There is a new weapon against dissidence in ‘new India’ that could make ‘old’ India rise higher still in the rankings of unfreedom. This weapon has just been used against Mohammad Zubair. He walked out of Tihar Jail last week after the Supreme Court intervened observing correctly that he was being subjected to a vicious cycle of charges that ensured he would continue being denied bail. He spent three weeks in jail ostensibly because he caused communal tension by tweeting a shot from an old Hindi movie in which Honeymoon Hotel was changed to Hanuman Hotel. The film came out ages ago in that long-forgotten time before Hindutva. Nobody’s sentiments 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 one court to another in Uttar Pradesh and charged with ‘offences’ so flimsy that they will probably all be thrown out of court. What may have damaged him irreparably is the malevolent campaign to assassinate his character that has been launched on social media by the BJP’s army of trolls.
This legion of vile creatures showed that they could plunge to depths of vileness that are hard to reach for normal people. While Zubair was incarcerated these creatures were deployed to tell the world that he was no journalist, that he seemed to be the agent of some foreign power, that he was paid to tweet, that he had deliberately tweeted Nupur Sharma’s comments on the Prophet to create communal disharmony. So, although he is now a free man, is it possible that Zubair’s career as a fact-checker could be impaired for good? When he returns to using his website Alt News to refute lies, fake news and hate speech, will he still be credible?
The list of people who have been harmed by this new weapon is long but here are a few names. Umar Khalid has been in jail for a year during which time he has been charged with causing the Delhi riots. Siddique Kappan has been in jail even longer because he tried to go to Hathras to report on the brutal rape and sordid cremation of a Dalit teenager. The Uttar Pradesh police says he was with operatives of the Popular Front of India.
Since this jihadist outfit is not banned, he committed no crime. Last year Shah Rukh Khan’s son, Aryan, was pulled off a cruise ship and locked up for a month during which time the BJP’s social media army made him out to be a cog in the network of international drug cartels. There are more names than I can list of people who have seen their lives ruined not by charges made in a court of law but on social media.
When BJP spokespersons are asked why these things are happening, they usually respond, with fixed smiles on their smug faces, that if someone has a complaint they should go to court and seek justice. They say this as if it is the easiest thing to do. Allow me a small personal note here. When a senior BJP spokesman tweeted that my son was “a paid ISI agent” it implied that I had bred and nurtured a Pakistani spy. I wanted to take the BJP’s star spokesman to court but my efforts were stymied at the first hurdle when I discovered 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 could get as far as the Supreme Court. Others who run digital news platforms that are critical of the government can simply not afford the cost of Indian justice. Some instead of being maligned on social media are subjected to tax raids. These raids achieve the same result which is to silence dissidence. What the bosses of the BJP seem not to have noticed yet is that their new weapon of destroying people’s character on social media is a two-edged sword. It harms the Prime Minister as much as it harms the person who is targeted. And it is not as if the Modi government does not care about international opinion. It cares a lot because the Prime Minister cherishes the image that 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 daily to crush dissent. When international watchdogs of democracy and freedom lower India’s rankings in their lists, there is much noise and fury from Modi’s ministers. They invent international conspiracy theories which make India look like a chippy little country instead of the mighty superpower we seek to become.
Modi himself likes to boast that India is the mother of democracy. But seems not to know that democracy is about more than winning elections. It is after elections are won that the real challenges of democracy begin. One of the biggest of these challenges is dealing with dissidents. It is in the way they are dealt with that the real test of democracy comes. If every dissident voice is crushed, it confirms to those who cherish the freedoms that democracy allows that India is slowly but surely slipping towards illiberalism. What happened to Zubair proves that those who say India is increasingly becoming an illiberal democracy are right.