You might think that enough has been written about the Teesta Setalvad case. In fact I think the opposite is true: Not enough has been written or said. That's because this case is not about one individual but about our entire system, and how in our always raucous and generally vibrant democracy, one estate (the executive) is often able to get away with wrongdoing because the other estates (the judiciary and the media) allow it to do so.
The Gujarat Police charged activist Teesta Setalvad and her husband Javed Anand with embezzling trust funds of the NGO Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP). I am one of the founding trustees of CJP and also its current president. Trustees have included, from time to time, people like the late Vijay Tendulkar, I M Kadri, Alyque Padamsee, Fr Cedric Prakash, Javed Akhtar, Cyrus Guzder, Rahul Bose, Nandan Maluste and others, all men of professional and personal integrity. Did we complain to the police of any financial impropriety? No. Did any of the donors who gave money complain of misappropriation? No.
This police case pertains to the Gulberg Society killings, which were part of the 2002 Gujarat carnage, in which hundreds of Muslims were murdered. In Gulberg Society itself, 69 people were killed, so it was proposed at one time that a memorial should be set up to honour them. In the event, the money collected was too little to set up a memorial, so it was decided to set it aside--with the donors' consent--for future use. So if the money hasn't been used, and the trustees and donors haven't complained, where is the problem and what is the case?
The problem and the case lie in the background. We know about the 1984 massacre of Sikhs in Delhi after Indira Gandhi's assassination and the post-Babri masjid killing of Muslims in Mumbai in 1992-93. These are huge blots on our nation; what makes them infinitely worse is that while hundreds of people were killed, no one has been held accountable, and no killers have been convicted. That's because the governments and political parties wanted it that way. As a result, the Congress workers and Shiv Sainiks responsible for cold blooded killings still roam free. There was no reason to believe that the BJP government in Gujarat in 2002 would be any different, especially because evidence pointed to the involvement of very senior politicians and ministers in the killings. That's why the CJP was formed--to see if outside intervention could nail at least a few of the killers and get some kind of redress for the many innocent lives that were lost.
The CJP launched 65 cases in various Gujarat courts. As a result, 126 people, including a Cabinet minister and senior functionaries in the party, have been jailed, some with life sentences. Some cases have collapsed, notably the Best Bakery case in Vadodara, which was an open-and-shut case till the two main witnesses turned hostile. The Special Investigation Team mandated by the Supreme Court gave a 'clean chit' to the then chief minister. Recently a special CBI court dismissed the case against Amit Shah, and the CBI did not go into appeal as it normally would be expected to. One major case brought in by Zakia Jafri (the widow of Ehsan Jafri, the former trade unionist and Congress MP who was hacked to death), drags on in court, one adjournment after adjournment ensuring that its main protagonist will finally give up out of sheer exhaustion. Or the ravages of age will finally catch up with her.
In such a scenario, the doggedness of someone like Setalvad is a massive thorn in the government's side. So the strategy is to besmirch her credibility with charges of embezzlement while delaying other cases to the point of frustration. The laws of contempt of court and their stringent application by the judiciary prevent open criticism of court proceedings. However, in the case of embezzlement, it is a Bench of the Supreme Court that questioned the judgment of the Gujarat High Court: 'If misappropriation was involved', the Bench asked, 'surely it needed a study of accounts and receipts and invoices by chartered accountants. So why was the high court adamant in refusing bail to Setalvad and Anand, and sending them to judicial custody?'
The signal failure has been on the part of the media. Here were cases where huge amounts of evidence were collected and much of it was on record. Television channels have become debating societies and have neither the inclination nor, one suspects, the resources to do investigative stories. But what about the print medium? If the police say Setalvad and Anand have misappropriated funds, the press reports it that way. Couldn't they just look at the evidence presented to the court? In the Zakia Jafri case, shouldn't some newspapers have gone beyond mere reporting of the obvious? A real investigative story needs a lot of digging up of material, but when the material is so easily available, why isn't it analysed so that the real picture emerges for all to see?
In a normal criminal investigation, it is the job of the police to find the evidence required to bring criminals to justice. In particularly serious cases, the bosses of the police (the home ministry) have the responsibility of ensuring that a thorough investigation is conducted. But what happens in cases where the police force itself is involved? Or worse, even the ministers in charge play a direct or indirect role? Are they going to start an investigation against themselves?
That's when activists and the media assume roles that are of paramount importance. They might work in tandem or separately, but their objective has to be the same: To ensure that people don't get away with it, just because they are in a position to do so. It's a tough task, but an essential one to ensure that all of us live in a just society.
(Anil Dharker is a writer and founder director of the Mumbai International Literary Festival. The views expressed by the author are personal.)