Rajat Sharma

Let courts decide whether Zubair was guilty of inciting communal passions

akb full_frame_74900The Supreme Court on Wednesday granted interim bail to AltNews co-founder Mohammed Zubair in all FIRs filed in UP and elsewhere, and transferred the FIRs filed in UP to the Special Cell of Delhi Police for probe. The apex court also directed that the Special Investigation Team set up by UP Police be disbanded. The bench also refused a plea to restrain Mohammed Zubair from tweeting.

Mohammed Zubair was arrested by Delhi Police on June 27. He was in jail for 23 days on charges of spreading hate and creating communal tension because of his tweets through social media. There were six FIRs filed against Zubair in UP. These FIRs were filed in Ghaziabad, Muzaffarnagar, Lakhimpur Kheri, Sitapur, and two in Hathras. He was released from Tihar jail on Wednesday night after furnishing a personal bail bond of Rs 20,000.

A bench of Justices D. Y. Chandrachud, Surya Kant and A S Bopanna said, since the content of most of the FIRs filed in Uttar Pradesh were based on Zubair’s tweets, and since the Special Cell of Delhi Police is conducting a comprehensive probe into most of his tweets, including the charge of alleged foreign funding, it would not be in the interest of justice to keep him embroiled in separate FIRs.

Additional Advocate General of UP government Garima Prasad requested the apex court to restrain Zubair from posting offensive tweets in future, but the bench rejected the request and said, “How can we restrain a journalist, or anyone for that matter, from tweeting? It is like asking a lawyer not to argue. If he posts tweets in violation of law, he would be answerable for it. Every citizen is answerable for what he says in public. We will not place any restraint of this nature. We can’t say that he will not tweet again”.

While granting interim bail to Zubair, the bench said, “Essentially gravamen of allegations against the petitioner are the tweets posted by him. Having found from the record that the petitioner has been subjected to a very sustained investigation by Delhi Police, we find no reason or justification for deprivation of the liberty of the petitioner to persist any futher.”

The court further said, “It is a settled principle of law that the existence of power of arrest shall be distinguished from the exercise of the power of arrest. The exercise of power of arrest must be pursued sparingly”.

Earlier, the Additional Advocate General of UP government told the bench that Zubair deliberately manipulated his tweets in order to incite communal passions among Muslims. She alleged that Zubair was given graded payments depending on the severity of his tweets. She said, Zubair used to post old videos with comments meant to incite communal feelings. His tweets were printed and distributed among Muslims on Friday in mosques, and this led to communal tension.

Garima Prasad also pointed out that Zubair has himself confessed that his company received Rs 2 crore from foreign sources, out of which he got Rs 12 lakhs for posting offensive tweets. She alleged that Zubair used to chop and edit Nupur Sharma’s comments made on television and made them viral on social media. These ultimately reached international media, defaming India. She alleged that many of his tweets were based on baseless, fake pictures and videos, and by circulating them, communal tension rose in several cities of UP creating riot-like situation. The UP government counsel placed all such tweets, photos and videos as evidence before the bench.

Coming to the core issue, Garima Prasad said, Nupur Sharma had taken part in a TV debate on May 26, where she made some unnecessary and unjustified remarks against Prophet Mohammed. Nobody took notice of her remarks for the next 24 hours, she said, and the matter went unnoticed, but on May 27, Zubair chopped and edited the remarks made by Nupur Sharma in the TV debate and posted the videos on social media, tagging many people, who retweeted them. Since there were lakhs of followers both on Zubair’s Twitter handle and other social media platforms, Nupur Sharma’s offensive remarks became quickly viral.

Garima Prasad told the apex court, Zubair and his colleagues did not stop there. They tagged several influential Twitter handles in Arab countries and international media, and forwarded Nupur Sharma’s remarks, thereby creating anti-India atmosphere in the Gulf countries. She alleged that despite Zubair and his friends’ efforts on international level, there was not much reaction in India.

However, on June 6, she said, Zubair wrote on Twitter that on one hand the world is raising its voice against Nupur Sharma’s remarks but Muslims in India are silent. The Additional Advocate General told the court that soon after this, pamphlets carrying Zubair’s tweets were distributed in several mosques of UP, and this resulted in communal violence and tension in several cities of UP on June 10.

