In granting interim bail to activist Teesta Setalvad, the Supreme Court of India has dealt a firm rebuff to the Gujarat government, which stoutly opposed her release after showing great alacrity in arresting her for pursuing allegations that high functionaries were involved in the Gujarat pogrom of 2002. The order by a Bench headed by the Chief Justice of India, Justice U.U. Lalit, is limited in scope, as it will now be the Gujarat High Court that will decide on the grant of regular bail on merits. However, its real significance is that it is a strong pushback against a government that seems intent on keeping her behind bars for daring to assist victims of heinous communal violence in their efforts to seek justice. In an earlier judgment that endorsed the findings of the Special Investigation Team (SIT) that absolved Narendra Modi, the then Chief Minister, the Supreme Court virtually canvassed for the arrest and prosecution of Ms. Setalvad and former police officers, R.B. Sreekumar and Sanjiv Bhatt. The Court had accused her of “keeping the pot boiling” in a pejorative reference to the help she rendered to Zakia Jafri, among others, in seeking justice for the death of her husband Ehsan Jafri, a former MP, and many others in a mob attack on Gulbarg Society in Ahmedabad. In cases registered in response to the Supreme Court’s orders, the three have been accused of being part of a conspiracy to forge documents and present false evidence in court to implicate political leaders.
The Supreme Court raised some sharp and pertinent questions to the State government represented by the Solicitor General of India during the arguments. A key consideration was the unusually long postponement of the bail hearing before the Gujarat High Court, which had issued notice to the police returnable after nearly six weeks. While the Solicitor General raised a technical objection to Ms. Setalvad approaching the Supreme Court even while the High Court proceedings were on, the Bench was of the view that such a long adjournment may warrant interim bail until it is heard. Ultimately, the Bench has clarified that the High Court will take an independent view without being influenced by any of its observations. It also seems to have taken into account a provision in law that allows grant of bail on the ground that the accused is a woman. Noting that the documents allegedly forged and submitted in court pertained to a period prior to 2012 and considering that she has been in custody for over two months and had been interrogated in custody for seven days, the Bench rightly felt that granting interim relief would be quite in order. The relief given to Ms. Setalvad should be welcomed by those who value personal liberty as well as activism in support of the vulnerable.