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Home > fundamentalism / shrinking secular space > India: Disturbing portents: Congress’ tepid response to fate of Zakia and (...)

India: Disturbing portents: Congress’ tepid response to fate of Zakia and Teesta

Thursday 14 July 2022, by siawi3


Disturbing portents: Congress’ tepid response to fate of Zakia and Teesta

Bharat Bhushan

Last Updated at July 4, 2022 09:02 IST

The Supreme Court judgment in the Zakia Jafri case was delivered on June 24. The Congress party took three days to comment on the judgment and mark a token presence at a citizens’ protest in Delhi against the arrest of Teesta Setalvad. Only in response to pressure from within did it release a statement on June 27 raising the question of the constitutional and moral responsibility of the chief minister and the Gujarat government in the communal riots of 2002. It also said the party stood by “our colleague, the late Ehsan Jafri and his family.”

The hesitation points to confusion in the Congress party, which hopes to become the national alternative to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) but is unable to present an equally coherent vision. The party’s reluctance to address what are seen as ‘Muslim issues’ shows how easily the Congress is willing to give up the platform of justice for fear of being branded as minority appeasement.

Apparently, the Congress leadership had decided to say nothing about the judgment initially. It also remained silent when a day later, on June 25 evening, Teesta Setalvad was arrested by the Gujarat Anti-Terrorism Squad. Some within the party wrote to Congress President Sonia Gandhi and made her change her mind. After all, Ehsan Jafri, who was murdered by a communally charged Hindu mob, was not only a Congress party member but had been a Congress MP from Ahmedabad.

However, the statement did not speak up for Teesta Setalvad, who has stood steadfast by the Jafri family. There was only one formal reference to Setalvad by a party spokesperson who came at the tail-end of the Delhi protest. His statement appeared on the Twitter handle of a journalist from the party newspaper, the National Herald. And with that, the shambolic show of support for those who stood with Zakia Jafri was over.

Also read: Setalvad seeks time to reply to queries, Sreekumar claims innocence: Cops

More disturbingly, the Congress statement did not comment on the obiter dicta in the Supreme Court order where the justices suggested the case was pursued with “ulterior design”. While such comments or suggestions by a judge in an order or an observation in the court have no direct legal standing, they subsequently provided a justificatory narrative for the actions of the Gujarat police against Setalvad and others.

The observations read: “At the end of the day, it appears to us that a coalesced effort of the disgruntled officials of the State of Gujarat along with others was to create sensation by making revelations which were false to their own knowledge. …Intriguingly, the present proceedings have been pursued for last 16 years (from submission of complaint dated 8.6.2006 running into 67 pages and then filing a protest petition dated 15.4.2013 running into 514 pages) including with the audacity to question the integrity of every functionary involved in the process of exposing the devious stratagem adopted (to borrow the submission of the learned counsel of the SIT), obviously to keep the pot boiling, for ulterior design.(sic)”

The learned judges chose to directly use the accusation made by the counsel for the Special Investigation Team (SIT) of Gujarat. The court then made further adverse observations (again irrelevant to the case before it) that “all those involved in such abuse of process, need to be in the dock and proceed with in accordance with the law.” One can say that this paved the way for the arrest of Setalvad and others on charges of criminal conspiracy, forgery, etc., since the FIR against them quoted from the court order extensively.

The Congress party, despite boasting of a battery of legal experts among its leadership, said nothing about this. Surely it could be pointed out that the long-drawn judicial process itself contributed to “keep the pot boiling”. In the near future, if Zakia Jafri is arrested in the conspiracy case against Setalvad and others, one wonders how the Congress might react.

This is the second time in a month that the Congress has hesitated to take a clear stand against injustice directed at Muslims. Priyanka Gandhi, Congress general secretary in charge of Uttar Pradesh, maintained radio silence when bulldozers razed the houses of Muslims who protested against a BJP spokesperson’s derogatory comments on the Prophet. Barring a few tweets by Shashi Tharoor and others, party leaders were busy demonstrating against the questioning of Rahul Gandhi by the Enforcement Directorate (ED). It makes one think there is perhaps a consensus within the party that because UP Muslims no longer vote for it, it will be imprudent to speak up for them.

For electoral reasons, a defensive party seems compelled to distance itself from civil society activists like Teesta Setalvad and whistle-blowers like R B Sreekumar and Sanjiv Bhat because they are seen as defending the minorities. The party leadership has perhaps forgotten that except for Hindutva, there was little to distinguish its previous stints in government from the BJP except for the Right to Information Act and the Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. Both originated in suggestions from civil society organisations. Otherwise, the Congress from 1991 onwards has left India as much at the mercy of neo-liberal market forces as the present dispensation.

A powerful factor in the party’s retreat from the minorities is its increasing reliance on micro-management of elections, a style driven by the BJP’s successes. Increasing dependence on pre-election surveys by marketing experts forces the party to focus on the lowest common denominators of public perception. The Congress’s political agenda is subject to feedback from the ground, so it is compelled to pander to pro-Hindutva and conservative opinions. This approach attenuates the avant-gardist role of political parties in transforming India into a secular, democratic and inclusive nation.

Even if the Congress could match the BJP in election management, it cannot surpass it bereft of an overarching political vision that is distinctly modern, secular and inclusive. While the BJP subsumes election management within its millennial Hindutva agenda, the Congress seems to have no equivalent strategic vision