Teesta Setalvad: “Other cases need to be expedited and the guilty should be convicted as soon as possible.”
CITIZENS for Justice and Peace (CJP), led by activist Teesta Setalvad, has been fighting a protracted legal battle to ensure justice for the victims' families and survivors of the 2002 Gujarat riots. Often criticised and sometimes lauded for its efforts, the organisation has nonetheless carried on its campaign relentlessly. Teesta Setalvad spoke to Frontline soon after the special court's verdict in the Sardarpura massacre case. Excerpts from the interview:
As someone closely associated with the Sardarpura massacre case, what are your thoughts on the verdict? After all, several of the accused have also been acquitted.
As always in life, it is a complex response. Jubilation at the highest-ever number of convictions in a case of communal violence and regret that the charge of conspiracy was not upheld despite fair evidence in this regard. The sombre realisation is that between the raw courage of the displaced victim-survivors, our legal team and us it was a well-nigh impossible feat, given the fact that the perpetrators enjoy the protection of the most powerful in the State.
What will be the next steps in this case? Will the issue of wider conspiracy under Section 120B of the Indian Penal Code be pursued in appeal?
We feel gravely concerned about the charge under Section 120B of the IPC being dropped. Here, the questionable role of the Special Investigation Team (SIT) is reflected. Even in the Sardarpura case, evidence was led on the planning behind singling out Sheikh mohalla, the communal mobilisation 10 days before Godhra [a Minister and a member of the Bajrang Dal had visited the area and addressed meetings and made inflammatory speeches]. Witnesses have testified to this.
The SIT was reluctant to authenticate and bring on record Tehelka's sting operation. It recorded the statement of Ashish Khetan only on our insistence. This issue, along with the complicity of local policemen who deliberately did not answer pleas for help until the S.P. of Mehsana, A.S. Gehlot, rescued the survivors around 3 a.m. on March 2, 2002, raises questions about the conduct of the police. These issues will be raised by us in appeal.
It was alleged that you tutored witnesses. The court in its judgment rejected that. Your comments.
I feel a huge sense of vindication. Allegations of “tutoring” have been made by the [Narendra] Modi government ever since the matter was first raised by us in the Supreme Court in 2003. Thereafter, trials began in 2009; the defence adopted the same slanderous arguments. In between, the SIT too played a dubious role in giving credence to the same allegations. Then, at the fag end of the Sardarpura trial (September 2010), a former employee of the CJP, who had been discontinued from working with us in January 2008, was instigated by the dubious mix of state operatives and the defence to raise the spectre of these allegations all over again. A newspaper edited by an MP of the party to which Modi belongs fanned the slanderous campaign. I have consistently stated that while the allegations – since Zahira first made them at the time of the Best Bakery retrial in Mumbai in November 2004 – have been the same, the persons making them have changed.
It is critical that the media, so vital to us in this struggle for justice, remember this vindictive chain of events against a group that has been consistently assisting the victims gain access to the courts, stand up at the time of trial and give evidence fearlessly. We simply provided them with the confidence and legal wherewithal not to fall prey to the machinations of a hostile system. It is the constitutional right of every citizen to have equal and fair protection before the law.
By attempting to browbeat us and the victims through this spate of false allegations, the State of Gujarat – an open ally of the perpetrators of the violence in 2002 – was attempting to snatch away this constitutional right from the victims of violence.
Also remember another thing. The witnesses and survivors are still afraid of returning to their village. Hence it is reasonable to conclude that only with the monitoring of the cases by the Supreme Court, which has ensured that CISF protection is given to every eyewitness, not to mention the legal aid provided by Citizens for Justice and Peace, could this result – 31 convictions – have been achieved.
Behind each of these 31 persons being convicted for life are the testimonies of four-six eyewitnesses and victim-survivors who have (a) named them in statements before the investigating agencies; (b) named them in their testimonies in court, and (c) identified them in a ‘dock-eyed' investigation on the court premises at Mehsana. This seemingly glib and easy exercise of witness testimony, which started in July 2009, has meant victim-survivors living through pain and trauma, and in fear of the powerful perpetrators. The fact that the Supreme Court was watching; that the Central paramilitary was protecting them; and that there was a group of citizens committed to the rule of law willing to risk things and apply to the Supreme Court whenever things went wrong gave them the confidence to depose.
Eyewitness testimonies are the only factor for convictions during mob violence. Eyewitness testimonies are the only guarantor of convictions – there are over four dozen judgments on this – and without these testimonies there would have been no convictions.
You have begun a movement for a witness protection programme. What should it entail?
Witness protection is an essential prerequisite for justice and reparation. We simply cannot expect that without a sound and sustainable witness protection programme eyewitnesses or survivors will speak up and tell the truth before the court about what happened. The Central government should, at the earliest, put in place a sensitive and secure witness protection programme in line with what has been suggested by a recent Law Commission report on the question. It is because of our efforts on the question – first ensuring protection for the Best Bakery witnesses and then ensuring that in the major ones of the post-Godhra carnage cases CISF protection has been granted since 2004 – that victim-survivors have stood firm and spoken the truth, and justice has been delivered. It has never happened in the history of this country that over 560 witnesses have got such sterling protection from a Central paramilitary force.
Without such protection, living in Gujarat with the perpetrators out on bail, roaming the neighbourhoods, intimidating and threatening them to recant their accounts, witnesses and victims would have turned hostile. Apart from witness protection, we need to systemically address the issues of independent prosecutors, time-bound trials and reform in the State police forces.
This is the first verdict in the 2002 riot cases. It can be hoped that the other cases will go the same way. Yet, is this punishment enough?
When lives have been so brutally ended and livelihoods and habitats snatched away, no punishment can ever be enough. But we must remember that life imprisonment to 31 is a strong deterrent. In mob violence, even though there were as many as 73 accused, a court needs to apply objective principles. We believe that these have in large part been applied except for, maybe, four or five persons.
Although the accused have been convicted, the fact is that the survivors and the victims' families still lead miserable lives. They have been displaced from their homes, hardly have an income, and worse, still live in perpetual fear of attack. No effort is taken to provide education or employment.
The victims and eyewitnesses as a community are farm labourers of Sardarpura village. They have been forced to relocate at Satnagar, an hour's drive from Sardarpura. At every step they have been warned to stay away from the trial, and indirect threats have been issued to them. The Sheikh mohalla is overgrown with shrubs and smells of cow dung. Reparation and restitution to victims of violence are not just a distant dream but should have been the ethical calling for the socio-political class in Gujarat, the ruling party and the opposition.
As someone who has been fighting these cases relentlessly, what is your opinion on the SIT investigation into the 2002 riot cases?
Disappointing at best and compromised at worst. We have made our opinion clear before the Supreme Court on how deeply compromised the SIT investigation has been, especially when it comes to establishing charges of conspiracy and complicity against powerful policemen and politicians…. Two Gujarat officers were removed from the SIT. We now await its steps in the major case in which the Chief Minister stands accused of masterminding a State-wide conspiracy, destroying records and subverting the course of public justice. There are 61 other accused. The amicus curiae, Raju Ramachandran, has reportedly recommended prosecution, and the Supreme Court has sent the matter back to be charge-sheeted under Section 172(2) of the CrPC. This will be the litmus test for the present SIT.