The co-founder of a factchecking website has been arrested by police in Delhi weeks after he highlighted derogatory comments made by a spokesperson for Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) about the prophet Muhammad.
Mohammed Zubair, who set up the Alt News website, flagged the remarks made during a television debate at the end of May on Twitter, bringing them attention they may not otherwise have had.
When Muslims became aware of the remarks from the BJP spokesperson, Nupur Sharma, they staged protests. The incident escalated into a diplomatic row with Arab countries voicing their anger.
The Modi government distanced itself from the remarks as the storm grew and suspended Sharma on 5 June. Sharma has been charged over her remarks but her whereabouts remain unknown and she has ignored a summons from Mumbai police to record a statement.
Zubair was arrested under two sections of a law related to maintaining religious harmony on the basis of a complaint that said he insulted Hindus in a 2018 Twitter post commenting on the renaming of a hotel after the Hindu monkey god Hanuman.
Showing a picture of a hotel, it said: “Before 2014, Honeymoon Hotel. After 2014: Hanuman Hotel”. The post implied that after Modi came to power in 2014, the owners had changed the name to Hanuman, the monkey god venerated by millions of Hindus, to fit into the new regime’s ethos.
Sharma has said she has received death threats since she was suspended and blamed Zubair’s exposure of her comments for them. Zubair has also received death threats.
His arrest provoked incredulous reactions from opposition leaders across the political spectrum.
“Every person exposing the BJP’s hate, bigotry and lies is a threat to them,” tweeted the Congress party leader, Rahul Gandhi.
Another politician, Asaduddin Owaisi, tweeted: “Delhi police does nothing about anti-Muslim genocidal slogans but acts swiftly against the ‘crime’ of reporting hate speech and countering misinformation.”
Ten human rights organisations said on World Press Freedom Day last month that Indian authorities were increasingly picking on journalists and online critics for their criticism of government policies and practices, including by prosecuting them under counter-terrorism and sedition laws.
Government officials deny the charges.
“It is apparent that Zubair’s alert vigilance was resented by those who use disinformation as a tool to polarise society and rake up nationalist sentiments,” said the Editors Guild of India while demanding his immediate release.
Critics of the BJP have pointed out that Sharma’s suspension under pressure from the Middle East angered the party’s rank and file and far-right groups that supported Sharma.
In reaction, the government has accused Muslims of similar offences against Hinduism in an effort to pacify BJP hardliners and create a false sense of equivalence.
The political analyst Arati Jerath pointed out that the home of a Muslim activist in Uttar Pradesh was summarily demolished this month “to show BJP supporters that the party was being tough on Muslims too”.
“Both the party and the government are trying to mollify their supporters by going after critics, mostly Muslims, and Zubair’s arrest is part of this exercise,” said Jerath.
Aakar Patel, chair of International India, said: “The Indian authorities are targeting Mohammed Zubair for his crucial work combatting the rise in fake news and disinformation and calling out discrimination against minorities.
“His arrest highlights how the danger facing human rights defenders in India has reached crisis point.”