Expose of activism and the truth

A few commentators including Pratap Bhanu Mehta have tried to expose the activists working among the Gujarat carnage victims for “fabricating evidence”. But the rebuttal by the activists, especially by Teesta Setalwad, was completely ignored by the media. We are presenting both, in order to let our readers judge for themselves, the truth behind this expose. Interestingly both PBM’s comment, and Teesta’s rebuttal appeared on the same day, April 15th, and it is not clear whether PBM’s piece was influenced by what Teesta describes as distorted reporting. We will be happy to publish (as a guest post)any rejoinder from PBM, who is one of our valued readers.

Readers will find two more posts published on April 14 here and here useful to understand the controversy. TOI’s controversial report can be read here. ET’s story is available here.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta replies:

1. My intention was not to expose Teesta. I have no competence and desire to do so. I was just stuck by the fact that this seemed to be an important story, carried by a “credible” newspaper, the Economic Times, followed by TOI and a slightly different version by IBN.

2. I tried to verify whether TOI indeed had the SIT in question and was led to believe they did. I know we are sceptical of news reports, but I assumed that ET would have at least some minimal standards of accuracy in reporting.

3.That seemed to me sufficient to warrant a blog comment. Now if it turns out that the ET and TOI “lied” I will be relieved and distraught in different ways. I will be relieved that charges against Teesta are untrue. I will be distraught because it will raise serious questions about whom one can trust in matters of reportage. It will confirm, in a different way, the deep crisis of credibility and adjudication facing Indian society. After all, it was the same reporters and newspapers and editors one relied on for reporting on the horrendous carnage in Gujarat. And once the credibility of all these institutions of reporting declines, everyone will feel entitled to believe what they want.

4. I also regret that many responses seem to bring out the latent crisis in Indian democracy. So many people jumped to the unwarranted conclusion that if some of what is alleged to be said against Teesta is true, it automatically exonerates the Gujarat government. This is far from being the case.

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  • Gujarat riots and the Anti-Sikh riots in Delhi just go to show that the best response to mass killings in this country is to privately weep for the dead and the injured and to carry on with your private little life. After all, who will you trust?

    The State, Police, Courts or the media? The State is often the sponsor. The Police force is an inferior stream of people who are best harvested for profit when one takes to office. Courts often are content to give grand Orders for official consumption. And the media? They cannot expect to outsell their competitor if they continue to shell out stories primarily to outrage their readers. After all, nobody can successfully build a profit center with nothing more than a plan to everlastingly outrage its subscribers.

    This Nation wants a selfless and a fearless crusader. So, it is on a tireless pursuit to find one. After all, when the entire Nation is on a hunt mode, someone or the other will emerge to take the mantle. Like everything else in life, people must feel disenchanted sooner or later with such a Hero. He is then consigned to a dustbin so that the Nation can renew its search for a newer Hero. So, Teetsa has now fallen. Who will we settle for next?

  • The story on Teesta sounded too sensational and was hard to believe. However, looking at article in TOI and then an editorial by PBM I was getting convinced. Thanks for bringing out the “other side” as well as PBM reply.

    I went to wikipedia to check about Teesta and there I was surprisded to find that wikipedia has the controversy.


  • The ideal thing for Pratap Bhanu Mehta to do is to write yet another blog comment in I.E. mentioning this fact out. Anything else will be a dis-service to the set of bold activists who have taken on the formidable might of the Gujarat Government led by remorseless Narendra Modi, in trying to bring out justice for many a hapless victim of the horrendous Gujarat riots.

    We, as respecters of the law, are willing to be patient with the trials and tribulations that the cases are topsy-turvied with. But it is another thing to take in scurvy reports in the mainstream press and raise questions about the defenders of the meek. I wonder what the priorities of Pratap Bhanu Mehta are.

    I am reminded of Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s essay on the criticism of Sonal Shah here for some reason. When questions were raised about Ms Shah’s associations with the Hindu right, Mehta had a swift rejoinder in place. When the apologists of the right have taken on a bold defender of the hapless victims, the media played along and Pratap Bhanu Mehta took cue from that to launch a diatribe against Teesta Setalvad and company. Such positions don’t inspire a lot of confidence in Mr. Mehta’s punditry, despite his “corrective” blog post here.

  • Both the TOI and ET headlines are factually incorrect. They should have been: Gujarat govt. counsel alleges that “Teesta cooked up killings” or whatever.
    And PBM should have checked the reports more rigorously, instead of making the assumption that, other newspapers and media ignored this report on Teesta. In my opinion his reply here too is a feeble excuse for the allegations on secular activists that he makes in his post in the blog. How could PBM go on and give a commentary on something without being sure of the very fact, that the thing being commented upon is actually true.

  • Dilip D’Souza has an article over at Kafila.org where he points out that while in the original TOI report, it was stated that the Kauser Bano incident, the killing of British nationals and the Naroda Patiya massacre were all cooked up, in his rebuttal, the reporter has not referred to these incidents. So, it is highly likely that the SIT did not refer to these incidents as untrue in their report.

