HRDA statement on the arrest of imminent social activist Teesta Setalvad

With the election of the new right wing government at the centre, there has been a renewed attack on activists and intellectuals in India. The most recent victim of the government’s persecution has been imminent human rights activist Teesta Setalvad who was a key figure in exposing the crimes of Modi’s Government in Gujarat during the 2002 riots. We republish the statement in solidarity with Teesta Setalvad by the Human Rights Defenders Alert-India.

HRDA-India: Statement in Support of Teesta Setalvad and Javed Anand

The Human Rights Defenders Alerts – India [HRDA], is shocked to hear about the denial of anticipatory bail to renowned human rights activists Teesta Setalvad and Javed Anand by the Gujarat High Court on February 12, 2015. The Gujarat High Court in this particular case of an allegation of misuse of funds further commented that ‘The facts of this case reflect the sorry state of affairs of the NGOs’. “How can one seek materialistic pleasure and happiness at the expense of the poor and needy persons. How can one even use five paise which is meant for the poor and the needy. The facts of this case reflect the sorry state of affairs of the NGOs…The donations are made with lot of trust and hope that ultimately the money would reach the poor and the needy. However, here is a case where, in the name of the poor, needy and unfortunate riot-affected victims, lakhs of rupees was received and embezzled,” said the court, adding that it was “shocking and disturbing”. The HRDA strongly condemns the comments of the Judge of the Gujarat High Court as they are completely uncalled for, based without any substantive evidence and seriously impinge on the right of all NGOs and civil society groups. These comments are even before the investigation in the FIR is complete totally damaging to a human rights defender of international repute. The Supreme Court of India, stayed the arrest of the activists and agreed to hear the anticipatory bail plea the next day on February 19, 2015. HRDA appreciates this speedy intervention of the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India.
This particular case in question is with regard to a trust that was formed in 2007 to build a memorial for the victims in Gulberg Society during the 2002 Gujarat Riots. The Court has also failed to appreciate that ‘Memoralization’ is a human rights engagement that no one but Teesta and her colleagues had attempted to keep the memory of the Gujarat carnage alive in the minds of our Indian society so that the sanctity of our secular fabric is protected from further such attempts. Due to an increase in the land prices, the trust couldn’t afford the said plan and with the due consent of the grant donors utilized the funds for legal aid for the riot victims and petitions challenging the role of the State. An embezzlement case was filed in January 2014 and the Gujarat High Court was moved for an anticipatory bail. For more than a year, the anticipatory bail matter has been pending in court. It is also important to take note of the fact that the Supreme Court has found itself been repeatedly asked to intervene in cases related to the Gujarat Riots. HRDA is alarmed by the speed in which a petition for anticipatory bail has been handled by the Gujarat High Court – for more than one year!! .
This particular matter however is not directly related to the Gujarat Riots, both Teesta and Javed for now over 11 years have been working for justice for the victims and survivors of Gujarat Riots. Their role has been instrumental in obtaining life sentences for former Gujarat State Minister Maya Kodnani, Bajrang Dal Leader Babu Bajrangi and more than a hundred others. This particular denial of anticipatory bail also comes in the light of several senior police officers accused in a series of cases relating to Gujarat Riots being granted bail by the courts and reinstated back in senior positions in the state police.
This is not the first time that Human Rights Defenders working for justice and truth with regard to Gujarat Riots have been targeted. Teesta herself has been targeted in several other false criminal cases for which she had to seek anticipatory bail from the Supreme Court. It is clearly a part of repeated attempts to discredit human rights defenders and attacks on them.
HRDA strongly condemns the ongoing attacks on human rights defenders in the state of Gujarat and this particular case of attack on Teesta, her husband Javed and their colleagues by the State. These repeated attempts by the state of Gujarat to push the activists on defensive line have constantly failed over 11 years. The response of the State is in contrary to the assurances of states in the UN Declaration of HRDs and in fact it emphasizes all the work that Teesta, Javed and their colleagues have been carrying on patiently and silently. HRDA also humbly requests the judiciary to be sensitive to the NGOs and civil society groups and refrain from passing generic statements having serious implication for people and their reputations, constantly working for human rights and development.
HRDA demands that the NHRC which is to organize a national workshop for Human Rights Defenders in New Delhi on the 19th February and to which it has also invited Teesta Setalvad to participate, will in effect ensure that it [the NHRC] intervenes before the Supreme Court of India in the anticipatory bail petition under Sec 12(b) of the Protection of Human Rights Act 1993, because this is a matter which impinges on the human rights of human rights defenders. It is at times like this that an institutional protector of HRDs, like the NHRC has to take ‘extra-ordinary’ measures for extra-ordianry human rights defenders like Teesta.
HRDA reminds the higher Courts of this country that HRDs across the globe are now armed with a mandate from the U N Declaration on Human Rights Defenders 1998 which mandates them to: individually and in association with others, to promote and to strive for the protection and realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms at the national and international levels. [Art 1]. HRDs also have the right to offer and provide professionally qualified legal assistance or other relevant advice and assistance in defending human rights and fundamental freedoms. [Art 9[3][C]. It is this engagement that Teesta and her colleagues have been engaging in Gujarat since 2002.

