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Is Teesta more equal than seer?

Is Teesta more equal than seer?

Author: Swapan Dasgupta
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: November 27, 2004

There was a time when Communists believed that the law was an instrument of class oppression, inherently incapable of delivering justice to the poor and the underdog. It speaks volumes for Indian democracy that Left organisations now routinely invoke the glory and majesty of law. Assertions that the "law must take its course" and that "all are equal in the eyes of law" have become clichés in the age of Public Interest Litigation and judicial activism.

In recent weeks, the celebration of law has touched dizzying heights. Cabinet Ministers and Chief Ministers have been unseated on the strength of non-bailable warrants and even a person of such exalted standing as the Shankaracharya of Kanchi has been remanded in police and judicial custody. The rule of law, it would seem, is finally upon us.

Yet, there are disquieting trends. In Kancheepuram, Kathiravan, a key prosecution witness in the Sankar Raman murder case, told the Magistrate that he had been tortured by the Tamil Nadu police into implicating the Kanchi seer. Subsequently, two other witnesses, Maathu Bhaskar and Sylvester Stalin, stated that the identification parade organised by the police was rigged.

These are serious charges and raise disconcerting questions about the real motives behind the arrest of the Shankaracharya. If the three witnesses are telling the truth, there is every reason to believe that the Kanchi seer has been framed. Yet, to prevent him from securing bail, two additional cases have been slapped against him. After all, or so the argument goes, a free Shankaracharya has the resources to scuttle the inquiries and tamper with the evidence.

A similar drama is being enacted in Mumbai's Mazgaon Sessions Court. In the celebrated Best Bakery Case, the star witness Zahira Sheikh has publicly alleged that she was intimidated into making false accusations against the accused by activist Teesta Setalvad. According to Zahira, Teesta told her that "You have to fight for your community for which even if you have to tell lies, you will have to tell lies before the court."

Zahira's claim has been backed by her brother Nafitullah Sheikh who has charged Teesta with misusing his signature for her own ends. To complicate matters, Nafitullah's estranged wife Yasmeen Sheikh has accused Nafitullah and Zahira of being economical with the truth. They, in turn, have suggested Yasmeen wasn't even present at the Best Bakery on the night of March 1, 2002, when a mob went berserk.

The case has taken an interest twist because of allegations of money changing hands. It has been suggested that Teesta enticed Zahira into changing her original testimony to the court in Vadodara. Likewise, there are charges that a pro-saffron Janadhikar Samiti is bankrolling Zahira's second U-turn.

Zahira's spat with Teesta could have been treated as a private matter had it not been for the fact that the Best Bakery Case is no ordinary criminal trial. The re-trial in Mumbai has arisen out of the Supreme Court's virtual expression of no-confidence in the Gujarat Judiciary. It has come about because Zahira said she lied to the Vadodara court, an admission that formed the basis of Teesta's campaign to move the case out of Gujarat.

If it now transpires that Teesta has influenced and intimidated Zahira and her family into giving a made-to-order testimony, it constitutes a charge of subverting justice, not to speak of misleading the Supreme Court for political ends. By the same logic that explains the Shankaracharya's continuing incarceration, Teesta's right to move freely in Mumbai should have been curtailed.

After all, Teesta is not an ordinary citizen; she is the most public face of secular activism. Her ability to move Governments and influence the media is not in question. Yet, the Mumbai High Court has decreed that Teesta be given a 72-hour notice of any possible arrest. It is a convenience that must be appreciated because she is the conscience of secularism. In today's India, she has more rights than the Shankaracharya.

In the eyes of law, all are equal. But some are more equal than others.

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