Zubair, Chitale and why we all should care

Updated on Jul 08, 2022 08:52 PM IST

The cases are a signal to all to watch what we say, be cautious before we express ourselves, and be aware, chillingly aware, that if the law enforcement agencies decide to come after a person, a substantive accusation is not even necessary

I am unequivocal in my belief that whatever be one’s views of the coarseness of language on social media, criminalisation and jail time are unacceptable responses by the State unless there is a deliberate incitement to violence (PTI) PREMIUM
I am unequivocal in my belief that whatever be one’s views of the coarseness of language on social media, criminalisation and jail time are unacceptable responses by the State unless there is a deliberate incitement to violence (PTI)

Chances are that every time I say Mohammed Zubair — the co-founder of fact-checking website Alt News arrested in two different cases allegedly for hurting Hindu religious sentiments — you will turn around and say Ketaki Chitale, the Marathi actor who spent 40 days in jail for a post that lampooned Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar.

So, let’s settle that straight in the beginning.

What happened to Chitale was egregious. I interviewed her after she walked free on bail, and was unequivocal in my belief that whatever be one’s views of the coarseness of language on social media, criminalisation and jail time are unacceptable responses by the State unless there is a deliberate incitement to violence. In cases of defamation and slander, civil suits and seeking economic damages are always preferable responses.

But you can’t oppose the abuse of State power in Chitale’s case, and rationalise and defend it in the case of Zubair. Is it not bizarre — and should it not frighten every Indian citizen — that one of the two cases against Zubair is because he termed three Right-wing public figures as hatemongers even when one of the three, Yati Narsinghanand Saraswati, is infamous for giving an open call for the killing of Muslims?

Should we be calling them respected seers instead? If Narsinghanand is so respected in the eyes of the law, why is he facing criminal charges? And why did he purportedly tell police officers: “You will all die… your children too,” as the first arrest was made against the organisers of a hate conclave in Haridwar in 2021?

The National Commission for Women (NCW) also took cognisance of another one of the three men Zubair called hatemongers: Bajrang Muni Das. The NCW wrote to the Uttar Pradesh Police after a purported video posted online appeared to show Das talking loosely about the rape of Muslim women. The NCW called for the police to investigate the facts of the video and urged the police not to be “mute spectators”. Ironically, this occurred in Sitapur, the same district where one of the two cases against Zubair is now filed.

It is disturbing to see law officers legitimise such characters in the highest court of the land. “If you were such a nice person, you could have sent a letter to the police, why tweet?” asked one of the officers in court.

I do not know Zubair personally. But, like many professionals in the media industry, I have often fallen back on the digital forensics of fact-checking sites such as Alt News to separate fact from fiction during a pandemic of fake news. But it is instructive to point out that if it was Zubair, who first called out controversial comments by suspended Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokesperson Nupur Sharma on Prophet Mohammed, it was also Zubair who verified that All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen Member of Parliament, Imtiaz Jaleel, spoke loosely and unforgivably about Sharma’s public hanging. His remarks were being denied initially, but Zubair reinforced the facts of the case.

The other case against Zubair references a four-year-old tweet from a 40-year-old film: Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Kissi Se Na Kehna. The tweet shared a clip from the movie that had a wordplay on Hanuman and honeymoon. Yes, Zubair’s tweet was a political meme and illustrates that he is not a fan of the BJP government, in the same way that Chitale’s Facebook post revealed her antipathy to the NCP in Maharashtra. Political preferences in a democracy cannot be jailable offences. As former Supreme Court (SC) judge, justice Deepak Gupta, told me, “Why would the Delhi Police suddenly wake up now, after all these years?” Justice Gupta minced no words in asserting that in the Zubair case, up until now, “the courts have failed to uphold constitutional principles of human rights.”

The SC has now intervened to grant him five-day interim bail. But this is in one of the cases. So chances are that there will be additional first information reports (FIRs) and multiple cases, and as the cliche now goes “the process will be the punishment”. The same has happened in the case of Chitale, where nearly 20 FIRs are still pending.

For any of us who believe that we will not be the next Mohammed Zubair or Ketaki Chitale, and, therefore, we can treat these as outlier individual cases, think again. The real import of these cases goes well beyond the individuals concerned. It is to signal to all of us to watch what we say, be cautious before we express ourselves, and be aware, chillingly aware, that if law enforcement agencies decide to come for you, a substantive accusation is not even necessary.

Barkha Dutt is an award-winning journalist and authorThe views expressed are personal

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Barkha Dutt is consulting editor, NDTV, and founding member, Ideas Collective. She tweets as @BDUTT.

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