Upon Teesta Setalvad being picked up by the Gujarat Anti-Terror Squad last week, a writer in New York called Salil Tripathi took offence to those passing comments about the size of Teesta’s bungalow when pictures of it flashed all across the country. Using the oxymoron “well earned inheritance”, Salil went on to heap praises on Teesta’s great grandfather, grandfather, and father, unable to comprehend why anyone would question a person’s lifestyle from such an eminent lineage. Describing her as the daughter of the constitution, Salil was the perfect example of an erstwhile Indian elite completely cut off from ground realities, cribbing about how a fellow erstwhile elite was being held to the same standards as any common Indian.
Teesta, though, is no harmless NRI whose books nobody reads and whose tweets serve as everybody’s punching bag. Teesta is probably the finest example of why the erstwhile elite is hated passionately in India today. At the social and political levels, the country has reached an inflection point after which merit and transparency have gradually replaced entitlement. The idea that some people had a divine right to rule, deeply infused into the Indian psyche after independence, is an object of ridicule today. Like many other erstwhile elites, Teesta was a crucial cog in the machinery that kept the old ruling class afloat, especially at the fag end of its heyday.
Starting in the late 1980s and early 1990s, many factors played a part in breaking the traditional power structure that had become the defining feature of Indian politics. It culminated with the advent of Narendra Modi on the national stage in 2014. To the credit of the ruling class, though, they had spotted Modi early enough and realized that he could potentially be the cause of their undoing. The Supreme Court’s verdict acquitting Narendra Modi in the Gujarat riots seems to indicate that from the beginning, Teesta was specifically tasked with ensuring that Modi’s rise was stymied.
Last week, the Supreme Court upheld the clean chit that the Special Investigative Team (SIT) had given to Narendra Modi for the Gujarat riots. In its judgment, it made damning observations of the role Teesta had played to undermine the state, undermine the courts, keep the pot boiling for political gains and misappropriate funds. According to the judgment, Teesta had repeatedly exploited petitioner Zakia Jafri’s emotions. Teesta had used her position of influence to tutor Zakia for the statement to be made before the Nanavati Shah Commission. Zakia later admitted during her cross-examination that she had never read the statement submitted to the commission. The court also noted that to prolong the case, goalposts were shifted, and new allegations were added at regular intervals by the appellant, all at the behest of Teesta. The appellant made several false claims about how bodies were intentionally paraded to cause riots, how meetings were held to restrain the police, the gruesome details of the riots, and how due process was not followed. All of this was found to be false in the course of the investigation. The court also observed that Teesta had fabricated documents, and nineteen witnesses had taken on record prepared statements that she had given them, which they had merely signed. Teesta also misappropriated funds that she had collected for the riot victims, using it for her personal pleasure. Another damning observation was that Teesta had written letters to the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights at the United Nations about the case while it was ongoing, essentially questioning the integrity of the SIT and the courts at an international forum. The Supreme Court-appointed SIT had taken strong exception to this and had made her give an undertaking that this will never be repeated in the future before finally closing the matter.
In its judgment, it made damning observations of the role Teesta had played to undermine the state, undermine the courts, keep the pot boiling for political gains and misappropriate funds. According to the judgment, Teesta had repeatedly exploited petitioner Zakia Jafri’s emotions
In other words, Teesta committed fraud and perjury in the most outright manner, with a clear agenda. However, what is startling is how such an obvious falsehood was concealed and even propagated as gospel truth by the media, the intelligentsia, and other opinion-makers. Individuals like Madhu Kishwar and Uday Mahurkar successfully exposed the entire charade. The electorate did not seem to buy it either, ensuring that Narendra Modi was re-elected each time he faced them. However, Teesta and her colleagues were able to run one of independent India’s most vile and shameful campaigns for a long duration and at a large-scale only because they were in cahoots with the ruling class. How Teesta was an insider working at the behest of this class is well-known, since the 2002 riots was not her only project. From changing school textbooks with the aim to remove what she described as anti-minority prejudices to landing big sums of funding for her NGO through Kapil Sibal’s ministry, it is evident as to why very few in the mainstream attempted to challenge her blatantly fraudulent version of the Gujarat riots. Earlier this week, her former colleague Rais Khan Pathan confirmed how closely they had worked with the ruling class. Recollecting his days with Teesta, he said that the late Ahmed Patel had ensured a steady flow of funds for their 2002 riots campaign and that even Sonia Gandhi had directly encouraged and guided them.
The court also noted that to prolong the case, goalposts were shifted, and new allegations were added at regular intervals by the appellant, all at the behest of Teesta. The appellant made several false claims about how bodies were intentionally paraded to cause riots, how meetings were held to restrain the police, the gruesome details of the riots, and how due process was not followed
One must note that it was because of this campaign that Narendra Modi, as a sitting Chief Minister, was not granted an American visa. Considering he would be the next Prime Minister, the campaign essentially put Indian foreign and security policy in potential jeopardy. This is exactly how the old elite functioned, routinely sacrificing India at the altar of the ruling class and reaping personal benefits through this arrangement. They operated in the slickest and most shameless of ways, ensuring that the ruling class remained a constant come what may. Teesta, born into an eminent family and making a career out of troubleshooting for the ruling class, was the archetypal old elite. India has moved on. The likes of Salil Tripathi have not. They still wonder why the unperfumed masses look at a fellow elite with so much contempt, seek punishment for their wrongdoings, and raise questions about their plush bungalows.
Ajit Datta is an author and political commentator. He is the biographer of Assam's Chief Minister Dr. Himanta Biswa Sarma, and has columns in several publications. He is one of the voices behind The Frustrated Indian, and has co-founded one of India's foremost literature festivals, the Pondy Lit Fest.