Educate, Organize, Agitate: Teesta Setalvad

We are part of an India where some of the most tragic incidents are being taking place even right now in different parts of the country. But there are a very few who have always taken a firm stand and stood by the victims and fought against the prevailing injustice. Teesta Setalvad the most daring, fearless, dedicated Journalist and also an Indian civil right activist has been in this profession since 1980s and have witnessed the vital change of our country, the rise of Hindutva and many more.

From 1980’s India has witnessed a series of riots, demolition of Babri masjid, the Mumbai riot and so on, it was at that point in 1993 the very two dedicated mainstream journalists Teesta Setalwad and Jawed Anand deciding to quit from mainstream media ‘ The Indian Express’ and to start ‘Communalism Combat’. What has triggered you to take such a crucial decision in your career?

The 1980’s was a very crucial time in the Indian history and for the Indian democracy and I think people need to understand what drove us to take this decision was that we witnessed not just the mobilization around the Rama Janma Bhumi movement which of course was a major trigger but equally well the muslim clergy moblaization around the Shah Banu case .And what we saw in this country was the development of  two extreme position and that is why our understanding of Communalism got reflected in the Communalism Combat which we launched in August 1993 .The majority and minority communalism are both two sides of the same coin. We believe that the understanding of communalism is the understanding of hate politics .Our country was divided on religious lines IN 1947. We had one state formed in the name of Islam and yet India very clearly chose and opted a secular democratic republic. So I think we need to understand this difference too. We cannot deny the fact that the partition of this country gave the wounds that it festered and the failure of the sections of the Indian state to deal with minority community also created its own set of problems. We saw this in the 80’s, so we had in one hand this mobilization of sensible construction of Ram Mandir at Ayodhya when there already existed other 300 other temples of Lord Ram and Sita but there actual vision was on this particular site of Babri Masjid,  where 450 year old mosque stood. And now the movement has reached in Gyanvapi Banaras and tomorrow which can be taken to Madura and maybe to other 570 shrines. According to the Hindutva right, all the mosques will be taken away. The entire is to build a Hindu Rashtra, but let’s remember that our neighborhood has created an Islamic state called Pakistan which was on Maududis thesis of a religion based Islamic state.

The Hindu fears this second division and this constant fear and anxiety is being played upon by this violent aggressive anti-democratic majoritarian forces. Now this was happening in the Ramajanama Bhumi while at the same time the Supreme court comes out with the judgment giving Rs 125 , a pity amount which was given for the maintenance to a Muslim women who had struggled from the bottom trail court to upwards. So two things were happening simultaneously, one was conversion of India into a Hindu state similarly like how the Pakistan was created after a tremendous violence in 1947 and the change that has caused in the Muslim community after the judgment of Shah Bano case. Instead of welcoming the judgment the male dominated Muslim leadership of the community especially the members of the personal board started a campaign saying that the Muslim community has the right to have separate laws. This was brazenly and patently unjust. The Rajeev Gandhi government at that time on one hand opens the locks of Babri Masjid but on the other hand passed the Muslim women protection bill and this confirmed that the Muslim’s require a special treatment in the country. At that point I understood this too extreme positions are only going to make the liberal secular plural middle much narrow. And today what we are seeing is the result of that. And that’s why we launched the ‘communalism combat’ with the motto that we need to understand of hate politics and communalism and how they are threat to real democracy, pluralism and secularism and how the majoritarian communalism will becomes a major threat. And that’s what communalism combat did for past 20 years after its publication.

Right now we are in an India where we are combating communalism but you have started this at a time when India was in a stage beginning to understand ‘communalism’, so what was that insight that has made you choose this name ‘Communalism Combat’?

