Efforts to Silence Every Voice against Establishment Exposed

Mohammed Zubair’s case is another case of a long list of people under harassment and oppression to silence their free voices. This also indicates that sobriety in public life is on the decline and protectors are plying as spoilers, observes Syyed Mansoor Agha                                  

Mohammed Zubair, co-founder of the fact-checking website Alt News was released from Tihar jail on July 20 after he was granted interim bail by the Supreme Court in all six cases registered against him in various cities of BJP-ruled UP. In the case registered in Delhi, the court of the ASJ, Patiala House granted him regular bail earlier on July 15.

Almost identical FIRs were filed against him in Lakhimpur Kheri, Hathras and Sitapur over a single tweet exposing the hate speech of saffron-clad right-wing fanatic Bajrang Muni in Sitapur.

The subject matter of another contentious tweet, which attracted the registration of another three FIRs were related to misleading graphics regarding the Gaza bombing on Sudarshan TV. It showed the Grand Mosque of Madinah in the background. The fact-checker exposed the mischief of relating violence with the background image of the Prophet’s Mosque. In fact, after Zubair’s tweet, no incitement or violence was noticed. In this tweet, he tagged Noida police, UP police, and DGP UP, urging them to take suitable action.

On July 20, after hearing the parties, the SC observed that there was no justification for keeping Zubair in continued custody while underlining a fundamental principle, that “the power of arrest must be exercised sparingly.”

Delhi Police arrested Mohammed Zubair on June 27, just a few days after he had drawn attention to provocative comments of BJP leaders Nupur Sharma and Naveen Kumar Jindal. Nupur’s objectionable remark was made during a live TV discussion which had triggered intense protests, loss of life and property, and also international outrage. Shockingly, instead of arresting the duo, the police provided Y category protection to Sharma. There are several other instances also of hate speeches by right-wing activists, and also politicians but the police desisted from taking due action according to the law book.

However, Zubair was arrested albeit over a four-year-old tweet sharing a screenshot from a popular Hindi movie on 24 March 2018. After the passage of four years he was alleged for hurting “religious sentiments” and an FIR was registered after an anonymous person complained electronically. Though there was no indication of any annoying incident due to an impugned tweet, however, a case was registered under Sections 153A (wantonly giving provocation with intent to cause riot) and 295A (deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs) of the IPC. He was taken on remand and offices were searched and several electronic gadgets confiscated. Later scope of the investigation was expanded to FCRA transactions but nothing incriminating was found.

A three-Judge Bench headed by Justice DY Chandrachud, with Justices Surya Kant and AS Bopanna, after hearing the case, granted him interim bail in all six FIRs filed across Uttar Pradesh. Of the six – two are registered in Hathras, one each in Muzaffarnagar, Ghaziabad, Lakhimpur Kheri, and Sitapur. In the seventh case filed in Chandauli, a charge sheet has already been filed. Clubbing all 6 FIRs, the SC transferred them for trial before the Chief Judicial Magistrate in Delhi’s Patiala House Court.

The Apex Court also disbanded the SIT constituted on July 10; the SIT was formed after SC had granted protection to Zubair in the Sitapur case regarding the hate speech of Bajrang Muni. Zubair’s counsel Advocate Vrinda Grover submitted in the SC, “They have set up an SIT (to investigate 6 cases filed in UP). Please look at what they have said is the scope of the investigation – ‘Derogatory remarks on the anchors of channels, inciting religious sentiments of Hindus and insulting gods and goddesses and posting provocative posts’!” Grover pointedly said, “I am bewildered by the first one of making derogatory remarks on the anchors of channels!” and that, “they (SIT) will look into the FIRs at Sitapur, Ghaziabad, Lakhimpur Kheri, Muzaffarnagar, and Hathras.”

A fact-check shows that three of six FIRs are based on complaints by Hindutva proponents and the rest three by employees or district correspondents of Hindutva mouthpiece Sudarshan TV.

The Sitapur case is based upon the complaint of a Hindutva outfit “Hindu Sher Sena” against a tweet in which Zubair tagged a video of Bajrang Muni’s discourse in a gathering. Whatever Muni said is unbecoming of a religious soul. He allegedly exposed his genitals and threatened to rape Muslim women. Zubair tagged the tweet to Sitapur police and UP Police, asking them for taking due action against Muni. After much delay, an FIR was registered and Muni was briefly taken into custody. But the habitual hatemonger is roaming free. In the SC, the ASG representing UP argued that Muni is a “respected religious leader…with a large following”. As ASG put in court, his followers on Twitter swelled from 2.5 to 5.7 lakhs in the past year and he covered the monthly quota within 2-3 days. (One can imagine what type of followers he had!) The ASG argued that calling Muni a hatemonger “raises problems”. After Muni’s video was on social media, NCW also urged the UP police chief strongly to initiate legal action against Muni and his likes, but to no avail.

Holding up SC intervention as hopeful, the Indian Express editorially welcomed the action — “At a time when FIRs are being filed at the drop of a “hurt” hat when arrests become the norm rather than the exception, the court’s doors need to be open wider than ever for it to fulfil its role as the custodian of individual rights.”

The edit expressed hope that red lines the court has drawn “should make authorities to think before acting against individuals on the flimsiest of reasons for assumed hurt to sentiment, reputation and fame of individuals/organisations/faith or “national interest”. It noted the court’s observation that “the practice of repeated charging and arresting was a “vicious cycle.”

In fact, it is not a matter of a red line or green line. It is a matter of grave concern that the yardstick of the law is being used selectively. The rules of “equality and impartiality before the law” are getting blunted. We cannot absolve previous regimes of disharmony, bias, and disrespect for law especially in the matters identified with smaller or deprived communities and classes. But then it was behind the curtain, now it is getting naked. 

Expressing her grave concern, Advocate Vrinda Grover marked the ‘malicious’ trend as “unfortunate” and lamented upon “weaponising the IPC to curb voices critical of persons in power.” In fact, this indicates our society is gradually falling into the trap of suzerainty and the pit of the slug. Tendencies to drive the society into the trap of totalitarianism are getting deeper and deeper, even in the rule of law implementing and ensuring agencies. Zubair’s case is another case of a long list of people under harassment and oppression to silence their free voices. This also indicates that sobriety in public life is on the decline and protectors are plying as spoilers. We can only wish, the verdict of the Supreme Court is respected in the true spirit.

[The writer is Chairman, Forum for Civil Rights; email: [email protected]]

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