I’m not a hot off the shelf book reader. Most of the books I read are suggestions from my friends or found during my reading or research. When Teesta Setalvad’s memoir “Foot Soldier of the Constitution” appeared I simply could not resist. Her indomitable spirit in spite all the wild allegations, smearing of reputation, false cases, public humiliation, personal attacks and trolling amazed me. I wanted to know what keeps her growing. Thankfully, this book has all the answers.
We all know Teesta Setalvad as the face of the Gujarat justice movement. In fact, she is the engine that powers this movement. Without her, could there have been fight for justice for the victims of Gujarat pogrom? Without Teesta and her team at “Citizens for justice and Peace” I sincerely doubt that there could have been so many convictions including that of a minister. But Teesta’s work for justice and communal harmony doesn’t start in 2002. It started way back in 1984 communal violence in Bombay. She also was also at the forefront reporting and organising for peace and harmony in the post Babri-Masjid riots in Bombay during 1992-93. It was these experiences that shaped Teesta the “Foot Soldier of the Constitution”. During those periods of mayhem and lawlessness, she saw the cracks in the Republic of India. She saw how constitution failed for the poor and the marginalised. She also saw how the so called fourth pillar of our republic, the media, failed in its duties. That’s why Teesta and her partner Javed Anand started ‘Communalism Combat’.
Their work at Communalism Combat at is one of the highest peaks of modern journalism in India. Teesta and Javed were prophets. By meticulously accumulating facts, assessing it with their experience, their insights warned us of what is in store for India. Cover story after cover story, they warned us of the fault-lines of communal harmony in India. They feared and worried about the growing communal viciousness in Gujarat. They saw it coming. They warned us. But nobody took heed. In 2003 Angana Chatterjee, through Communalism Combat, warned of another Gujarat shaping up in Orissa and it happened in Kandhamal in 2008, where more than 100 Christians were massacred by the Hindutva forces.
Coming back to my initial question ‘what keeps Teesta going’ against all odds? Read this book and you will get the answer. I’ll share with you what I understood. Her dogged commitment to constitutionalism.
Teesta had traveled across Gujarat doing stories for Communalism Combat. She knew the pulse of Gujarat. She saw it coming. When it happened, fortunately she had so many contacts in Gujarat. Many victims called her up, frantically to save their lives. Teesta acted like a mission control room and called up police officials, civil society activists and whoever she could get hold of asking them to save lives. I believe, in those traumatic days, she might have saved the lives of many helpless people. We must salute her just for that.
Risking her life she went to Gujarat where she was physically attacked many times. She helped survivors of the communal carnage get help from as many quarters as possible. Then she began her legal battle. Taking up one case after another, pouring over tens of thousands of documents, she and her team meticulously built up case after case, that resulted in the conviction of 117 perpetrators of communal violence including Maya Kodnani, a minister in the then Modi state cabinet.
Through her life as a journalist, then as an activist for justice she saw the wide cracks in the implementation of our constitution. Gujarat pogrom was one the greatest constitutional failures that the country had ever seen. What followed was not much different. Teesta meticulously narrates the constitutional failure of our executive, legislature, judiciary and the fourth pillar, the media.
It is her stubborn commitment to constitutionalism and justice that drives this foot soldier of Indian Constitution. It is this commitment that gives her energy to fight all her battles. It is sad that this fighter for constitutionalism being targeted, vilified to the point of crucifixion. When our constitution faces one of the greatest threats in the history of this republic, reading this book will give you immense courage and strength. Standing up for justice is our constitutional right. Standing up for Teesta Setalvad in this moment of crisis also a way of protecting the constitution.
Finally an appreciation of the style of the book. It’s a short book. Teesta could have a written a voluminous book, given her experiences. But she kept it short and to the point. It is a compelling reading. You won’t put down the book once you started reading. It is a must read for all those who value our constitution and constitutionalism. Thanks to LeftWord Books for publishing this wonderful memoir.
Binu Mathew is the editor of www.countercurrents.org. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org