Most of the points that Garima Prasad made in the apex court were revealed earlier by the DCP in charge of Delhi Police IFSO unit K.P.S. Malhotra, who had alleged that Zubair was trying to create communal tension.

Mohammed Zubair’s counsel Vrinda Gover denied all these allegations in the apex court. She said, Zubair was not part of any anti-India conspiracy as was being alleged, and he was only discharging his responsibilities as a journalist. The UP govt counsel pointed out that Zubair was not a journalist, but a ‘fact-checker’, who was spreading hate on social media.

I have checked Zubair’s Twitter account timeline. It is a fact that Zubair had tweeted a clip of Nupur Sharma’s remarks in a TV debate on May 27, and he had made snide comments against her and had alleged that she had insulted Prophet Mohammed. Nupur Sharma replied back in her tweet and challenged him to post the entire debate on his Twitter handle, instead of chopping and editing most of the portions.

Nupur had then tagged Delhi Police in her tweet. In reply, Zubair tagged Delhi Police and requested that an FIR be filed against Nupur for making blasphemous remarks against the Prophet. Soon after Zubair’s tweet, Nupur Sharma started getting threatening calls. Nupur had then complained to police by tagging Zubair. She even shared screenshots of the threatening tweets.

On June 5 and 6, Zubair shared unverified news reports about ‘boycott of Indian products’ in Arab countries on his Twitter handle. It was alleged that Indian products were being removed from the shelves of departmental stores in Gulf countries. Zubair then started sharing all comments made by people in Muslim countries against Nupur Sharma, and claimed that this was due to the efforts of his fact-checking company AltNews.

Garima Prasad’s argument that Zubair’s tweets led to communal tension and violence after namaaz prayers in Prayagraj, Moradabad, Kanpur, Ranchi and Saharanpur, is true. There were slogans of ‘sar tan se juda’(beheading) in several cities.

As far as the international repercussions are concerned, Garima Prasad told the apex court that AltNews got foreign funding and it gave an international twist to Nupur Sharma’s remarks. According to the British media house, Independent Online, it was Zubair who first made Nupur Sharma’s remarks an issue.

A Twitter watcher, The Hawk Eye disclosed how anti-India propaganda began on Twitter on June. Some Twitter handles from Pakistan made Nupur Sharma’s remarks an issue, and ‘boycott Indian products’ was trending on social media. Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pictures were used in these anti-India tweets.

The Hawk Eye reported that this seemed to be the work of a professional, because, by June 5, anti-India tweets were trending massively. Zubair even shared a Pakistani twitter handle South Asian Index which had tweeted that Indian products were being taken off the shopping centre shelves in Gulf countries.

The Supreme Court has given interim bail to Zubair, but one must note that it has not dismissed allegations made against him. The apex court has only transferred all cases to Delhi, and now, Delhi Police will take up the probe.

The question is: Was Mohammed Zubair arrested because he was writing against the government or he was against BJP ideology? In none of the FIRs or police reports, nor in any argument, was such allegation made.

The charge against Zubair is that he made Nupur Sharma’s remarks made during a heated TV debate a controversial issue. He spread her remarks among people, both in India and abroad, and incited communal feelings. He was inciting people by asking why they were not coming out to protest against these blasphemous remarks. If FIRs are filed for a similar offence, they should be clubbed together. There is no justification for conducting separate probes.

As far as the right to freedom of expression is concerned, Mohammed Zubair has got the right, and the same right is available to all citizens. But if somebody misuses this right to incite communal passions, our Constitution does not allow it. I am in favour of the fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression. In order to protect this right to speak and write freely, I even went to jail, when I was arrested during Emergency in 1975 for publishing an underground newspaper. But, along with the right, comes duties.

Whatever Nupur Sharma said against Prophet Mohammed was unjustified and unnecessary. This needs to be condemned and is still being condemned. But the truth is, a 20 to 30 second portion of an one-hour-long TV debate was circulated on social media causing communal tension. Had Zubair refrained from posting this explosive clip on social media, and not made it viral, there would not have been communal tension.

If Zubair committed this act in haste, without exercising proper judgement, that his mistake could have been ignored. But the charge is that Zubair deliberately made this video clip viral, with a clear intention to incite communal passions. Hence, this matter must be probed thoroughly. The matter is now in court, and once the facts are brought to light, the court will decide.

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