Teesta Setalvad and R B Sreekumar | Photo: ANI and K.K.Praveen/ Mathrubhumi
By the time Indira finally retired to bed in the early hours of 26 June, police in Delhi and elsewhere in India were already out in the force, waking people up and carting them off to jail. At the top of the list of the thousands arrested were Narayan (Jayaprakash) and Desai (Morarji). So was Raj Narain, the original source of all Indira’s woes. At the same time, just as the Delhi-based newspaper presses were about to roll, electricity supplies suddenly stopped….
(Indira, The Life of Indira Nehru Gandhi by Catherine Frank, 2001 )
India has never so 'aptly' observed the Emergency as on this year’s June 25, the 47th anniversary of Indian democracy’s darkest chapter. On that day at about 5 PM, Gujarat Anti Terrorist Squad (ATS) arrested writer and social activist Teesta Setalvad (60) from her Mumbai home and RB Sreekumar (75), a Gujarat cadre former IPS officer belonging to Thiruvananthapuram, from his home at Gandhi Nagar, Gujarat.
Two days later, Mohammed Zubair, co-founder of Alt News was arrested by Delhi Police in connection with an objectionable tweet on a Hindu deity he posted 4 years ago! Zubair was the first to report on BJP leader Nupur Sharma’s recent derogatory comments against Prophet Mohammed.
Setalvad and Sreekumar have been booked under sections 468 (forgery), 194 (fabrication of evidence), 120-B (criminal conspiracy), etc. The crackdown came a day after the Supreme Court's three-judge bench headed by Justice AM Khanwilkar dismissed the petition filed by Zakia Ahasan Jafri, wife of late Congress leader Ehsan Jafri. Her petition had challenged the closure report filed by the Special Investigation Team (SIT), that exonerated Modi and 63 others from culpability for the Gujarat genocide of 2002.
The verdict marked the closure of the 84-year-old widow’s 16-year-long battle for justice after her husband Jafri, former Congress MP, was killed along with 68 others during the Gujarat riots. The 72-year-old Ehsan Jafri and others were dragged out of their Gulbarg Society apartments in north Ahmedabad and burnt alive by mobs. This was done in retaliation to Jafri giving asylum to some Muslims during the violence. Zakia escaped unhurt as she hid in a room on the first floor.
Zakia Jafri first filed a complaint in June 2006 alleging police inaction. She named the then Chief Minister Modi, several ministers in his cabinet, VHP leader Praveen Togadia and the then DGP of Gujarat PC Pandey, among others. But the Supreme Court-appointed SIT in 2012 exonerated Modi and others from any culpability or charges of conspiracy. Jafri’s earlier petitions challenging the exoneration were dismissed by the Additional Metropolitan Court in 2013 and the Gujarat High Court in 2017, after which she approached the apex court.
The arrests of Setalvad and Sreekumar followed the apex court's indictment on the “disgruntled” elements who kept the “pot boiling” to “create sensation”. Setalvad's help to Zakia to fight the case has never been secret as she was a co-petitioner. Sreekumar too has long been publicly holding Modi culpable and written a book too. He had also deposed before Nanavati-Mehta Commission which probed the riots. Both firmly believe that the riots involved unpardonable levels of state-sponsored violence, criminal collusion or conspiracy of officials and their political masters with the criminals, etc. Similar actions by activists and whistleblowers have not been uncommon in India or other democracies and have often won widespread praise. Will Setalvad, the granddaughter of India's first Attorney General, and Sreekumar, the grandson of an eminent freedom fighter, ever taste freedom in future? Knowing what happened to the other "disgruntled" elements may give a clue.
According to the apex court, others with the "audacity to question" were two Gujarat cadre ex-IPS officers, Sanjiv Bhatt and Rahul Sharma, and also Haren Pandya, a BJP leader and former Gujarat Minister.