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Statement on the riots at Trilokpuri New Delhi

Below we reproduce the PADS (People’s Alliance for Democracy and Secularism) statement on the recent communal riots in East Delhi’s Trilokpuri.

STATEMENT ON THE RECENT COMMUNAL DISTURBANCES IN TRILOKPURI
BY
PEOPLE’S ALLIANCE FOR DEMOCRACY AND SECULARISM

NOVEMBER 2, 2014
(Members of P.A.D.S. have been interacting with and visiting residents of Trilokpuri ever since the communal disturbances started on Oct 23. Along with many other citizens they are involved in efforts to re-establish peace and in providing legal aid to those wrongfully arrested. This statement is based on their experiences.)

The inhabitants of Trilokpuri, a densely populated neighbourhood of working people in Delhi, went through a harrowing week after Diwali night on 23 October. A brawl around two places of worship turned into a full scale communal clash. Armed mobs from outside the locality are reported to have joined the rioting that involved brick throwing. Firearms were also used and two boys suffered critical bullet injuries. Inhabitants are emphatic that the police fired into the crowd. The police first denied firing at all. Its latest claim is that it fired only in self defense. One apparel show room owned by a Muslim resident was gutted. Police intervened in force only two days after the clashes started. It turned the neighbourhood into an occupied war-zone. More than fifty men and minor boys were arrested randomly, many picked up forcibly from their houses amid verbal abuse and physical violence. Road intersections were barricaded and entry and exit points were closely monitored. Drones were used in surveillance and houses systematically searched. Essential supplies were in short supply. Daily wage earners, contract workers, and self employed who could not go out lost their source of livelihood. Seriously wounded and ill had no access to medical aid. While the entire neighbourhood suffered in one form or another, inhabitants of three blocks in particular, nos 15, 27 and 28, and attached jhuggi clusters, mainly occupied by citizens who are Muslims bore the brunt of police action.

All this happened at a distance of less than ten kilometers as the crow flies from the center of state power in India’s capital. National elections five months ago were won by Mr Narendra Modi who projected a ‘strong man’ image and promised that he would provide ‘achhe din’ of decisive and effective governance. In reality, the face of the Indian state in Trilokpuri these days is ugly. First, institutions of the state, its police, bureaucracy, and all political parties associated with it failed to prevent a localised scuffle from flaring into a violent riot. And second, when the state did show up, only its authoritarian jack boots were seen on the ground. It further terrorised people already battered by rioting and public violence. It did not taken any steps to initiate dialogue between affected communities, and provided no relief or medical aid. Its social institutions like schools, anganwadis, health centers, or the police organised peace committee, etc. simply collapsed. Three fourths of the arrested people are Muslim citizens. Some of them are migrant workers. Arrested people were abused and beaten up while in police lock up. Many of them had visible injuries when presented in front of a Magistrate in the Karkardooma court on 27th October. They were not provided any medical aid or food for nearly two days.

The Trilokpuri neighbourhood has a traumatic past. It was established in the mid seventies of the last century during Emergency. It is a so-called resettlement colony, in which people forcibly displaced from inner city were settled and given land titles. The displacement and settlement process was often violent. Mr Jagmohan, the top administrator of Delhi and a close confidant of Mr Sanjay Gandhi then, later Governor of Jammu and Kashmir during insurgency there and a minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, was the chief persona in the entire process. The most gruesome massacres of Sikh citizens in Delhi in 1984 took place in Trilokpuri and neighbouring Kalyanpuri.

Despite the fast economic growth and massive urbanization in the past two decades in India, settlement patterns in cities continue to be segregated by religion. Most of Trilokpuri is inhabited by Balmikis, a scheduled caste, classified as untouchables in the orthodox Hindu varna order. After the Sikhs migrated out, Muslims are the other community, who are concentrated mainly to three out of thirty blocks. Recent migrants in search of work form a significant part of the population. They are also settling along community lines. The twenty five square yard plots originally alloted have now risen to three-four storey pucca structures, providing a decent rental income to original owners. There are also occasional cars parked in narrow streets. The little prosperity that has trickled into this neighbourhood has however not brought secure peace. Residents often complain of brawls and other forms of every day violence. The area reportedly also suffers from petty crime syndicates operating under police protection. Nevertheless, for thirty years since 1984, the neighbourhood escaped communal violence. Even the weeks following demolition of Babri mosque in 1992 passed peacefully.

