Updated: June 30, 2022 7:04:11 am
In 2014, journalist and fact-checker Mohammed Zubair created a social media account called Unofficial Sususwamy – a parody of politician Subramanian Swamy. The social media account, which does not exist any longer, offered a grab of a slice of the absurdities of life in India – especially politics.
“We as a country r growing apart so rapidly. There is a continuous assault on our perceptions, all aimed to manipulate our votes. Govt knows if they focus on education, health & poverty our opinions would be alike so they bombard you with issues like Rhea, SSR & Kangna,” Zubair said in his fake Subramanian Swamy online avatar in September 2020, when the country was gripped by the death of an actor and the swirling politics around it.
The co-founder of fact-checking website Alt-News, Zubair was arrested by the Delhi police on Monday. An engineer by profession, he is an unassuming person in real life, with a personality that does not quite fit the online image he has, say acquaintances.
“He comes from a family with modest means. He hardly looks like a person who will create a storm online. He is lean, shy and reticent,” said Tanveer Ahmed, a social activist in Bengaluru who has known Zubair for the last four years, and has collaborated with ‘Zoo_bear’ on highlighting issues.
Please note. pic.twitter.com/gMmassggbx
— Pratik Sinha (@free_thinker) June 27, 2022
“Whenever we reached out to him on issues that needed highlighting, he helped us out. In the Covid period, when we were offering our services to help families with funerals and other things, he amplified our reach. Since he has so many followers on social media, it gets noticed,” said Ahmed.
The social activist and a group of other friends visited Zubair’s home and offered support to his family on Monday night. The family, which has been the target of online vitriol in the past, is not inclined to talk about the situation at present, he said.
“The establishment is agitated by the fact that he highlighted the comments of BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma on social media and it gained international attention. This kind of a retaliation was expected and a climate was being created to trouble him,” the activist said.
“He is a source of inspiration for a lot of people to speak out. We need thousands more like him,” Ahmed said.
Both Zubair and Pratik Sinha, the Alt News co-founders, pursued engineering degrees in Bengaluru before moving out from the city. Zubair was briefly in the UK before plunging into the world of fact-checking, activism and journalism by teaming up with Pratik, say acquaintances of the founders.
According to a former senior executive at an information technology major who often communicated with Zubair through direct messaging on social media, he was often seen by others only through the prism of his Muslim identity, and not as someone who stands for the rights of everyone.
“As a Muslim, he does feel the pain of the current environment. But he has also spoken out when Muslims make conservative arguments. He is vocal about being truthful without adding masala. He is one of a kind and fearless,” said the former IT executive, who did not want to be identified. “People do not care that he is a fact checker like Pratik. It is his Muslim identity that rankles them,” she said, adding, “He is a beacon to us on being a balanced type of person.”
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Another acquaintance of Zubair, who has been vilified on social media by various people, said that it was “saddening” to know that he had been arrested over an image that was in the public domain. “It is being viewed in a different light because he tweeted it. The message is being taken out of context,” the acquaintance from the IT industry in Bengaluru said.
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