An Unhappy Country

On page ten of her book Foot Soldier of the Constitution, Teesta Setalvad (in pic) asks a question that is so simple you’d think the answer was self-evident. You might also think that those who answered it any other way would be instantly damning themselves as crass bigots, out of sync with the values that human civilisation stands for today. The question Setalvad asks is, “In the case of targeted and vicious violence, should the victims not get justice, both in seeing the guilty perpetrators punished as also in being given reparation with dignity for the losses suffered?”

The answer should be, “Of course. That’s what justice is all about.”

But counter questions implying alt-answers could be aggressively asked even before the question has been fully articulated.

“Depends on who the so-called victims are, doesn’t it?”

“Depends on who the so-called perpetrators are, doesn’t it?”

“Depends on who provoked the violence in the first place, doesn’t it?”

“Depends on whether we believe the victims’ story or the perpetrators’ story doesn’t it?”

“Finally it’s not about facts, but people’s long-held beliefs and feelings, isn’t it?”

If you read Setalvad’s book, and if you believe the facts, figures and documented evidence she marshals and the opinions of some of our foremost citizens that she cites, it becomes obvious that in the matter of targeted violence, hatred, blind belief and bias are the driving forces. Unhappily, the police too are driven by the same forces or crumble under “pressure from the top”.

“No riot can continue for more than 24 hours unless the State wants it to,” asserts IPS officer Vibhuti Narain Rai in an interview published in Communalism Combat, the magazine that Setalvad and her husband Javed Anand founded after they quit their jobs with the mainstream press. Evidence recorded by eyewitnesses, independent fact-finding committees and State-appointed commissions of inquiry confirm Rai’s statement. During all three pogroms that have torn our country apart in the last 32 years, the State was seen to have given a long rope to the aggressors, whether through acts of commission or of omission.

“The riot in the mind simmers for months before it spills on to the streets, leaving no space for dialogue,” says Setalwad. True. If we were profoundly shocked by the viciousness of the killings and burnings that our city witnessed in 1992-93, it was at least partly because we hadn’t suspected there was so much hatred bubbling under the our feet just waiting to erupt. Communalism Combat was launched specifically to note the early signs of such subterranean seething and bring it to the surface in order to prevent tragic eruptions. Yet, since nothing but bloodletting will satisfy our carefully nurtured hatreds, such warnings fall on deaf ears. And if the messenger doesn’t shut up, she is shot.

When the State fails its citizens, the law is the only recourse. When a believer in justice takes recourse to the law, she becomes the enemy of the State. That is what Setalvad is today. Her relentless fight for justice for the victims of the Gujarat carnage has been rewarded by several physical attacks and legal cases. The latest criminal charge against her is of being “a threat to national security”. The Bombay High Court’s speaking order in granting her anticipatory bail, should be etched in bold letters on large hoardings in every public place today. It said, “Holding views that are against a government, does not amount to being against the nation.” But those in power don’t always care for laws or even for the Constitution of which Setalvad sees herself as a foot soldier. The late Shri Balasaheb Thackeray once famously declared, “Hum adaalaton ke phaisle par laghushanka karte hain” (We piss on the judgements of the courts).

Foot Soldier of the Constitution was released on Friday at G5A. Setalvad in conversation with Siddharth Bhatia was determinedly understated. But her ongoing struggle is nothing short of heroic. To brave the unlimited powers of the State for 15 long years, enduring all manner of harassment and calumny, takes a rare order of belief in our constitutional rights and the law. Not everybody can stay the course. Twenty-year-old Gurmehar Kaur has discovered how tough it is to express an opinion other than the one held by the government and its foot soldiers. She has given up the fight, but Delhi University students and faculty have not. We need and see new heroes every day. Sadly, as Brecht’s Galileo says, “Unhappy is the country that needs a hero.”

Published On : 02-03-2017