regular-article-logo Tuesday, 03 October 2023

Teesta Setalvad recounts her ordeal in jail

Despite torture, activist underscores importance of her NGO pressing ahead with legitimate work outside, refusing to be cowed down

Our Special Correspondent New Delhi Published 13.10.22, 01:34 AM
Teesta Setalvad

Teesta Setalvad File Picture

Teesta Setalvad, the rights defender who was held in custody for 57 days in an Ahmedabad prison on the charge of falsifying evidence on the 2002 Gujarat riots, has spoken out in detail about how she was roughed up during her arrest, her trauma in jail and unexpected rays of hope that helped her cope.

The following are the highlights from an interview Setalvad gave to journalist Karan Thapar for The Wire news portal:

  • Setalvad says the Gujarat anti-terrorism squad personnel who arrested her from her Mumbai residence barged into her bedroom and struck her. She suffered a bruise.
  • She explains why it was prudent and important that she insisted on filing a complaint with Maharashtra police before she was taken to Gujarat.
  • She narrates the division of cleaning labour in prison.
  • She recounts how she used to break down all of a sudden in prison but how books from the library helped her — and the priceless value of roses. Another source of relief was the sight of birds and monkeys on the jail premises. Arjun the black cat also counted.
  • She refers to the heavy toll on the mental health of the inmates and its symptoms. “You fight for no reason at all, you scream, you shout.”
  • She speaks about how the initial atmosphere of suspicion — and the wonder at her receiving 2,700 letters and postcards — among the inmates eventually gave way to engagement, bonding and discussion.
  • She also underscores the importance of her NGO pressing ahead with its legitimate work outside, refusing to be cowed down.

Setalvad and former Gujarat DGP R.B. Sreekumar were arrested in June. The FIR against them as well as already jailed former police officer Sanjiv Bhatt was drawn up after the Supreme Court dismissed a plea by Zakia Jafri, the widow of slain Congress MP Ehsan Jafri, against the findings of a special investigation team that gave a clean chit to Narendra Modi, Gujarat chief minister in 2002 and now Prime Minister.

In the interview, Setalvad told Thapar over video: “They (the Gujarat anti-terrorism squad personnel) pushed aside the Maharashtra police security and they actually surveyed the entire area and they stormed into my house, then the bedroom and they started just pushing me around and saying that you have to come with us. I was not served a notice. They had no warrant to enter my premises and there was no FIR shown to me.”

“One male and one female officer struck me…. I had a large bruise…. I was just telling them that I will not move until I have seen an FIR or a warrant, and why have they come illegally trespassing….Four males and two females…. They pushed aside my colleagues, my husband, my son, everybody and they just wanted to pull me out and take me away like an abduction,” added Setalvad, who heads Citizens for Justice and Peace, an NGO.

“A man in a white shirt, whom I have named in my complaint to the magistrate, and a woman in a yellow T-shirt… I had a huge bruise (she said indicating that it was her left arm). Without a panchnama (seizure memo with the attestation of witnesses) they seized my phones, and the phone of my colleague. This was all illegal and unlawful,” she said.

Setalvad added that she suffered the bruise from an “iron-like grip” when she refused to go with them without first being taken to the local police.

“If I had not found the courage to insist on it (to be taken to Santa Cruz police station to file a complaint against the Gujarat police’s actions) — many people do not because they are scared of the police — I think that contemporary evidence of how they had treated me would not have been there for the courts.”

In the interview, Setalvad said she was lodged in Barrack Six of the Ahmedabad women’s prison, which she shared with 24 to 25 undertrials and their seven children.

They were given two meals a day of “thick rotis you had to tear two inches off from the sides”, dal, rice and a spicy and oily vegetable dish. Setalvad was later able to obtain a tiffin service, which she shared with five inmates.

While the inmates took care of the general cleaning of the barracks, convicts cleaned toilets and bathrooms, weeded the lawns and cooked food. “They work from 7 in the morning to 7 at night for just around Rs 3,000 (a month), which they need to send home,” she said. Others had the option to volunteer at an in-house sanitary napkin unit that paid Rs 75 to Rs 90 a day.

“It is really the constraining lack of freedom and the loss of dignity that hits you when you are inside,” said Setalvad who found solace in watching the peacocks, eagles and monkeys from her window. To get away from the barracks where a TV played Hindi films all day at a high volume, she successfully pleaded and convinced the prison authorities to keep the reading room open for around two hours a day.

“Inexplicably, I would suddenly break down. And I would pick up a book or letter that would give me strength,” she said.

She also found cheer in the roses the prison librarian gave her twice a week, and watching a black cat named Arjun walking about at night. She read four to six books a week, including Geetanjali Shree’s Tomb of Sand, Orhan Pamuk’s books and a work on Argentine political prisoners. The Framing of India’s Constitution also figured on her reading list.

“For the first few days, I was fearful and weary. There was a certain curiosity-cum-suspicion from jail authorities and even undertrials as to what kind of case this is…. You decide to be a very ordinary undertrial and you have conversations and start bonding,” said Setalvad.

“I had the good fortune of receiving 2,700 letters and postcards which I would read and re-read. And my fellow inmates would say ‘where are all these from, why are you getting so many letters’, and I would pick one or two of them and read it out to them and explain who has written them and that would be a lovely discussion for an hour or two.”

She explained that she felt, “anger, outrage, despair sometimes, fear”, and that mental health was a major problem in the prison, the symptoms of which were inmates getting “bitter, angry, you fight for no reason at all, you scream, you shout”.

“What really kept me going was the fact that I was able to get information of my organisation’s continuing work outside. If you can just tell a very hostile State that our work will carry on; our work is legit and constitutional; and our work requires an understanding that we are only fighting for constitutional values, nothing less and nothing more, that gave me a lot of strength,” said Setalvad who spoke about CJP’s legal aid in Assam, the Hate Watch project and a prison reforms initiative they plan to launch now.

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