The troubled Gujarat riots case has almost become her identity. But Teesta Setalvad is doing more potent work with civic schools and fertile minds
Anumeha Yadav, Indian Express, Monday , March 20, 2006
Mumbai, March 19: ON March 8, unprecedented in the country’s legal history, the Supreme Court sentenced Zaheera Sheikh, prime witness in the Best Bakery trial, to a year in prison for lying under oath.
In addition to Sheikh, many eyes turned to the other face—and voice—of the case—Teesta Setalvad.
The human rights activist who Sheikh first took help from—and then accused of coercion—stood vindicated. But for Setalvad, the ‘‘story has just begun.’’
As she sits on a wooden bench on the lush lawns in ‘Nirant’, her bungalow in Juhu, foremost on Setalvad’s mind is the March 28 hearing in the Supreme Court to reinvestigate eight other instances of communal violence.
‘‘It is important to look at the big picture, at why Zaheera betrayed the tragedy the way she did,’’ says the 44-year-old activist, who has doggedly faced everything from allegations of being anti-national to threats to her life to bring justice to the victims of the 2002 Gujarat riots.
Her crusade against communalism has continued for over a decade.
During the Bombay riots of 1992-93, Setalvad, then a journalist with Business India (BI), broke a story with transcripts of police wireless messages that exposed the partisan attitude of some of the police officials.
That year, she decided to devote all her energies to the cause and quit her career in the mainstream media—which included stints with BI, The Indian Express and The Daily, and honours like the Chameli Devi Jain award and the PUCL Journalism for Human Rights Award, among others.
In August 1993, with husband Javed Anand, also a journalist, she started a monthly journal called Communalism Combat, which attacks bigotry and injustice of all kinds in the subcontinent.
‘‘We want to analyse and raise awareness about communal mobilisation, how nefarious forces build up over time till blood is spilled on the streets. We don’t want to cover it as a flash-in-the-pan forgotten with the next day’s headlines,’’ she says.
Naturally, feathers were ruffled and accusations followed—of instigating people, of being ‘soft on minority communalism’.
Those who’ve known and worked with Setalvad say harsh words don’t rattle her.
‘‘Teesta is the most courageous, most determined person I have met,’’ says theatre director Alyque Padamsee, who is part of Citizens for Justice and Peace, which was formed to bring legal and financial aid to the victims of the Gujarat violence.
Poet and lyricist Javed Akhtar, who has worked with her in the same forum, echoes that view. ‘‘She has such an indefatigable spirit and just goes on and on, whether it’s with her setbacks in the Gujarat cases or bringing out Communalism Combat with limited finances.’’
Instead of getting bogged down, Setalvad broadbased her efforts by intervening at a more fundamental level—school education—where she says ‘‘prejudices are not yet formed, where one can encourage questioning of values, of rights’’.
In the last 12 years, this Elphinstone College alumnus has used her academic training in History and Philosophy to launch Khoj, through which she holds workshops and prepares ‘‘alternative social sciences, especially history’’ textbooks for students from Std VI to VIII in 29 civic schools in Mumbai.
‘‘When we discuss issues like the history of religion, our civic rights, local incidents of violence, teachers sometimes feel we are raking up contentious issues. But it is important to let children deal with all information in all its complexities,’’ she says.
And she insists what she is doing is not radical but just follows India’s centuries-old tradition of tolerance.
‘‘When the mahant and the people of Varanasi maintain their calm and refuse to get taken in by political attempts to communalise the recent bombings, that is when I am humbled, that is what I bow to.’’