Mohammed Zubair described the 10-hour journey to Uttar Pradesh in cramped Delhi police buses as the “most horrific” part of his 23-day incarceration. Despite the journey’s hardships, the co-founder of the AltNews fact-checking website said he found hope in conversations with the police officers who accompanied him.
“I must have met at least 20 cops, chief constables, and constables who would accompany me,” he said. “After speaking with them, I got the impression that there are people who are aware of what’s going on in the country.” Maybe it doesn’t show up in their voting, but they are aware.”
He claimed that the cops were all uniformly critical of loud pro-establishment television news anchors.
“Most of them were Ravish Kumar fans,” he recalled, referring to the mild-mannered NDTV news anchor, a standout figure in India’s increasingly servile television news industry.
“Some have said, ‘theek hai Thoda leftist hai, par mudde ki Baat to Karta hai’ – he may be a leftist, but at least he discusses important issues.” ‘Haan Kabhi Kabhi Kuch zyada kar deta hai, par baaki to Kuch Karte hi nahi’ – he goes overboard at times, but others don’t speak up at all.”
It’s easy to see why the fact-checker might have found solace in those conversations. The barrage of police action against him was primarily the result of a tweet in which he claimed to be criticising a particular television news anchor and channel.
On May 27, Zubair, who has nearly 600,000 Twitter followers, tweeted a video of Nupur Sharma, the spokesperson at the time, going on a tirade against Prophet Mohammad on Times Now, a news channel with a decidedly pro-government slant.
“Prime Time debates in India have become a platform for hate mongers to speak ill of other religions,” he tweeted, tagging the show’s moderator, Navika Sharma, and the channel’s parent company’s managing director, Vineet Jain.
The tweet went viral, sparking a major diplomatic spat, with seven countries summoning Indian ambassadors to protest Sharma’s remarks, including oil-rich nations in the Middle East. She was forced to be suspended . The suspension, however, did not sit well with the party’s supporters, who demanded retaliation against Zubair.
A month later, he was apprehended by Delhi police. The charge: an anonymous Twitter user’s complaint that Zubair’s religious sentiments were hurt because he tweeted a still from a 1983 Bollywood film in 2018.
Soon after, the Uttar Pradesh police department joined the fray. First, Zubair was arrested for referring to three seers accused of hate speech as “hate mongers.” When the court granted him relief in that case, it revived several old cases, most related to Zubair’s fact-checking and documentation of hate speech. The Uttar Pradesh police even formed a special investigation team to look into six cases filed against Zubair across the state.
On July 20, the Supreme Court granted him bail in all of the cases and ordered him not to be arrested in any other case filed against him for the same reason. It also disbanded the Uttar Pradesh police SIT and denied the state counsel’s request that Zubair is restrained.
When I called Zubair four days later on Sunday, he was back home in Bengaluru and had spent the day giving reporters interviews. More were on the way, he said. Nonetheless, he didn’t show any signs of impatience. He started the conversation by apologising for keeping me waiting.
It didn’t surprise me when he told me he had made friends with “almost all 80” inmates in the ward where he was being held at Tihar Jail.
Zubair was imprisoned in the same ward as several “high-profile” people accused of financial crimes. Malvinder Mohan Singh, the former chairman of Ranbaxy Laboratories, was one of his immediate neighbours. “Everyone there had done some multi-billion-dollar scam – and there I was among them for my tweets,” he explained.
Zubair’s cellmate was a businessman who strongly supports the Shiv Sena, a Hindu right-wing party. Naturally, he wasn’t the friendliest when he first met Zubair, telling him that he had seen in the news that the fact-checker had mocked Hindu deities.
But when Zubair was granted bail, he hugged him tightly and cried, “Zubair Bhai, aapki bail lag Gayi!” – you’ve been released on bail.”
After the initial trepidation, the two’s friendship blossomed quickly. “We became so attached to each other in 10-15 days despite having completely different ideologies,” Zubair said. “Perhaps it was due to our interaction. It gave me some hope that people could be changed if we had more interactions.”
Zubair appeared hesitant to speak much about the Nupur Sharma affair, which is understandable. He did, however, emphasise that he did not tweet out Sharma’s video because he thought her comments were blasphemous, as some commentators have suggested.
“All I wanted to do was call the news channel,” he explained. “How come the anchor didn’t even bother stopping… She may have said something inappropriate while in the flow; it is the anchor’s job to stop anyone who crosses a line.”
“I only wanted to call out the anchor and owner of the news channel, which is something I’ve been doing, calling out news channels for platforming hate speech,” he added.
Zubair also mentioned a speech by All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen parliamentarian Imtiyaz Jaleel in which he advocated for violence against Sharma in response to her comments. “I was the first to release the video, claiming it amounted to inciting hatred,” Zubair explained. (Jaleel later claimed that he did not mean what he said and that he had spoken in the language of the crowd to assist the police in dispersing it.)
But did Zubair agree with the police action against Sharma? “I personally believe she should not be arrested, but the government probably wanted things to escalate by not arresting her,” he said. “People began comparing – how can you be arrested for sharing a Facebook post criticising a politician but not her?” I believe that heightened public outrage, leading to rallies calling for her arrest, which unfortunately turned violent.”
Due to the influx of well-wishers and journalists at his home, as well as the lack of a phone of his own after the police seized his old one, Zubair has yet to begin work. But it was only a matter of time before he returned to it – the phone is expected to arrive on Monday. “I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing,” he said.
(The Guardian and Reuters were used as resources)
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