Communalism is not anti-religion per say. Maulana Azad and Mahatma Gandhi are both religious personally but at the same time secular in politics, but at the same time Muhammad Ali Jinna who had built Islamic state on Maududis idea of religion based state and L K Advani who led the Rath yathra which resulted in the demolition of Babri Masjid, both these leaders where secular in their personal life while practiced a communal politics. Communalism is the phenomenon that explains the misuse of religious identity and that is what we are seeing today. The horrible incident in which a RPF constable shooting down by targeting three Muslim passengers because of their identity tells us how deeply it has affected our country. We have seen communalism in the police force before which is where the first communalism combat has happened. So we chose that name for that reason. We saw that communalism is the biggest threat to our democracy. And even today after 38 years after launch of Communalism combat it remains as the biggest threat in the continuation of India as the democratic state.

How investment oriented media be termed as the ‘fourth’ pillar of democracy? Isn’t it a lie? But at the same time you have started Sabrang India, Citizens for Justice and peace  and Communalism combat , before the medias where changed to right leaning medias, so is it possible to claim it in that manner?

What we are seeing today whether it is in India, Turkey, Iran or USA are perverted forms of fourth estate. The fourth estate should be really genuinely anticipatory to provide information and further democratic idea should actually be either the vanguard of movements or they should be run by journalists or readers themselves. And we as journalist Jawed Anand and myself launched communalism combat and Sabrang India with the feeling that the magazine and the web portal should be run by those who write and create content. Similarly is the Wire, The Scroll, and I can name such portals started by journalists by investing their money for this to workout. On the other hand there are other some commercial channels which are run by the Cooperates and also there are channels run by different political parties and social religious political organizations mostly in south India. These medias are equally non democratic and those are not representative of the fourth estate. There are most of this in Tamil Nadu and some in Kerala and even in Hindi medium such as Sudarshan TV. And there are also far right wing channels from all religious communities which do not represent the fourth estate.

In Gujarat riot , CJP provided legal aid moreover ensured the conviction of 172 accused in which 124 where life imprisonment but at the same time BJP MLAs like Maya Kodnani walked out freely even after being convicted in Naroda Gam massacre. But CJP wasn’t ready to give up rather you consistently fought for Gujarat and still continues to fight why?

When we launched Citizens for Justice and Peace in 2002 and our major concern was providing justice, voice and representation to the victims of mass violence in Gujarat. We also represented the 5 families of Godhra train burning the S6 Sabrmathi coach. We filed a transfer petition on behalf of the Supreme Court. We gave legal aid to the victims of the Naroda patiya from Gulbarga to Sardarpura and, we fought more than 68 cases and some of those cases are still going on, the reason why we haven’t backed out is because the legal process takes long in our country .One of our experience by taking on this work has been that without intrepid competent legal support it is very difficult for the survivors of mass violence whether it is rape, murder or any other kind of violence to navigate a very hostile system on their own. So what CJP did is we provided extremely honest high integrity lawyers in the trail courts and high courts. And we have managed to get 124 cases for life imprisonment. But we have never asked for death penalty based on our principle. It is as strong human right issue not to demand death penalty and this has led to many negotiations with the Muslim community. We were committed to get reformatory justice and not retaliatory justice. We don’t believe in the principle ‘an eye for an eye’. It was the women who agreed to us first after consulting them and negotiating regarding this while men further wanted to proceed with death penalty. And we are very proud that in many of the cases in special session courts the death penalty was argued against by the victims. We want justice because such incidents should not take place again in the future but simultaneously we should also provide a chance to the individuals who might have committed a heinous crime to reform. But in the case of Maya Kodnani, powerful people gets to get away this questions are for the court to answer. What we can do is give the victims good legal aid. But we do know that it’s a very painful process. And unless community and human rights groups are willing to come forward, it will be very difficult for the ordinary people to come forward and get legal support. Its high time we refine democracy and pluralism again, the cost has been high many young people remain in jails and even I myself was jailed unjustly. But the battle will go on and we will see a lighter dawn.

Can you explain how Citizens for Justice and Peace has made the intervention in Assam’s NRC issue and how they have helped the effected?

