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New Delhi: A host of civil society organisations of the Indian diaspora, on Tuesday, June 28, issued a joint statement condemning the arrests of human rights defenders Teesta Setalvad and R.B. Sreekumar, as well as Alt News co-founder Mohammad Zubair.
The statement, published on the website of the Indian American Muslim Council, is also undersigned by 25 other civil society organisations based outside India.
Setalvad, a journalist, activist and founder of Citizens for Peace and Justice; and Sreekumar, a former officer of the Indian Police Service (IPS) were arrested on June 25 by the Gujarat police for what it claimed was a conspiracy to send innocent persons to jail.
Setalvad’s arrest came less than a day after the Supreme Court passed its order dismissing the plea of Zakia Jafri, widow of Congress leader Ehsan Jafri, who had challenged the ‘clean chit’ given to Prime Minister Narendra Modi (the erstwhile chief minister of Gujarat) for his alleged role in the violence in the state in 2002 which claimed the lives of over 1,200 individuals, most of them Muslim.
What’s more, the first information report (FIR) filed by the Gujarat Police in the present case cites part of the Supreme Court’s order dismissing Jafri’s plea. The 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.”
“Ms. Setalvad and Mr. Sreekumar were both pivotal in bringing justice to the victims of the pogrom against Muslims in 2002 in Gujarat,” the present statement reads. It goes on to mention the role Setalvad’s NGO played in assisting Jafri in pursuing the case against Modi.
“On February 28, 2002, Mr. [Ehsan] Jafri had provided shelter to Muslims at his home in Ahmedabad city from a mob of Hindu extremists. Mr. Jafri made calls, including to Modi, to Gujarat officials but to no avail. The mob set his housing complex on fire, killing 69 people, including Mr. Jafri. Ms. Jafri has maintained that Modi top Gujarat officials conspired in that violence. On June 25, however, India’s Supreme Court dismissed the case and virtually accused Ms. Setalvad of a “conspiracy” against Modi,” the statement reads.
Highlighting the chronology of events that led to Setalvad’s arrest, the statement notes, “Ms. Setalvad’s arrest is unmistakably politically motivated by Modi and Shah who stand the most to lose from her work.
The statement also directs its criticism towards the Supreme Court in the matter, saying that the developments reveal that the top court “lacks independence”.
“It sets a dangerous precedent that will discourage individuals from petitioning the Supreme Court with complaints against the Government,” the statement reads.
The arrests of Setalvad and Sreekumar had drawn widespread condemnation of the Gujarat police, the government, and the Supreme Court from various corners, both within the country and abroad.
Indian civil society organisations, such as the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA); international rights organisations, such as Amnesty International; legal experts in India; and even the United Nations had criticised the arrests.
Deeply concerned by reports of #WHRD Teesta Setalvad being detained by Anti Terrorism Sqaud of Gujarat police. Teesta is a strong voice against hatred and discrimination. Defending human rights is not a crime. I call for her release and an end to persecution by #Indian state.
— Mary Lawlor UN Special Rapporteur HRDs (@MaryLawlorhrds) June 25, 2022
Mohammed Zubair’s arrest
Two days after Setalvad’s arrest, the Delhi police had arrested Mohammad Zubair, journalist and co-founder of fact-checking news outlet, Alt News, under charges of promoting hatred between religions.
Zubair was reportedly arrested on the basis of a complaint by a Twitter user who found a tweet posted by the journalist to be objectionable. However, it later came to light that the “objectionable” post was a still from Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s 1983 film, Kissi Se Na Kehna.
— Mohammed Zubair (@zoo_bear) March 23, 2018
“Zubair’s arrest is an assault on freedom of the press and, indeed, on citizens’ right to the truth,” the statement reads. “Zubair, who is a co founder of the fact checking website AltNews.in, has played a key role in demolishing falsehoods spread by Hindu nationalists connected with Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party and its fascist paramilitary ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). “
“The arrests are a stark reminder that the US must actively and publicly combat India’s descent into fascism,” the statement says, before going on to name a number of other activist that the Union government has arrested to silence dissent – Anand Teltumbde; Javed Mohammad; Parveen Fatima; and Umar Khalid.
Zubair’s arrest, too, garnered heavy criticism from disparate sources. Journalists bodies such as the Editors’ Guild of India (EGI) and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) panned the “attack on press freedom in India”, as did rights organisations, opposition politicians and civil society actors.
The arrest even drew condemnation from Stephane Dujarric, a spokesperson for UN chief Antonio Guterres.
Ironically, Zubair’s arrest took place around the same that India signed onto a joint statement to protect freedom of expression and opinion “online and offline” at the G-7 Summit.
The full list of signatories of the present statement is as follows:
Indian American Muslim Council, USA
India Civil Watch International, USA
Hindus for Human Rights, USA
Dalit Solidarity Forum, USA
Ambedkar King Study Circle, USA
Anti Caste Discrimination Alliance, USA
Aotearoa Alliance of Progressive Indians (AAPI), New Zealand
Boston South Asian Coalition, USA
Coalition Against Fascism in India, USA
CERAS (Centre sur l’Asie du sud / South Asia Center), Canada
Center for Culture-Centered Approach to Research and Evaluation (CARE), Aotearoa New Zealand
The Humanism Project, Australia
International Council of Indian Muslims, Worldwide
India Justice Project, Berlin, Germany
India Solidarity Germany, Germany
Indian Solidarity Finland, Finland
International Solidarity For Academic Freedom, Worldwide
International Society for Peace and Justice, USA
Scottish Indians for Justice, United Kingdom
South Asian Diaspora Action Collective, Canada
South Asia Solidarity Group, UK
Justice for All, Canada
Coalition of Seattle Indian Americans (CSIA), USA
Council on Minority Rights in India (CMRI), USA
Community Rights Council of Piscataway, USA
People Against Apartheid and Fascism, South Africa