    So, very serious allegations of cooking up stories were raised against CJP and then when questioned, the reporter has chosen not to refer to these incidents at all in his rebuttal. If his source for the alleged cooking up of these incidents is the Gujarat government’s statement, then it is only fair that he admit it.

    Also, it is worth noting here that while the reporter and the Gujarat government have access to the SIT report, the CJP and the victims have not been provided with a copy of the same. The CJP is in the unenviable position of responding to selective quotations from the SIT report.

  • as someone who has written opinion columns based on single news stories, i must say that it must be a sad day when we cannot trust news items in respected national dailies. one tries to corroborate, but sometimes, for whatever reasons, there is only one story available. for example, that the government was considering a prevention of torture bill was reported, to the best of my knowledge, only by the Indian Express—and I did rely on that fact in a subsequent article. the blame must primarily lie with the newspaper in question.

    i am especially uncomfortable with the insinuation that Pratap may be an apologist for the Right. as someone who has followed his work for a very long time, this is absolutely not true. in fact, he is one of the few intellectuals who has managed to walk the non-partisan line, maintaining a rare integrity in his commitment only to his principles (in this case liberalism). in fact, one laments the fact that we have so few non-partisan public intellectuals. he might have made a mistake in this case, perhaps given teesta’s remarkable history of unwavering commitment to secularism he should have been a bit more careful. there may yet be a duty to clarify (on IE blog) on Pratap’s part, but very few intellectuals realise that politics is not always us-vs-them, rather it should be a battle for ideas. he is one of them. and valuable for that reason.

  • I couldn’t agree more with Tarunabh. Dr. Mehta doesn’t run an investigative agency, and he doesn’t attempt to either. Those who write opinion columns are not reporters, and the distinction is crucial. Columnists don’t collect and report data, they analyze and reflect on it. I’m not sure what qualifies as “scurvy reports in the mainstream press”, but let’s be clear that Dr. Mehta relied on data published in leading newspapers that are not known to have any obvious political affiliation. If different newspapers, with similar standing, had presented radically different reports on an issue, it could be argued that a columnist should do further research to assess which report he/she should rely on. That didn’t happen in this case.

    As regards the suggestion that Dr. Mehta’s article reflects a bias or partisan view, a large part of me strongly feels that it shouldn’t even be dignified with a response. Anyone who has read Dr. Mehta over the years will have to make little effort to see that he has, when necessary, criticized and commended those on opposite ends of the political spectrum. He’s had the courage to take bold decisions out of principle (for instance, resigning from the NKC), and the ability to constructively reflect upon different political institutions and personalities. Dr. Mehta’s article was hardly meant to “expose” Teesta, it was meant to emphasize that “the rule of law and the cause of truth should not be allowed to be subordinated to any ideology: communal or secular”. How many of us can disagree this proposition of Dr. Mehta’s?

    Edward Said once wrote that: “Nothing… is more reprehensible than those habits of mind in the intellectual that adduce avoidance, that characteristic turning away from a difficult and principled position which you know to be the right one, but which you decide not to take. You do not want to appear too political; you are afraid of seeming controversial… you want to keep a reputation for being balanced, objective, moderate; your hope is to be asked back, to consult… to remain within the responsible mainstream…”. We should feel very proud that Dr. Mehta is one of India’s very few public intellectuals that lives up to Said’s ideas and who, in Said’s words, has the courage to “speak the truth to power”.

  • May I add a note to this, as someone mentioned here as well as after having had an exchange with Dr Mehta after his IE article last week.

    I don’t believe he needs to defend himself to anyone. Dr Mehta’s work speaks for itself: he is reasoned, articulate and principled, and has been so for as long as I’ve been reading him.

    In this case, my feeling is that the original report by Mahapatra itself did not stand up to scrutiny, on various counts. (And even less so after his “rebuttal” two days later). That’s all.

    The fallout of this whole episode seems to be this: plenty of people now believe the Kausar Banu murder was a “myth”. Even if the SIT report does not make this case (and I have reason to believe it does not), the impression is now out there, and will remain.

    All in all, it reminds me of the impression that has gained ground over several years, that the 1993 Bombay bomb blasts “caused” the 1992-93 Bombay riots. (Forgive a plug, but see my Just as Orwell predicted).

  • Sorry, I had meant to make one last point, peripheral though it may be.

    Madhav Khosla said:
    Columnists don’t collect and report data, they analyze and reflect on it.

    Fair enough, but I think everybody who puts out anything for public consumption has a responsibility to check to their satisfaction data and information they use, and sometimes that means collecting it themselves. Basic journalism.

    It doesn’t mean you’ll always get everything right. It means a certain integrity about what you write. I’ve seen plenty of opinion writers fail that standard.

    But not Dr Mehta.

