On the evening of June 27, journalist and co-founder of the fact-checking website AltNews, Mohammed Zubair made headlines on most TV news channels. The English news channel Republic covered the issue in its evening debate, flashing bulletins, ‘pattern to insult Hindus’, and ‘pattern to target one community’, alongside, and even labeled Zubair, ‘a habitual provocateur’. On the other hand, Zee News digital ran a bulletin titled, ‘Why selective outrage?’ referring to the backlash on Zubair’s arrest on social media. “When some people outrage the issue they feel, they raise their voice, and when it does not suit, they sit silently,” as recorded on their YouTube channel.
Zubair was arrested on charges of hurting religious sentiments following a complaint by a Twitter handle @balajikijaiin this month that the scribe had allegedly hurt Hindu sentiments by tweeting an image in 2018 showing a signboard of a Honeymoon Hotel repainted as Hanuman Hotel. An FIR against him was filed under IPC sections 295A (deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings) and 153 (giving provocation with intent to cause a riot). Meanwhile, Zubair’s lawyer, Vrinda Grover, says the photograph in his tweet was a scene from the 1983 film of Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Kissi Se Na Kehna, where the actress sees this board outside a hotel and remarks that it was “not Honeymoon Hotel, but used to be Hanuman Hotel”. Grover told the court “many others” had tweeted the same photograph, but “the only difference between those Twitter handles and his, was his faith, his name and his profession,” reported Times of India.
Zubair's arrest is turning into a classic case of being tried by the media and janata adalat (public court) that students leaders, activists, journalists, and even stand-up comedians, have been increasingly facing for their activism against the right-wing government since the 2019 Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests in New Delhi. From digital and broadcast media to social media armchair activists and trolls, all publish their own interpretations of facts. “I see a similar pattern being followed in Zubair’s arrest and that of mine,” says Asif Iqbal Tanha, a student activist who was arrested under the anti-terror law, Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) in connection with the Northeast Delhi riots in 2020. “Many media outlets are questioning Zubair for being biased, but who will hold them accountable for the hate they are spreading? When I was arrested, all the claims that the mainstream media made about me, continue to have an impact on my life,” says Tanha. “I still get abused and trolled on all social media platforms. I don’t know when this will end,” the ex-Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) student said.
At the time of granting bail to Tanha, the Delhi high court observed that the definition of a “terrorist act” was “somewhat vague” under the UAPA and that “the foundations of our nation stand on surer footing than to be likely shaken by a protest, however vicious, organised by a tribe of college students”.
Women, in particular, have to bear the brunt of highly gendered, sexist, and misogynistic attacks. Haters shame them, and assassinate their character. Their bodies virtually become public property. Cruel derogatory images, morphed, are circulated online. Men send them sexually explicit content. Mental health takes a dip. No action is ever taken. A lot of it is state-sponsored.
Student activist leader and M.Phil student of JMI from Jammu, Safoora Zargar, was also slapped with the UAPA, during the CAA-NRC protests. At the time of arrest, she says, the charge sheet is leaked to the media before being handed to the accused who has the first right to it. “Media channels quote selective portions of the charge sheets making the allegations sound as convictions. They become judges. This instigates the public and makes you an open target. There is abuse, threats and an orchestrated campaign on social media,” informs Zargar. “Essentially, you end up living like a criminal, a terrorist your entire life because the case can go on forever. It impacts your family, education, your work, your public life, personal life, and everything else. You never feel safe inside your own house,” she adds. Media reports also document trolls talking about how she didn’t have Kashmiri features and accent.
“This is also what has happened to Umar Khalid,” says Banojyotsna Lahiri, activist and Khalid’s partner. Khalid, a former student leader at Jawaharlal Nehru University, was booked under the UAPA for his alleged “provocative speeches” that the Delhi Police viewed as instigating and facilitating the Delhi riots 2020. “The common thing between both Umar and Zubair is that they are fearless Muslim men. The state hates and despises that,” Lahiri adds.