Since the Assam movement of 1978-79, which the Supreme court legitimized in 2008. All India was awaken by CAA NRC in 2019 but 2 and half years before that CJP was already active in Assam. CAA NRC issue was quite different for the rest of the country, it was new issue which has agitated the young people and there were protests but we have been working in ASSAM where many people should have addressed equally .The issue of foreigners under the foreigners act has been misused by the authorities since independence. It’s the misuse of the precolonial law, foreigner’s tribunal do not necessary follow constitutional procedures and hence we worked with very ethnic community with a diverse group inclusive of all communities and we dealt with almost 50 cases a month legally counselling and appearing in the courts. We actually took up the work which no other organizations has been doing. In Assam, after the publication of first list of NRC in 2016, set OF 1.2 crores of Assamees were excluded, then the number came down to 44 lakhs and later to 19 lakhs. Out of this 19 lakhs majority are from Muslim community. The whole Assam issue was based on the insider vs outsider debate. 2019 Amendment which is in the Supreme Court right now will have devastating result if gets applied to the rest of the nation because the NRC in Assam has resulted in nothing but alienation of people. However the difference in Assam is it’s not just NRC exclusion but is also de voters issue and declared Foreigner which you can be declared under the Indian Foreigners act of 1946, a colonial law. We CJP are providing quality paralegal aid, legal aid and psychological counselling. And therefore if you check on into our website the jurisprudential breakthrough we have got in and the kind of good judgment we are getting now even at the level foreigner tribunals. Even at the legal workshops we share judgments and legal procedures so the all advocates even in the district levels are armed with best arguments to defend the citizenship. And our experience is very profound and we have managed to give 12 lakh people filling NRC forms and 50, 000 providing documents to NRC authorities. We also provided constitutional values programs in schools in social studies and history started in 1995, it’s a supplementary social studies syllabus once a week at middle school level. This education imparts the understanding of democracy, pluralism, fostering dialogue and mediocrity which are very important for a young person growing up in today’s India. Thus we have a variety of programs as human right organization under Citizens for Justice and Peace.

How do you contextualize the Manipur riot?

I think the mainstream journalists has not yet deeply understood what is being going on actually in the state of Manipur like the journalists who have known the state for 30 to 45 years , who have learned from social scientists. I would like to draw the attention of readers to the article of Walter Fernandez who have wrote in Telegraph on 25th of JUNE called the land in trouble where he describes to us. There were attacks on 249 Christian churches. Nevertheless, it’s just not the churches were attacked, the basic thing that we all have to understand is that there is a majority Hindu group called Meitei and ‘Nagas and Kukis’ who are Christians. We need to understand what the conflict is about. 53% of the Meitei populations lives in the plains and they only have 10% of the land while the Kukis and Nagas have 90% of the land according to Meitei which is not true because 60% land is forest land. Then on March 23 a very unfortunate order was passed by the Manipur high court that Meitei should be given reservation status without taking into the fact that the meitis are already part of the OBC list. All of this forms the background of the conflict that is being going on right now. Article 371 c of constitution that protects some of these land just like in Kashmir before taking away article 370. There is a large accusation going on that the Meitei’s will try to take down the lands but that’s not the case. The belief upheld  by the Meitis is different from the rest of the country and they do not have caste poltics. It is a very interesting fact that the Kukis, Meiteis and Nagas were part of the INA led by Subash Chandrabose. Meitei resent the fact that a large part of their land was given to the Burma under the Nehru Government. There is a long history that we need to understand before coining the conflict as something anti-Hindu or anti-Christian. When violence started on May 4th it’s a shocking tale of abrogation of double barrel engine Sarkar. The state and the central government has to be equally be blamed for not containing the violence. What is the reason for this non containment? Huge arms are there within the people, the whole communities are engaged in drugs running just like the politicians in the state. This kind of labelling is what is making the conflict go further and the failure of the government to protect lives and to counter the unjust order of the High court , all of this resulted into the conflict. So you need to get all the tribes to discuss the matter on the table as soon as possible and there is also an issue of palm oil production. Mizoram had it for the last 10 years, excessive monoculture, high cost to environment climate change. Indonesia is already paying a heady price as other far eastern countries. There is also issue of mining in the hills of Manipur. There will always be an economic interests behind every ethnic conflicts which we will not be able to see. What we need to think about is that how can dialogue be fostered, how multiple voice cam come out from Manipur, how can gender violence be stopped, how can the internet be lifted. The most condemned that happened in Manipur is the continues internet ban by the central government. They are actually blocking the communication of common people in the name of blocking fake news. India now tops the list in internet ban. Kerala believes to be cocoon that nothing would affect them, but if we let this to happen the norm will continue and tomorrow we will be the next. So the abnormal will become normal. These are the signs of an authoritarian state.

