The arrest of Mohammed Zubair, co-founder of AltNews, a fact-checking news website, in New Delhi on June 27 for allegedly hurting religious sentiments and inciting enmity is yet another instance of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government cracking down on critics and those speaking up against Hindutva violence.
According to police officials, Zubair was arrested on a complaint by an anonymous Twitter user, who goes by the name Hanuman Bhakt regarding a tweet by Zubair in 2018.
In that tweet, Zubair shared a screengrab from the 1983 Hindi film Kissi Se Na Kehna of the Hanuman Hotel, which previously went by the name “Honeymoon Hotel.” (Hanuman is the name of a Hindu deity.)
“Before 2014: Honeymoon Hotel, After 2014: Hanuman Hotel,” Zubair tweeted, an oblique reference to the Hindu nationalists coming to power in 2014 and the huge change that India has undergone since.
“Linking our God Hanuman ji with honeymoon is a direct insult of Hindus because he is brahmchari [bachelor]. @DCP_CCC_Delhi kindly take action against this guy,” the complainant, Hanuman Bhakt tweeted, tagging the Delhi Police.
Based on this complaint, Delhi Police registered a case against Zubair for tweeting “a questionable image with a purpose to deliberately insult the god of a particular religion,” police probing the case said.
While a tweet posted four years ago may have provided the government with a handy excuse to arrest Zubair, recent events are more likely to have triggered the police action.
On May 26, BJP national spokesperson Nupur Sharma made derogatory comments about Islam and Prophet Mohammad. Her remarks set off protests worldwide and several governments in the Muslim world lodged strong protests and condemned the Indian government, with some even demanding a public apology.
It was Zubair’s tweets that made Sharma’s remarks go viral, drawing global attention and outrage. The outrage forced the Narendra Modi government to distance itself from Sharma’s comments, and the BJP to suspend her.
In the month since, Hindutva trolls have targeted Zubair on Twitter and threatened him and his family. They have drawn attention to his earlier tweets, claimed these hurt their religious sentiments and called for police action, Hanuman Bhakt’s tweet among them.
Since 2017 when AltNews was founded, the website has done stellar work in fighting fake news in India. “It is apparent that AltNews’ alert vigilance was resented by those who use disinformation as a tool to polarise society and rake nationalist sentiments,” the Editors Guild of India (EGI) said in a statement following Zubair’s arrest, a reference to Hindu right-wing websites and trolls who have been targeting liberal Indians for their critique of the Modi government and its appeasement of Hindutva radicals.
Zubair was among those who were trolled for laying bare fake news and for calling out the godi (lapdog) media, those sections of the media that are the Modi government’s cheerleaders.
Since the BJP came to power in 2014, trolling, intimidation and police actions against journalists has grown phenomenally. Journalists who are critical of the Modi government are threatened with rape and murder. Police have rarely provided them with protection. Rather the police often acts hand-in-glove with the ruling party and Hindutva activists to file cases against journalists.
Among the victims of the government’s hounding of journalists are Siddique Kappan and Farhad Shah. Kappan was on his way to Hathras in Uttar Pradesh to report on the gang rape and murder of a Dalit woman when he was arrested for a story he never got to write. He remains in jail since late 2020, charged under the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.
As for Shah, a Kashmiri journalist and editor of Kashmirwalla, he has been jailed under the Public Safety Act, a preventive detention law under which a detainee can be kept in jail for two years without charges being framed or a trial, for allegedly “glorifying terrorism, spreading fake news & inciting general public for creating L&O [law and order] situations.”
Zubair is the latest victim of the government’s attempts to silence critics.
Ironically, Zubair’s arrest coincided with Prime Minister Modi’s participation in the G-7 summit in Germany, where leaders of the G-7 and five partner countries including India committed to “protecting the freedom of expression and opinion online and offline and ensuring a free and independent media.”
“Are the Union Home Ministry and Delhi Police not on the same page with the Prime Minister on the commitment to freedom of expression?” the EGI asked, demanding Zubair’s immediate release.