There is a new weapon against dissent in ‘new India’ that could lift ‘old’ India even higher in the unfreedom rankings. This weapon has just been used against Mohammad Zubair. He was released from Tihar prison last week after the Supreme Court intervened, rightly observing that he was subject to a vicious cycle of accusations that ensured he would continue to be denied bail. He spent three weeks in prison apparently because he caused community tension tweeting a shot of an old hindi movie in which Honeymoon Hotel was changed to Hanuman Hotel. The movie came out a long time ago, in that long forgotten time before Hindutva. No one’s feelings were hurt. Nobody noticed.
There was, of course, more to Zubair’s arrest than his tweet from five years ago. Soon he was dragged from court to court in Uttar Pradesh and charged with ‘offences’ so light they are likely to all be thrown out of court. What may have damaged him beyond repair was the malicious campaign to assassinate his character launched on social media by the BJP’s army of trolls.
This legion of vile creatures have shown they can dive into depths of wickedness hard to reach for normal people. While Zubair was incarcerated, these creatures were deployed to tell the world that he was not a journalist, that he appeared to be an agent of a foreign power, that he was paid to tweet, that he had deliberately tweeted Nupur Sharma’s Commentaries on the Prophet to create community discord. So, although he is now a free man, is it possible that Zubair’s career as a fact-checker has been damaged for good? When he goes back to using his Alt News website to refute lies, fake news and hate speech, will he still be credible?
The list of people who have been injured by this new weapon is long but here are some names. Oumar Khalid been in prison for a year during which he was accused of instigating the Delhi riots. Siddique Kappan is in jail even longer because he attempted to travel to Hathras to report on the brutal rape and sordid cremation of a Dalit teenager. Uttar Pradesh police say he was with members of the Indian Popular Front.
Since this jihadist outfit is not prohibited, he has not committed any crime. Last year, Shah Rukh Khan’s son, Aryan, was pulled from a cruise ship and locked up for a month during which the BJP’s social media army posed him as a cog in the network of international drug cartels. There are more names than I can name of people who have had their lives ruined not by accusations in court but on social media.
When BJP spokespersons are asked why these things are happening, they usually reply, with steady smiles on their smug faces, that if anyone has a complaint, they should go to court and seek justice. They say it like it’s the easiest thing to do. Allow me a personal note here. When a senior BJP spokesperson tweeted that my son was “a paid ISI agent”, it was implied that I raised and nurtured a Pakistani spy. I wanted to bring the star BJP spokesperson to justice, but my efforts were stymied at the first hurdle when I found out that it would cost me more than I could afford to hire even an ordinary, unknown lawyer.
Zubair was luckier than most in that he was able to make it all the way to the Supreme Court. Others who run digital news platforms critical of the government simply cannot afford the cost of Indian justice. Some, instead of being slandered on social networks, are subject to tax searches. These raids achieve the same result, which is to silence dissent. What BJP bosses don’t seem to have noticed yet is that their new weapon to destroy people’s character on social media is a double-edged sword. This harms both the Prime Minister and the person targeted. And it’s not like the Modi government doesn’t care about international opinion. He cares a lot because the Prime Minister cherishes the image his devotees believe he already has of being a ‘Vishvaguru’.
This will never happen if the man who leads the world’s largest democracy allows his minions to invent new methods every day to crush dissent. When the international democracy and freedom watchdogs lower India’s ranking in their lists, there is much sound and fury from Modi’s ministers. They invent international conspiracy theories that make India look like a crusty little country instead of the mighty superpower we seek to become.
Modi himself likes to brag that India is the mother of democracy. But seems to be unaware that democracy is not just about winning elections. It is after the victory of the elections that the real challenges of democracy begin. One of the biggest of these challenges is dealing with dissidents. The true test of democracy is how they are treated. If any dissenting voice is crushed, it confirms to those who cherish the freedoms that democracy allows India to slide slowly but surely towards illiberalism. What happened to Zubair proves that those who say India is increasingly becoming an illiberal democracy are right.