Recent events in Trilokpuri reveal the character of Indian society and state that do not portend well at all. All experiments in Fascism, that involved selective violence against minorities to consolidate a nation, have relied upon mass support. The India of 2014 can not be said to be impervious to such schemes. The political success of Mr Narendra Modi at the national level has emboldened the Hindutva targeting of religious minorities and aggressive mobilisation around sectarian demands.

The ex-MLA from the BJP is reported to be part of the communal organising in Trilokpuri. Communal polarisation is proving to be a successful electoral strategy for the BJP. It is exploiting economic, political, gender and caste anxieties in a fast changing society which has not developed a strong popular democratic consciousness. The tragedy of politics at the moment in India is that none of the competitors of the BJP have a clue about how to counter its dangerous mix of religion and politics with a leader enjoying mass support. The Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi had succeeded in getting the support of Muslim and Dalit voters in the last assembly elections and currently holds the Trilokpuri seat, but it is afraid to come out publicly against communal violence lest it disturbs its electoral calculations. Congress is in severe decline and absent from the scene. No mainstream political party in India has had the wisdom and ideological clarity to realise that treating society in terms of the majority- minority framework actually validates communal agenda, and that the counter to communalisation of politics is an unequivocal assertion of citizenship rights of every one.

It is also obvious that the Indian state, while seemingly democratic in some aspects, is also undemocratic in some fundamental ways. It does not consider the protection of democratic rights of its citizens as its prime responsibility. It regularly attacks rights of the poor and socially marginal, which at present also include religious minorities. Indian state still follows the colonial authoritarian policy of treating moments of deep social strife like riots as a ‘law and order’ issue, and its first action is to enforce its brutal authority over people, rather than help the victims. Further, over time the Indian state institutions have been communalised. None of the victims of communal riots in India, including the most gruesome ones, of 1984 in Delhi, 1992-3 in Mumbai and 2002 in Gujarat have received justice. Commission after commission on riots in India have found the police and administration to be authoritarian and partisan. Yet, if nothing has changed, there obviously are powerful social and political forces that wish to use this character of Indian state for their own ends.

The social ideological environment of neoliberalism has encouraged religiosity and public assertion of religious identities, while weakening mass based mobilisations against oppression and exploitation. This is happening in all communities. Right wing political forces claiming to represent specific religious communities are using the opportunity to develop new kinds of aggressive religious practices that lead to social strife and communalise the society. This is a new challenge which democratic and secular forces have to contend with. Barring a few exceptions, the media in the capital has played a partisan role during recent developments in Trilokpuri. English language newspapers and TV channels that cater essentially to consumerist aspirations of urban propertied and professionals have spread the police version of rioting, which blames Muslim residents of the neighbourhood. They are more interested in sustaining a consumerist utopia unencumbered by social disturbances, rather showing the sufferings of the marginal and the physical abuse of people arrested by the police. Many residents of Trilokpuri work as maids, drivers, security guards and provide other services to the upper middle class residents of neighbouring Mayur Vihar. Yet life in the latter went on as usual.

P.A.D.S. appeals to the citizens of Delhi to disregard aggressive sectarian demands, provocations and rumours by communal forces and defeat their plans to communalise society. Secularism of the state and society is necessary for everyone, believers of different religions and non-believers, to lead a peaceful life without discrimination and persecution. Before succumbing to calls for their so-called ‘community’ interests all citizens should ponder over what kind of society they wish to live in. The one based on hatred and violence, or the one which respects citizenship rights of everyone.

We appeal to the working people of the city, who constitute the overwhelming majority of its population, to organise and fight together against their economic exploitation, caste oppression, price rise, police extortion, and deplorable condition of public services like hospitals, schools, and transport, rather than against each other.

Long term policy changes are needed to ensure that events like Trilokpuri do not occur anywhere else in the country. People’s Alliance for Democracy and Secularism demands following from Delhi state administration.

1. All administrative and police officials who failed in their duty to prevent rioting, made random and wrongful arrests, and physically abused citizens should be punished.
2. All residents who suffered physical injury, mental trauma, wrongful arrest and loss of property during riots and subsequent police occupation of the neighbourhood should be adequately compensated.
3. All citizens arrested should be granted immediate bail, and cases against them settled expeditiously so that they and their families can lead a normal life as soon as possible.
4. A judicial commission of inquiry should be constituted immediately to find out culpability of state administration, and of the political leadership of any party in fanning the communal violence.
5. Immediate relief should be provided to all residents who have lost livelihood. Medical aid should be given to the injured.
6. The ‘official’ peace committee established by the police has proved completely ineffective. It should be revamped and representatives of the organisations working in the area should be included in it. Its meetings should be held regularly and publicly.

7. Many areas in Delhi are potential flash points for communal violence. There are many reports of aggressive sectarian demands made by ‘panchayats’ and ‘mahapanchayats’. All those making illegal demands and spreading false propaganda about others should be dealt with firmly, so that citizens of other parts of the city do not suffer what Trilokpuri residents are going through.