The Supreme Court’s order granting interim bail to Teesta Setalvad can be considered as rebuff to the Government of Gujarat, the High Court of Gujarat and the SC Bench that commented on the activist while accepting the report of the Special Investigation Team which absolved Narendra Modi and other dignitaries of any connection with the Gujarat riots in 2002. The caustic comments made by an SC Bench comprising Justices AM Khanwilkar, Dinesh Maheswari and CT Ravikumar had in fact motivated the police to arrest the activist soon after the judgment. The learned judges castigated the activists who, it said, had kept “the pot boiling, obviously, for their ulterior design” and “who need to be in the dock and proceeded with in accordance with law.” Harsh words about the activists who were fighting for justice against heavy odds. It is a clear call from the Bench to the police to go and arrest Setalvad. The Gujarat police did so, as expected, by travelling to Mumbai to take her into custody.
Mercifully, Chief Justice of SC Justice UU Lalit, who took over recently from Justice Ramana, passed comments on Thursday and orders on Friday which were reassuring to the people who have high expectations from the apex court. Setalvad was in custody of Gujarat police for more than two months. The FIR filed against Setalvad says she forged documents regarding the 2002 riots. Justice Lalit commented that the woman should not have been kept under custody for so long. She has to be favourably treated, he said. He also questioned the inordinate delay of Gujarat High Court in giving six weeks time to Gujarat police to answer its notice. It shows the lack of urgency on the part of the HC. The earlier Bench of the SC, which upheld the report of the SIT, truly canvassed for the arrest and prosecution of Setalvad and former police officers R.B. Sreekumar and Sanjiv Bhat. Setalvad helped Zakia Jafri, among others, in attending to court matters seeking justice for the death of Zakia’s husband and former MP, Ehsan Jafri and many others killed in the mob attack in Gulbarg Society in Ahmedabad during the 2002 riots following ghastly incident of train burning in Godhra.
As justice warrants, the SC Chief Justice left everything to Gujarat HC which has been hearing the case. He asked the HC to judge things independently without being influenced by his comments during the course of hearing on bail application. But until the case is decided Setalvad would be on interim bail. Whether the Gujarat High Court would take the lead provided by the CJI or not remains to be seen. The SC obviously intervened because the victim of police action is a woman and the HC has been highly casual with the case. Justice Lalit also asked if it is the standard practice adopted by Gujarat HC to grant six weeks time for the police to reply to its notice. It is not the case. Setalvad was singled out for this treatment deliberately. Justice Lalit also questioned the undue delay on the part of the police in filing chargesheet which is yet to be filed even after two months of arrest. He also reminded them that Setalvad was not arrested under UAPA (Unlawful Activities – prevention- Act) to delay the chargesheet. Kapil Sibbal, appearing on behalf of Setalvad, said he would not recognize the FIR which did not name the document that Setalvad allegedly forged.
The questions raised by the Chief Justice were sharp and pertinent which restore people’s faith in the fairness of the judiciary to some extent. For some years, the apex court has not been showing any sense of urgency in dealing with matters related to human rights and individual freedoms. Many important cases remained unheard during the tenure of four former chief justices. Now, the CJI’s intervention gives hope that the SC can be expected to be vigilant. Setalvad has been interrogated by the police for seven days in custody. The SC Bench headed by the CJI rightly felt that granting interim relief is the right course. It has to be whole heartedly welcomed.