WHO IS Teesta Setalvad? A tireless fighter for the unfortunate victims of 2002 Gujarat riots waging a relentless battle against an unsympathetic state and the laggardly criminal justice system or a publicity hungry ideologue cynically exploiting the riots for her personal aggrandisement? The answer, unfortunately, depends on whom you choose to trust.
Specific allegations of coaching witnesses and inventing tales of horrific violence have been levelled against Ms Setalvad in a Times of India report purportedly quoting from a yet-to-be-made-public report filed by the Special Investigation Team (SIT) in the Supreme Court. Other media reports, quoting Ms Setalvad and anonymous SIT sources, have vehemently denied the allegations arguing that it is a ploy to divert attention from the real issue: justice for the victims of Gujarat riots. The SIT chief has only refused to confirm the allegations rather than out rightly rejecting them.
Whatever may be the truth the allegations raise some troubling questions over the conduct of human right organisations, the national media and the intense politicisation of the criminal justice system.
In a debate on the role of human rights organisations in these pages (‘Getting human rights right’, Pragati, No 15 | June 2008), Salil Tripathi, responding to frequent criticism of the human rights movement as “context insensitive” had argued that such organisations “must remain unreasonable” otherwise “the moral sharpness of their message…is lost.” It might be reasonable and indeed necessary to emphasise human rights. It could also persuasively be argued that India needs more human rights activism. Yet the pursuit of a single goal disregarding all else, including concern for due process and fairness, is fraught with danger. For it relies too much on inherent moral standing of those who have attached themselves to the cause of human rights virtually assuming that they are guided by no other consideration save for a deep belief in their cause. It is particularly worrisome because their message is ostensibly guided by a sense of moral uprightness—a claim human rights activists are quick to make and underlies their basic advantage vis-à-vis the state. And because the message is so inextricably linked with the credibility of the messenger, even the slightest blemish damages the worthy cause of human rights. Ms Setalvad’s alleged improper behaviour falls squarely in this bracket as it strengthens of the hands of her detractors, who, suspicious of Ms Setalvad and her ilk, become dismissive of human rights itself.
If allegations against her are even partially true, then Ms Setalvad’s unconscionable conduct has severely damaged the cause of justice and human rights. Yet, many of Ms Setalvad’s colleagues have jumped to her defence without bothering to wait for full facts to emerge. At least in this particular case, the “unreasonableness” seems more directed at protecting an individual rather than advancing the cause of human rights.
Second, the role of media has been very disappointing. It has pursued the Gujarat riots story at great lengths—considering the horrifying nature of the riots, that must be applauded—so it was surprising that the major television news channels and newspapers almost completely ignored the original allegations against Ms Setalvad. Elections can hardly be offered as an excuse since a subsequent Supreme Court order against the Gujarat government was widely covered in the media. Indeed, many of the media houses that had studiously refused comment on the allegations in the SIT report gave wide coverage to Ms Setalvad’s defence and virtually blamed the Gujarat government for “leaking” the report. Ms Setalvad is a frequent guest on many television channels, and is treated as almost a “authority” on Gujarat riots—yet, the same channels had no questions for Ms Setalvad in this particular case. Neutral observers can hardly be blamed for concluding that many within the media who claim to fight for justice and secularism are perhaps motivated by less lofty considerations. The media’s influence in polity is directly correlated with its credibility and it would do well to reflect on its conduct in this sorry episode.
Finally, that the investigation of Gujarat riots have to be supervised by the apex court is troubling enough—it is a strong indictment of the inability of the criminal justice system to act impartially in face of political pressure—but that even the highest court in the land was left advising the concerned parties not to indulge in mudslinging is worrying. The criminal justice system rests on witnesses telling the truth and it is for this reason that courts take a dim view of perjury. The allegations against Ms Setalvad would be classified as perjury by even its most liberal definition. The court’s magnanimous gesture of not ordering a full investigation against Ms Setalvad is misplaced. In any case, the court could have shut down rumour-mongering and conspiracy theorists by the simple expedient of ordering the release of the full report. It is unfathomable why the apex court should embrace secrecy instead of encouraging openness and transparency. After all, India deserves to know of those individuals the SIT has indicted of inciting and leading one of her worse riots.
This unfortunate episode has damaged those institutions that are essential for the well being of the Indian republic. Restoring their credibility would require deep introspection and admittance of their fallibilities. If nothing else, they owe it to the unfortunate victims of Gujarat riots who still await justice at the hands of Indian state.
Rohit Pradhan is a resident commentator on the Indian National Interest and blogs at Retributions (retributions.nationalinterest.in)