime minister, giving him control of India’s executive branch, including the
Central Bureau of Investigation.
When agents from the
bureau raided her home, Setalvad and her lawyers quickly noticed something odd
about the search warrant. Almost every document sought in the warrant had
already been turned over to the authorities. Setalvad offered to spare the
agents the trouble of searching by simply producing duplicates, but the agents
said no. It was then that Setalvad began to wonder if the real purpose of the
search was the Jafri case.
During the Gujarat
riots, one of the worst massacres took place at the Gulbarg Society, a Muslim
housing complex where women and children took refuge in the home of Ehsan
Jafri, a former member of Parliament. For hours, as attacks continued, Jafri
placed phone calls seeking help and police protection. No help came, and Jafri
and 68 others were murdered.
In the eyes of Modi’s
critics, the Jafri case has always presented the best opportunity to prove his
criminal culpability. But an investigative panel appointed by the Supreme Court
concluded in 2012 that there was not enough “prosecutable evidence” to charge
It is this ruling that Jafri’s
widow, Zakia Jafri, is now trying to overturn on appeal with help from Ms.
Setalvad. “If this appeal is upheld, the prime minister of India is liable to
be tried on the charge of conspiracy for his handling of the 2002 carnage,”
said Manoj Mitta, a senior editor at The Times of India who has written a book
about the riots.
The appeal is scheduled
to be heard over the coming weeks before Gujarat’s highest court. This, Setalvad
said, may explain the timing of the agents’ raid at her home.
“What I’m not worried
about is them finding anything incriminating against us,” she said. “I’m
worried they’ll find things we have that incriminate them.” (Courtesy: New York