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Teesta Setalvad: Dark days ahead for rights crusader

As Teesta rose to become a prominent rights crusader and litigator, her brush with court cases began
hemin Joy
Last Updated : 03 July 2022, 01:16 IST
Last Updated : 03 July 2022, 01:16 IST
Last Updated : 03 July 2022, 01:16 IST
Last Updated : 03 July 2022, 01:16 IST

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When Teesta Setalvad was young, she was quite sure of becoming a lawyer. Her ambition wasn’t surprising.

Her great grandfather Chimanlal Setalvad’s cross-examination of General Reginald Dyer following the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919 nailed the notorious British officer. Teesta’s grandfather MC Setalvad was India’s first Attorney General and her father Atul Setalvad was a well-known lawyer. In other words, law was in the family’s DNA.

But she changed her mind on reading Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s ‘All the President’s Men’, a book on the Watergate scandal that brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency. Gifted by her father when she was just 12, the book made a huge impact on her and made her turn to journalism.

Law, however, would never leave her life. In the subsequent decades, as Teesta rose to become a prominent rights crusader and litigator, her brush with court cases began. She came into the limelight after the 2002 Gujarat riots, which she and others doggedly pursued all these years.

Recently, the Supreme Court upheld the SIT clean chit to Narendra Modi and others in the riots case, saying those who had kept the “pot boiling” for 16 years “should be in the dock”.

The Gujarat Police immediately arrested Teesta. Now she is behind bars, facing several charges including criminal conspiracy and forgery.

For the 60-year-old, this is probably the lowest point of her life.

Early years

If Teesta grew up into a strong-willed and independent woman, much of the credit should go to her family.

She would call Atul “paapa with an exaggerated Gujju (Gujarati) accent” only to rile him, as the lawyer “who rejected hierarchy in all things” had taught his two daughters to call him by name and not “papa or daddy”. In the late 1950s, Atul, an atheist, had a civil marriage with Sita, Teesta’s mother.

Her father’s unorthodox, rebellious thinking rubbed off on Teesta and was carried into her professional life. Teesta had her first stint in journalism in Russi Karanjia’s ‘The Daily’ in 1983 when she was just out of college after graduating in Philosophy.

In her subsequent stints in Indian Express and Business India, Teesta chronicled the 1984 communal riots in Bhiwandi and other flare-ups.

At one point, she and her journalist friends launched a campaign for an FIR to be registered against Bal Thackeray-led Shiv Sena in 1986. Those years saw a relentless Teesta trying to expose the communalism factory in Maharashtra.

The deadly Bhiwandi riot and the way mainstream media covered such tensions made her aware of the communal problem in the country. In 1993, Teesta along with her partner Javed Anand, whom she met during her stint in ‘The Daily’, started ‘Communalism Combat’.

Teesta was also involved in projects like ‘Khoj’, an attempt to rewrite Indian school textbooks to filter out the biases and prejudices against minorities.

2002 riots

As she toured Gujarat to document stories for Communalism Combat, Teesta recalls in her autobiography Foot Soldier of the Constitution: A Memoir, the signs were ominous. Teesta says that she had brought this up before authorities in Delhi but they wanted more documentation to take action. But it was too late and the 2002 Gujarat riots erupted.

The Gujarat riots changed Teesta’s life and a new chapter began, though she may like to call it a continuous process. Teesta along with several prominent personalities formed the Citizens for Peace and Justice in April 2002 to help the victims.

Teesta subsequently became synonymous with the CPJ.

But it wasn’t easy going for Teesta who faced a number of cases. Her credibility came into question as she was accused of witness tampering. Zahira Sheikh of the Best Bakery case in 2004 claimed she was tutored by Teesta to testify, but a subsequent investigation by Tehelka showed the former was lured to say so. The Supreme Court gave a clean chit to Teesta.

The Manmohan Singh-led government conferred her with Padma Shri in 2007 but troubles shadowed her including over foreign funding.

And now, she is in jail after the Supreme Court threw out a petition by Zakia Jafri, the widow of Ehsan Jafri.

Her arrest triggered outrage inside and outside India. Teesta received support from UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders Mary Lawlor, West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee and scores of others. But the BJP said, “Setalvad was a small branch for fanning communal hate. Its headquarters was in the Congress and its president Sonia Gandhi was the CEO”.

Speaking to DH, ANHAD's Shabnam Hashmi, who has known Teesta for “close to 35 years”, termed her “one of our strongest and fearless human rights defenders” and called for the release of Teesta, who faces hard times ahead.

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Published 02 July 2022, 12:54 IST

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