Memory cannot be allowed to lapse: Teesta Setalvad

A quiet riot: Author Teesta Setalvad (centre), Anil Dharkar (left) and Siddarth Bhatia at the release of Foot Soldier of the Constitution, at GS5 in Mahalaxmi on Friday.

A quiet riot: Author Teesta Setalvad (centre), Anil Dharkar (left) and Siddarth Bhatia at the release of Foot Soldier of the Constitution, at GS5 in Mahalaxmi on Friday.

Civil rights activist and journalist Teesta Setalvad’s memoir, Foot Soldier of the Constitution , was released at an event here on Friday, with the author in conversation with veteran journalist Sidharth Bhatia.

The book chronicles the three major communal riots that have shaped the India of today — the 1984 Bhiwandi riots, 1992-93 Ayodhya riots, 2002 Godhra riots — and speaks of her experiences documenting these riots and her continuing fight for the rights of the victims. After the Bombay riots of late 1992 and early 1993, Ms. Setalvad said, she changed track and started the journal Communalism Combat . She said that while newspapers covered bits and pieces, she found that the media as a whole was not devoting enough space to the politics of hatred.

The magazine was intended to deconstruct communal violence and to cover in detail the events that lead to communal conflict. The book also talks of her going head-to-head with the Sangh Parivar and the BJP government in 2014.

Much of the discussion centred around the lessons that can be learnt from the past, which are too often brushed aside. Ms. Setalvad remembered appearing before the Justice Srikrishna Commission after the Bombay riots, and presenting him with a copy of another commission’s report from a riot in Bhiwandi in the 70s, pointing out that many of the measures the earlier report recommended to keep such riots from breaking out were still not being followed.

‘Hindu Rashtra’

Mr. Bhatia reminded Ms. Setalvad that a few years before the 2002 Gujarat riots, Communalism Combat had done a series of stories on the state, pointing to the fact that something big was afoot. “We did five cover stories in Gujarat,” Ms. Setalvad said, “and travelling there at the time, it was easy to see that something was brewing. You had instances of Muslim and Christian children giving exams on Christmas and Eid, kids in schools being told not to bring eggs in their tiffin. In two districts, Muslims in some villages had been told to stay out of their homes for weeks by the VHP [Vishva Hindu Parishad]. And so that became one of our cover stories: ‘Welcome to Hindu Rashtra.’ Because if you toured Gujarat, those were the signs that you saw in places.” Newspapers reported all of this in fits and starts, she said, but were not able to connect the dots into a larger pattern.

She said, “They couldn't see that it was a case of both state and society being captured.”

Media reportage

Mr. Bhatia asked her what she thought prevented many media organisations today from even looking at the dots, never mind connecting them. Ms. Setalvad lamented the fact that many reporters are often thrust into a space where they have to cover different events every day, and that newspapers don't have proper beat coverage anymore and therefore did not develop the rigour that results from the focus and expertise gained.

She also said that ownership patterns in media need to be looked at, as well as the security of service and proper pay for journalists.

To a question on where she sees cases that she is involved in — like the Zakia Jaffrey case, and her own run-ins with the government — going, Ms. Setalvad said that she believed that many of the problems that the government seemed to have were aimed at trying to distract and divert her attention. While 25% to 30% of her time, she said, is spent defending her own position, her organisation Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) still has enough resources to carry forward the various cases it is involved in.

She said, “After the government froze our accounts in 2014, we decided to open fresh domestic accounts, and there have been many contributions from across the country that help keep CJP running.”

Don’t forget the past

Mr. Bhatia suggested that the major message from her book is that memory cannot be allowed to lapse, and that we cannot be allowed to forget events like the Bombay or Gujarat riots, or continue to have a situation where the Srikrishna Commission report gathers dust while elections are won by parties promising to implement its recommendations.

“To find a lasting social peace you have to acknowledge that something wrong happened, and society has to offer some reparation for it.” Ms. Setalvad said.

She added, “You hear of certain groups that have been displaced for the third or fourth time in some places I have reported from, and you think, how can you live in this perpetual siege?”

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Printable version | Oct 6, 2022 2:13:19 pm |