  • This is a problem which I think many readers of newspapers and magazines may be facing.Often some
    news items appear in one or two newspapers while they find no place
    in other newspapers.Moreover sometimes newspapers carry exclusive stories which will not appear in other newspapers.The stories may be exclusive, but how true are they?. I wish PBM had checked the the facts before writing. I understand the difficulty in going through all newspapers and then trying to cull out the truth. Often national newspapers do not carry news that gets prominence in regional/vernacular newspapers and
    vice versa.One comes to know of them only when some other magazine
    writes about them later.In this case had there been a website of SIT it could have helped readers
    to cross check the truth of the
    news report.Perhaps a clarification from SIT would have been useful. I think in future SIT should issue press statements so that this sort of reporting does
    not go unchecked.

    Last week or so, some bloggers in
    Tamil wrote about 150 bodies of Indian soldiers lying in Medical
    College in Nungambakkam, Madras.
    These soldiers had died in the war with LTTE in SriLanka.The news was
    supposed to be based on a news story broken by a French news agency.But no such news was reported by any other news agency
    or TV Channel. I cross checked and found it to be a hoax. Moreover as there was no medical college in Nungambakkam, its credibility was
    doubtful.The news was a hoax but it was posted by many bloggers.
    They took it to be true, because
    they were of the view that India was fighting a war in Sri Lanka.
    They did not bother to crosscheck because it fitted with their perceptions about India’s role
    in the ongoing conflict. So what we tend to accept as news often depends on our deeply held views and opinions on the issue.

  • No one is trying to make a case against PBM here. What are being questioned are his priorities and his views vis-a-vis the Gujarat riots. If you read my post again, you will notice that I am saying in other words that the entire set of allegations against Teesta & company were first raised by the defenders of the Gujarat government (apologists, I said) (in court) and these were published almost as "truth" by journalists in the media. PBM immediately takes this as a starting point to launch a critique of Teesta Setalvad & company.

    I am juxtaposing this opinion of PBM with his earlier opinion on the Sonal Shah episode. When questions were raised about Ms. Shah's associations with the Hindu Right, PBM pointed out that this was innuendo and did not stand the test of scrutiny. Yet, in many ways, PBM did the same against Teesta based on "scurvy reports" (I stand by this assessment).

    This is not a report card of PBM's credentials as myself and anyone else are familiar with his writings as a public intellectual. I find it problematic to reduce any questioning of views as a questioning of persona.

    My larger point is that activists such as Teesta and her colleagues are engaging in a brave battle against communalism and against tremendous odds. The Gujarat riots happened and the happenings were violent, tragic and gory. PBM suggests (based on the reports) that the activists trumped up the incidents to a "pornography of violence". These were loose words considering the political and legal situation in the state. And coming from a public intellectual, those words and opinions will come under scrutiny. Please do not reduce this into an attack against persona.

  • Some quotes that are relevant to this discussion, from Gujarat riot witnesses not tutored: SIT (Hindustan Times, April 22):

    * The Special Investigation Team (SIT) … on Tuesday slammed reports that riots witnesses were tutored to give false evidence for exaggeration of the situation, by activists and organisations helping the victims.

    * [T]he Supreme Court termed the leak as a “betrayal of the faith reposed in those to whom the report was allowed access”.

    * “The alleged reported leaks appear to be inspired by dubious motives. I cannot confirm such claims. The act is highly condemnable,” [SIT chief] Raghavan said.

    * The SIT sources said the alleged leaks appear to have been based on statements of state police officials and “cannot be termed as findings of the report.”

  • Dear Dilip,

    Forgive me but the SIT statement as reported in the Hindustan Times only adds to the confusion. The way I read it (and please free to correct me), Mr. Raghavan appears to be taking aim at those who leaked the contents of the report. However, Mr. Raghavan does not say anything to firmly rebut the (alleged) contents of the report. Indeed, what he says is:

    Asked about the leaked contents of the report, the SIT chief, R. K. Raghavan told Hindustan Times that he could not confirm whether the leaked contents were true.

    “I am answerable only to the Supreme Court. The alleged reported leaks appear to be inspired by dubious motives. I cannot confirm such claims. The act is highly condemnable,” Raghavan said.The only firm rebuttal is from the “SIT sources” which is, however, unsubstantiated since the report is still not public. I hope the Supreme Court now makes the SIT report public. That is the only way of preventing further damage to the polity.

    Lastly, I wonder why the Hindustan Times did not see fit to ask Mr. Raghavan why the report was shown to the Gujarat government (and also to the Times of India) when it was commissioned by the Supreme Court. Did the SIT show the report to the Gujarat government or was it the Supreme Court? Either way, inexplicable. If it was leaked, then isn’t an inquiry warranted?

    A final note: Why this great need for secrecy not only in this specific instance but in others too? A lot of times, it’s totally misplaced. One of the most idiotic ones is the Henderson-Brooks report on the 1962 disaster. Given that Lt. Gen. Henderson-Brooks migrated to Australia, most researchers knew the contents of the report anyway (just by talking to the General) – and yet our government refuses to make the report public even now!

  • Suresh, my feeling is, Raghavan is doing what he should with a report the SC has deemed must be confidential. (Why it is confidential is another question). He will not divulge the contents, meaning he will not confirm or deny anything alleged to be in it. That’s what his words mean, to me.

    I too wish the report is made public. I suspect it will be a long wait. In the meantime, people firmly believe various crimes in Gujarat were made up.