Pandya was the Home Minister in Gujarat’s Keshubhai Patel government of 1998-2001. Due to inner party schism, he was given only the Revenue portfolio in the subsequent Modi-led ministry. Pandya resigned in August 2002. In 2007, Outlook magazine reported that Pandya had revealed to the magazine in May 2002 that Modi asked police officials in a meeting held on 27 February evening -hours after the Godhra massacre- that Hindus should be allowed to “vent anger” against Muslims. Pandya also testified before the Concerned Citizens Tribunal on Gujarat Riots headed by Justice V R Krishna Iyer when he raised the same charge. On 26 March 2003, Pandya was killed by two unidentified assailants inside his car while returning after a morning walk in the Law Gardens in Ahmedabad.
Bhatt (58), an MTech from IIT-Mumbai, joined IPS in 1988 and was Deputy Commissioner, State Intelligence in Gujarat, during the riots. He testified before the Supreme Court in 2011, raising the same charges Pandya made about the meeting on 27 February 2002. In another case, he even accused Modi and Amit Shah of having asked him to destroy evidence in the Haren Pandya murder case. Bhatt was removed from service in 2015 for “unauthorized absence” from duty and, in 2019, was sentenced to life in a 30-year-old custodial death case. Bhatt has been in jail at Gujarat’s Palanpur since 2018.
Rahul Sharma, an Electrical engineer from IIT-Kanpur, joined IPS in 1992 and was Superintendent of Police, Bhavnagar, during the riots. During the riots, he saved the lives of many Muslims when he ordered fire at the rampaging mobs. He too deposed before the Nanavati Commission and presented mobile phone records of ministers including Home Minister Gordhan Zadaphia, police officials, etc, indicating their dubious role in the riots. This led to him being flooded with show cause notices for retaining vital government documents and was charge-sheeted by the state government in 2011. Sharma took voluntary retirement in 2015 and has been a practicing lawyer since.
The SIT dismissed all the charges made by Bhatt and Pandya and said they never even attended the 27 February meeting.
Questions are being raised regarding the apex court’s indictment on Setalvad and others and subsequent arrests. According to experts, the most prominent procedural slip is the non-issuance of prior notice by the apex court to Setalvad and Sreekumar to explain their stand before making serious charges against them. This is vital because a constitutional court’s accusatory observations could constitute the basis for arrests by police without even having prima facie evidence. It is also pointed out that Sreekumar and Bhatt had deposed to the Nanavati Commission as government officials, and the state was responsible for protecting them. India also enacted in 2014 the Whistleblower Protection Act to enable any person to disclose to a Competent Authority acts of corruption or wilful misuse of power or discretion, or criminal offenses by a public servant and protect them from any retaliatory action.
An expert called the apex court’s comments “constitutionally, ethically and legally improper.” Former Supreme Court Judge Madan P Lokur expressed shock at the arrest. Maria Ressa, a Nobel prize-winning journalist from the Philippines, called for protests against the arrests.
These actions, reminiscent of the dark Emergency days, have occurred when BJP is in power. Ironically, it was BJP's (or BJS, its earlier avatar) resistance against the Emergency that helped escape its long political isolation caused by the Gandhi assassination.
Ironies never end. It is the Supreme court, now headed by a person who had the audacity to question the Emergency, that has ordered on its 47th anniversary, to book those who had the “audacity to question”!
Celebration in Kerala too
Though not comparable, CPI(M), which is also a party that opposed the Emergency, too “celebrated” its 47th anniversary “aptly”. On 28th June, MB Rajesh, the Speaker of Kerala Legislature who had valiantly fought the BJP's fascist ways in the Lok Sabha before, ruled that visuals of assembly proceedings should not be “misused” for humour and sarcastic programmes on television. One more proof for the canon: it is humour that the state hates most.
Rajesh also decided to enforce an old rule that bars protests, walkouts, etc occurring inside the House from being aired live. This would mean Opposition being virtually blanked on such occasions. Interestingly, this rule was framed twenty years ago by the then Speaker when the Congress was in power but never implemented due to huge protests led by the CPI(M) and also the media!
The Speaker would also continue with the Covid time practice of not permitting private TV channels to cover the proceedings. Since the outbreak of Covid 19, only Sabha TV - run by the Kerala legislature- was permitted to cover proceedings ostensibly to restrict crowding. But even after other restrictions like wearing masks were lifted, curbs on private channels remain. No prizes for guessing why.
The takeaway: Power talks the same language irrespective of time, space or its wielder.