Teesta Setalvad restarts her NGO to fight for Dalits, Kashmiri Pandits, LGBTQ community

Nov 30, 2017, 16:12 IST | Hemal Ashar

Relaunching her NGO as a full-fledged human rights and legal resources platform, Teesta Setalvad says she will now fight for Dalits, Kashmiri Pandits and the LGBTQ community

Mumbai's rights activist Teesta Setalvad, who is synonymous with fighting for victims of communal violence in Gujarat, has broadened the ambit of her non-profit Citizens for Justice and Peace to include fighting for other groups - LGBTQ issues, Dalit rights and women's rights.

Teesta Setalvad, CJP secretary
Teesta Setalvad, CJP secretary

The non-profit announced that it was widening its umbrella, as it re-launched its website on November 26, saying it is now a "full-fledged human rights and legal resources platform". Is this a new lease of life for the CJP? Is this a defiant blow to a government that has withdrawn permission for foreign funding? CJP secretary Teesta spoke to mid-day on the organisation redefining itself. Edited excerpts:

The ambulance made operational by CJP in 2009, which is still running
The ambulance made operational by CJP in 2009, which is still running

Why have you broadened CJP's work? Is it because getting justice for the victims of the Gujarat communal riots is over or tapering off now?
We will not rest until every single survivor and victims' families have got justice. So, there is no question of anything tapering off. Our campaign is still on in the court and we will continue our work at a sure and steady pace. We just wish to use the expertise gained, in the courts and beyond, into other areas of democratic reform and build alliances with other groups on the ground. CJP has always stood against bomb terror and mob terror. In 2006 (Mumbai train blasts) and 2008 (Mumbai and Ahmedabad blasts), we were active in raising issues related to the survivors, including rehabilitation and compensation. In 2009, after the ghastly terror attacks, CJP mobilised with other groups across the city and raised money through music concerts (Jethro Tull and Anushka Shankar) to run two ambulances in Mumbai. These still run through 1298.

What do you mean by fighting for other rights? Can you give an example of what you have taken up outside the Gujarat ambit?
We have joined hands with various forest workers and Adivasi groups to help them fight for their 'Jal-Jungle-Zameen' and ensure that their rights to land and hearth are preserved. There are multiple cases against them - thousands of false FIRs against these Adivasis and even women forest workers - and they face constant harassment from the local police. We have also joined hands with other human rights defenders working in a variety of fields, like preventing child sexual abuse and prisoner rights reforms. We are championing a petition to get the National Commission for Women and the National Human Rights Commission to intervene in the Padmavati matter, to put an end to the culture of publicly threatening women. We will also take up the issue of standard operating procedures that police ought to apply for peaceful protesters.

I read that you are fighting for the Pandits of Kashmir. What exactly are you fighting for? You are seen as a champion of the Muslim community's rights. Is this an attempt to break away from the stereotype?
Whether it was in the magazine Communalism Combat, which folded up in 2012, or later in CJP, we have vociferously taken a stand against all forms of hegemony, majority and minority communalism, right to dissent within the minority, etc. We have always raised the issue of Kashmiri Pandits (800 families who stayed back in the valley) and raised funds through a public appeal last year (CJP). But in today's India (evolving negatively over decades), even media perceptions and discourses have been dictated by a stark majoritarianism. So speaking for the minorities to keep Indian democracy alive and flourishing is (mis)interpreted (even by the media who repeat without examination the propaganda of supremacist groups) as being pro- this or the other. Remember who and how the term 'secular' turned into 'pseudo-secular'?

Do you think this has given your non-profit a new lease of life?
It is not like we were gasping for breath. We have been living, breathing and thriving just fine. CJP and its hard work over the last 15 years is for everyone to see. We just wanted to take the next step in our evolution into a full-fledged human rights and legal resources platform. The new website will make all the knowledge we have collected over the years accessible to whoever seeks it, thus empowering them. And create a live platform for a constructive discourse on human rights.

Your non-profit was in trouble over foreign funding. Could you spell out what the status quo is now?
It was a ridiculous, baseless and false set of accusations, and we have provided rebuttals, with documents. We believe that we were targeted because we have never shied away from speaking the truth to power, something that doesn't go down well with the present dispensation. We have stated, and will do so again, that we believe in transparency and accountability - we were the first target of an intolerant and despotic dispensation. Here again, despite elaborate rebuttals with evidence of the baseless charges, large sections of the media (fortunately not all) chose to selectively vilify us, only focusing on the allegations and not the reasoned out replies. However, the vast numbers of our supporters, despite this systemic maligning, have stood firmly with us.

Who funded you? Why have suspicions been raised about these donors?
If you visit the CJP website (www.cjp.org.in) and examine the elaborate press releases, you will find these answers. Some homework before these questions were put would have been good. But since we are used to tirelessly going over old ground, here it is: individuals have made up 90% of CJP's donor base. For over four years, we were supported by the prestigious United Nations Victims for Torture Fund. And since you are asking, none of the donors have ever faulted CJP's (or Sabrang, another non-profit) transparency and accountability.

If your accounts are frozen, how are you going to get the money to carry on your work?
What can we say... you can't keep a good man down, and we are a large and ever-growing group of good people! Please visit the testimonials section of our website to see for yourself who is supporting us. Our thousands of Indian donors allow us to carry on, and we expect this tribe to grow.

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