Citing death threats, Mohammed Zubair, the co-founder of fact-checker website Alt News, approached the Supreme Court on Thursday seeking quashing of the FIR and grant of bail “urgently” in a case filed against him in UP’s Sitapur over a tweet that allegedly referred to some religious leaders as “hate mongers”.
The move came on a day when a Sitapur court sent Zubair to six days’ police custody remand in connection with the case in which he was charged under IPC section 295 A (hurting religious sentiments) and sections of the IT Act.
“After appearing before court, Zubair was sent to Sitapur district jail. The police custody will start from tomorrow (Friday),” said Piyush Kumar Singh, Circle Officer, City (Sitapur).
“We sought Zubair’s police custody to recover the device from which he used to tweet, and also his motive for uploading objectionable matter on social media,” said Arvind Singh, Station House Officer, Khairabad (Sitapur), where the case was registered.
In the Supreme Court, Senior Advocate Colin Gonsalves mentioned the bail plea before a bench of Justices Indira Banerjee and J K Maheshwari and sought urgent listing on Thursday afternoon. After the bench pointed out that it has to be assigned by the Chief Justice of India, the counsel requested that it be listed on Friday. The court agreed to do so, “subject to assignment”.
Gonsalves told the bench that Zubair’s role was to identify hate speech and forward it to police stations. “He made many enemies. An FIR was lodged against him…my main argument would be that a look at that FIR itself would show no crime,” he said.
The counsel said the Allahabad High Court had denied anticipatory bail to Zubair, saying it was premature, leading to his arrest in the case. “I seek bail for him urgently. There are death threats for him. People on the other side doing hate speech are very anxious and they have said on the Internet that they will try and kill him,” Gonsalves said.
The Sitapur court order was issued after the Delhi Police, which had arrested Zubair in a separate case last week, produced him before it on Thursday. Zubair had been produced once earlier by the Delhi Police in Sitapur on Monday.
Last week, the Delhi Police’s cyber crime unit had arrested Zubair on charges of promoting enmity and hurting religious sentiments with a 2018 tweet linked to Lord Hanuman. Subsequently, the UP Police moved the Sitapur court seeking a warrant, which was then served in Tihar jail where Zubair was lodged.
The Sitapur case against Zubair was registered on June 1. It is based on a complaint lodged by Hindu Lion Army district president Bhagwan Sharan who alleged that Zubair had referred to Bajrang Muni as a “hate monger” in a tweet in May. According to the FIR, Zubair also insulted Yati Narsinghanand and Swami Anand Swaroop on Twitter.
In his plea before the Supreme Court, Zubair said “there is a new strategy afoot of the police in communal crime cases”. “That is to register FIRs against those engaging in hate speech and communal crimes, as well as to rope in all secular elements monitoring such crimes and protesting police inaction against the wrongdoers,” the plea stated.
“This is done with the intention of stifling freedom of speech of secular persons in society who stand up against communal elements and to put fear into them so that they no longer protest,” it stated.
He urged the court to “understand” this new strategy and nip it in the bud so that secular social activism continues on its path and plays the most necessary role in society to stand up to communalism.
Explaining the functioning of Alt News, his appeal said that “due to the nature of his work, he is often subjected to online trolling, abuses, threats, and frequent demeaning by people who do not agree with his views”.
Zubair contended that calling someone a “hatemonger” when they promote hostility and prejudice is not a crime but protected by Article 19(1)(a).
His plea said that “on April 2, Mahant Bajrang Muni Udasin, chief priest of the Badi Sangat Ashram in Khairabad area of Sitapur district, gathered with hundreds of his followers in front of Sheeshe Wali Masjid, Khairabad and threatened mass sexual violence against Muslim women in the presence of the police. There was a full-fledged attempt to incite violence in the area.”
According to the plea, the video of this “provocative” and “inflammatory” hate speech went viral on social media resulting in campaigns and demonstrations seeking his arrest.
“The hate speech was so objectionable that the Chairperson, National Commission for Women, took note of the incident and condemned the statement made by the Mahant. She also wrote a letter to the UP Director General of Police seeking immediate intervention and registration of the FIR against the accused and also his prompt arrest. It was only after this letter, that an FIR was registered against Mahant Bajrang Muni and he was arrested on April 13, 2022, 11 days after the hate speech,” the appeal said.
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Zubair said that “those who engage in hate speech are numerous and many. They are well organised. They operate as a group identifying secular persons who speak out against hate speech and then contact one another to file multiple FIRs against innocent people who are speaking out bravely against hate speech…”.
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In January, Narsinghanand, the chief priest of Dasna temple in Ghaziabad, was arrested in a Haridwar hate speech case targeting the Muslim community and granted bail after weeks in custody.
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