Gujarat Police Arrest Teesta Setalvad, Activist Who Pursued 2002 Riots Case Against Modi

The arrest comes less than a day after the Supreme Court held that there were no grounds to investigate Modi and that the petitioners had engaged in an "abuse of process" by pursuing this matter for so many years.

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New Delhi: Less than a day after the Supreme Court dismissed a petition appealing a lower court’s refusal to file a case against Narendra Modi for his role in Gujarat’s anti-Muslim violence of 2002, the state’s police have arrested one of the petitioners – activist Teesta Setalvad – for what they claimed was a conspiracy to send innocent persons to jail.

Setalvad was picked by the anti-terrorism squad (ATS) of the Gujarat Police from her house in Mumbai, taken to a local police station and then driven to Ahmedabad, her family told The Wire. It is unclear why the ATS detained the activist, though the case was registered by the crime branch of the Ahmedabad police.

The FIR cites various provisions of the Indian Penal Code including 468 (forgery for the purpose of cheating), 471 (using as genuine a forged document or electronic records), 120(B) (criminal conspiracy), 194 (giving or fabricating false evidence with the intent to procure conviction of capital offence), and 211 (false charge of offence made to injure). Also accused with Setalvad are two IPS officers from Gujarat, Sanjeev Bhatt – already in jail for another matter – and R.B. Sreekumar.

Sreekumar has also been arrested, according to reports. The former police officer was arrested from his residence in Gandhinagar on Saturday afternoon and taken to the crime branch’s headquarters.

R.B. Sreekumar and Sanjiv Bhatt. Collage: The Wire

The three are accused of conspiring to mislead the Special Investigation Team tasked with probing the Gujarat riots and the role, if any, Modi played as chief minister in the unfolding of violence which took the lives of more than 1,200 people, most of them Muslim. The SIT was set up by the Supreme Court following complaints that the Gujarat Police – under Modi – was not serious about investigating the anti-Muslim violence. The court itself, in 2004, had referred to Modi as “a modern day Nero” who was “looking elsewhere when … innocent children and women were burning, and … probably deliberating how the perpetrators of the crime can be protected.” But in 2012, the SIT concluded no case was made out against Modi and its findings were accepted by the trial court and upheld by the Gujarat high court in 2017. It was this matter which was then brought before the Supreme Court in 2018.

The Supreme Court concluded its hearings and reserved judgment last December, but pronounced its verdict only on Friday,  June 24.

Significantly, the police’s FIR cites a portion of the Supreme Court’s judgment dismissing Zakia Jafri’s plea challenging the SIT’s rejection of a larger conspiracy behind the mass violence. The top court had observed:

“At the end of the day, it appears to us that a coalesced effort of the disgruntled officials of the State of Gujarat along with others was to create sensation by making revelations which were false to their own knowledge … Intriguingly, the present proceedings have been pursued for last 16 years (from submission of complaint dated 8.6.2006 running into 67 pages and then by filing protest petition dated 15.4.2013 running into 514 pages) including with the audacity to question the integrity of every functionary involved in the process of exposing the devious stratagem adopted (to borrow the submission of learned counsel for the SIT), to keep the pot boiling, obviously, for ulterior design. As a matter of fact, all those involved in such abuse of process, need to be in the dock and proceeded with in accordance with law.”

This observation, a former judge of the Supreme Court told The Wire on condition of anonymity, is “shocking” and legally unprecedented. “At the very least”, he said, “Setalvad should have been served notice about the court coming to this conclusion and she should have been given a chance to respond. That is what proper procedure mandates.”

The first information report (FIR) was filed on the basis of a complaint by Darshansinh B. Barad, who is a police inspector in the Ahmedabad police’s crime branch. The FIR accuses Setalvad, Bhatt and Sreekumar “and others” of conspiring to abuse the process of law by fabricating false evidence to get several persons convicted for an offence that is punishable with capital punishment. They also instituted “false and malicious criminal proceedings against innocent people with the intention to cause injury”, it says.

Setalvad has filed a complaint against the Gujarat ATS with the Santacruz Police Station, saying they barged into her house and assaulted her when she demanded to speak to her lawyer. In her complaint, Setalvad has also stated that the assault left her with a bruise on her left hand.

She was prevented from contacting her lawyer, the activist said, adding that she fears for her life.

Bhatt and Sreekumar, who were serving police officers when their alleged acts of commission and omission were committed, had “framed incorrect records with intent to cause injury to several persons”, which is culpable under section 218 of the IPC, the FIR says.

The accused also “conspired and prepared false records” and dishonestly used those records as genuine with the intention of causing damage and injury to several persons, which is punishable under Section 468 (forgery) and 471 (fraudulently or dishonestly using forged documents) of the IPC.

Union home minister Amit Shah on Saturday lashed out at Setalvad in an interview with ANI. He said the NGO run by the activist “gave baseless information about the Gujarat riots” and accused her of instigating Zakia Jafri — the lead petitioner in the case which was dismissed by the Supreme Court on Friday.

“I have read the judgment very carefully. The judgment clearly mentions the name of Teesta Setalvad. The NGO that was run being by her – I don’t remember the name of the NGO – had given baseless information about the riots to the police,” Shah said.

The Gujarat government, which was a respondent in Zakia Jafri’s plea challenging the SIT’s clean chit, gave a “serious objection” to Setalvad joining the petition, the Supreme Court noted in its judgment. The government not only argued that she did not have any locus standi but also said that her “antecedents… need to be reckoned and also because she has been vindictively persecuting this lis for her ulterior design by exploiting the emotions and sentiments of … Zakia Ahsan Jafri”.

Zakia Jafri. Credit: PTI

Zakia Jafri. Photo: PTI/Files

Who are the accused?

Setalvad’s organisation, Citizens for Justice and Peace, has canvassed and litigated cases stemming from the 2002 anti-Muslim massacres in Gujarat, especially the Gulberg Society and Naroda Patiya killings. The latter case led to the conviction of prominent BJP leader and former minister Maya Kodnani.

Meanwhile, Sanjiv Bhatt – who was the deputy inspector general of police at the time of the 2002 riots – filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court accusing Modi of complicity in the violence. He was arrested in 2018 in a custodial death case that was more than two decades old. His family has labelled his arrest as state persecution for the affidavit.

Sreekumar told the Nanavati Commission that he was informed by the DGP of Gujarat police in 2002 that Modi had asked the police to “allow the Hindus” to “vent their anger” against the alleged planned killing of 59 kar sevaks in the Godhra train fire. Sreekumar was in line to become the DGP but was superseded.