The very recent news coming from Haryana is very distressing and communal tensions are being spread to the national capital. Is this an another trick of BJP to divert the attention of people from the ongoing Manipur riot? Do we have to expect more such riots in different parts of the country including the south? What is your overview regarding the issue happening? Is it going to be the next trump card of Modi to win the 2024 election?

We have seen Manipur conflict being taking place for past three months then the ghastly incident of railway incident where three Muslim men were killed by a police officer. There is a spread of hatred just for the sake to gather votes. So I hope we do not see more violence. I think there is a greater challenge for state governments. And I don’t think the previous governments too had a good track record. In 1999 India was not ruled by BJP but yet we had Muradabad ,we had harishinpura, we had Bombay 92-93. If we let the perpetrators of hate and violence to get away with this, even we don’t recognize that the police authorities and law and order machineries are effected by a communal violence which communalism combat has first wrote about in February 1995 where I interviewed Vibhuti Narayan Rai serving IPS officer who said that no riot in the nation can continue for more than 24 hours unless the state wants it to continue. But equally  I believe in order to foster communal harmony we need to ensure the secular values are met. For that we should make sure that religious processions of the minority community should not chant such slogans that are provocative. We need to make sure that the majority communalism is tackled by the state with a firm hand, we need to make sure that minorities also deepens the sense of secularization and pluralism within themselves.

More than two dozen opposition parties have come together forming an alliance called INDIA to challenge the ruling bharatiya janata party, and they have pledged to safeguard the idea of India as enshrined in the Constitution . Will they be able to make this a reality? What is going to be the future of this alliance INDIA and our nation in your perspective? And regarding the name INDIA ( Indian national developmental inclusive alliance) ,Are the really inclusive as the name suggest?

Right from 2014 I have been saying publicly that a party like BJP under Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) inherently believes in Hindu theocratic state is a danger to the country. And therefore from gram panchayat, zila parishad up to parliament they has to be defeated, I have said that before and am repeating it again now. But I think that’s not enough, if the opposition parties need to galvanize this support of a visible vibrant majority and minority to get the votes by making the common people believe that this is an alliance who is going to stand up for constitutional values, secularism, pluralism, democracy, fraternity, social justice, fight against injustice, fight for jobs all of which that has been snatched away by the government .They should stand up for human right issues and social  justice issue. They need to stand up and speak up against hate politics. How many have spoken about the ongoing issues in Haryana, Manipur. I think we should have a convincing human rights agenda to defeat the RSS backed BJP and it’s a huge challenge. As far as human right activist and journalist, I was 16 when the emergency was lifted and the elections were declared. At that time my father said to me to make sure that congress party is defeated. That’s the history that I came from, whichever party becomes authoritarian you need to raise voice against them. Today that manifestation is in the BJP, and therefore we need to at any great risk raise our voice against them. But any political party can be changed to authoritarian, that’s the danger of the electoral democracy. Citizens need to educate themselves. Organize themselves and agitate themselves and protest. That’s what Baba Saheb Ambedkar and Savitri Bhai Phule has said. This country needs strong active citizens. What really upsets me today is the silence of the vast majority of our people.

Hiba Anvar has Completed PG Diploma in Convergence journalism

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