Mohammed Zubair, co-founder of fact-checking website Alt News, is being made to pay for his role in drawing wide attention to the vile remarks made on live television by a ruling party spokesperson that caused international embarrassment to the Government. The inherent absurdity of the charge — that he sought to incite enmity between groups and insult religious feelings by sharing four years ago an image from a 40-year-old film — and that the complainant is a pseudonymous Twitter handle — make it clear that this is nothing but the establishment’s vengeance playing out as a criminal case. Mr. Zubair’s arrest is yet another instance of the regime’s characteristic intolerance, and its resentment towards fact-checkers who frequently expose its claims. This reflects its well-demonstrated antipathy to anyone seeking to counter majoritarian bigotry. It is also consistent with the ongoing trend of targeting minority activists, ranging from administrative excesses such as demolition of houses of protesters to imprisonment of activists based on charges conjured up by the police and investigative agencies. Mr. Zubair and his website have been active in highlighting flagrant instances of hate speech, and the genocidal tenor of some rants at anti-minority conclaves. The objective, it appears, is not merely his prosecution for an alleged slur against the Hindu god Hanuman, but to embark on a lengthy spell of persecution.
The case itself will be seen in most jurisdictions as a prank rather than a prosecution. The image he had shared is from a film sequence that shows a couple finding to their dismay that ‘Honeymoon Hotel’ had been revised to ‘Hanuman Hotel’, apparently conveying a message that it is not open to couples. The idea that this is an insult to Lord Hanuman is breath-taking in its absurdity, as there is no insinuation against the deity. That a magistrate entertained the FIR as well as granted police custody might seem shocking. But in times when even constitutional courts are seen as cooperating with the executive when it comes to restrictions on the freedom of citizens, it would have been a miracle if the magistracy had not followed suit. However, any judicial examination of the FIR would show that neither Section 153A nor Section 295A is attracted. How something said four years ago will incite enmity is beyond anyone’s comprehension. The Supreme Court has laid down that Section 295A punishes only insults to religion that are made with deliberate and malicious intention, and anything said unwittingly or without malice is not an offence. Mr. Zubair’s arrest has invited condemnation even beyond India. It is unfortunate that the Government wants to be seen as protective of free speech and democratic values abroad, but does not mind the odium that the hounding of or crackdown on activists and journalists invites. Instead of perpetuating this travesty of justice, the Government should see reason, drop the spiteful case and release him.