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Making a case for restraint

When taking on the judiciary, social activists should be on firm ground.

india Updated: Aug 22, 2010 20:30 IST
Hindustan Times

The zeal to see justice done can often lead to activists playing their hand too soon and too rashly. This seems to be the case in the investigations into some of the cases pertaining to the Gujarat riots, notably that of the murder of MLA Ehsan Jaffrey. A Supreme Court bench has taken strong exception to activist Teesta Setalvad contacting a special public prosecutor in connection with the cases. Now it is quite possible that Ms Setalvad may have wanted to convey some pertinent information or clarify some doubts. But public perception could well be that she is trying to interfere with the course of justice. And this in no way helps the cases of those who suffered grievous losses during those fateful riots.

Earlier too, Ms Setalvad found herself in a bit of a spot when a witness, who was found to have perjured herself in one of the Gujarat riots cases, sought an apex court probe into the activist’s assets. Her NGO, the witness alleged, was a cover-up for a commercial venture. Now there may be no truth to any of these accusations, but it does diminish the moral authority of activists when they themselves are found to have blotted their copybook. This is a shame because the role of activists in keeping alive vital public issues cannot be underscored enough in an unwieldy democracy like ours. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that the judiciary in India, with all its flaws, is still seen as effective in delivering justice, howsoever slow. So to enter into a confrontational stand with it is ill-advised unless you are really on very strong ground. So far, our activists have not come off the better in their brushes with the judiciary. In the Narmada dam case, author-activist Arundhati Roy fell foul of the courts when she accused the judiciary of trying to silence those protesting against the dam. She was held in contempt and with it the advantage slipped away from those fighting for the rights of those who would be displaced by the project.

India’s vibrant civil society rests on the efforts of such people as Ms Roy and Ms Setalvad. But, when they are seen to go against the very institutions that constitute the justice delivery mechanism, people are bound to question their motives. And this weakens the cases against powerful opponents like Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi. It should be the activists’ endeavour to ensure that those in whose name they speak get the best deal possible. So, like good card players, they should deal a cautious hand. Otherwise, they run the risk of being termed the jokers in the pack.

First Published: Aug 22, 2010 20:29 IST