Activist Teesta Setalvad asked to “surrender immediately” earlier this month by the Gujarat High Court in a case linked to the Gujarat riots, scored a major reprieve from the Supreme Court, which granted her bail.
The court, in its observations, noted that the charge sheet had been filed against Ms Setalvad, eliminating the necessity for custodial interrogation. However, the Supreme Court directed Ms Setalvad not to influence witnesses in the ongoing case.
During the hearing, Justice BR Gavai questioned the motives and timing of Ms Setalvad’s arrest: “What were you doing till 2022? What investigation have you done from June 24 and June 25 that you decided she has done something so heinous as to warrant her arrest?”
In especially sharp comments, Justice Gavai pointed out that if the authorities’ contentions were to be accepted, the Definition of Evidence Act would be rendered moot.
“Definition of Evidence Act would have to be thrown in the dustbin if your contention has to be accepted. We’re only putting you on guard that if you delve more into it, we will have to make observations…” the court told the prosecutor.
Echoing the sentiment, Justice Dipankar Datta criticised the notion of holding someone in custody until a verdict is pronounced.
“Initially, we were feeling that there was a case under [Section] 194. Now we think the case under Section 194 is suspect. And you want someone to be undertrial and in custody, till verdict is pronounced,” he said.
Ms Setalvad’s legal battles began in earnest last year. She was arrested in June 2022 along with former Gujarat police chief RB Sreekumar and former IPS officer Sanjiv Bhatt for allegedly using her close associates and riot victims to file “false and fabricated affidavits before the Supreme Court with a view to unseat the establishment and to tarnish the image of the establishment and the then chief minister.”
The Supreme Court extended Ms Setalvad’s interim bail on July 5, pending the next hearing on Wednesday. This decision came in light of Ms Setalvad’s petition against the Gujarat High Court order that instructed her to surrender. The high court previously denied her request for regular bail.
The Supreme Court has protected Ms Setalvad from arrest since July 1, putting the high court order on hold. The court granted the stay without commenting on the merits of the case but underscored that the single judge was not correct in refusing any form of protection for Ms Setalvad.
Ms Setalvad was arrested just two days after the court dismissed a plea by her and Zakia Jafri, whose husband Ehsan Jafri, a former MP, was killed in the riots. They had challenged a probe that cleared Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Chief Minister at the time of the riots, of any wrongdoing.
Ms Setalvad, a vocal critic of the then Gujarat administration, was released from jail in September last year after she received interim bail from the Supreme Court.