Mumbai: Nine days before India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) dissociated itself from two of its national spokespersons on 5 June 2022, following protests by at least 17 nations over derogatory comments they made about Prophet Mohammed, Mohammed Zubair, the co-founder of fact-checking website AltNews tweeted a video clip of a television debate during which the offensive comments were made.
In the clip of the Times Now debate of 27 May, one of the two now-suspended BJP spokespersons, Nupur Sharma, responded to a query on whether panelists could refer to a structure inside the Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi as a fountain (Hindu petitioners are claiming it is a shivling, a representation of the Hindu deity Shiva) by asking a Muslim panelist if she should ridicule words from the Quran. She then went on to make a reference to the age of Aisha, the Prophet’s wife.
As Muslims expressed outrage on social media, right-wing Twitter handles turned their attention to Zubair, 39, a former telecom engineer who has been a fact-checker for five years. He had ridiculed Hindu deities too, they claimed (here and here), as they held him responsible for threats and abuses Sharma was receiving.
She told OpIndia—a website aligned with the government and called out previously for fake news—that she was receiving hate messages and threats at the behest of Zubair.
“... a hundred and fifty percent Mohammed Zubair is to be held responsible,” she said, during an interview in which she also claimed that former Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis had called her, and other senior BJP leaders were privately “rallying behind” her. Days later, as more nations protested, the BJP took a public position that her comments were “contrary to the party’s position”.
As Muslim countries criticised her comments, prompting one Indian embassy spokesperson to refer to the party spokespersons as “fringe elements”, Zubair continued to face a barrage of online accusations and threats (here, here, here, here, here).
He was booked in what is his fifth criminal case, in Uttar Pradesh (UP), this time for allegedly hurting religious sentiments by referring to three self-styled Hindu godmen as “hatemongers” on Twitter.
In calling out the BJP spokesperson’s comments, he had not named or tagged her, and had instead tagged Times Now, its anchor Navika Kumar and Vineet Jain, managing director of Bennett Coleman & Co Ltd (the Times Group). He asked why television news anchors allow hate speech, and made a reference to godmen Yati Narasinghanand, Bajrang Muni and Anand Swaroop.
In the central UP district of Sitapur, district president of the Hindu Sher Sena, a little-known right-wing outfit, took umbrage at Zubair’s description of the godmen as “hatemongers”, and filed a complaint at the Khairabad police station.
On 3 June, a day before Zubair had to travel to UP to file an affidavit, an office bearer of the Hindu Sher Sena threatened to burn an effigy of him, claiming again that Zubair had made offensive comments about Hindu gods and goddesses.
‘It Is The TV Channels That Give Hate A Platform’
For Zubair, the latest case was a familiar, though increasingly menacing, reaction.
Every time he calls out hate speech, drawing attention to their own statements, extremist Hindu right-wing handles accuse him of citing quotes out of context or tampering with videos, and then urge Hindus to call for his arrest.
“I thought Navika was more responsible for what had happened,” Zubair told Article 14. “In my tweet, I have not mentioned Nupur by name. I just called her a party spokesperson. It was Navika Kumar, Times Now and Vineet Jain who I tagged. I believe they are the ones giving a platform for hate (speech).”
He said he had not anticipated the reaction from Muslims who began to abuse Sharma. “Then she and people from the right wing started blaming me for what had happened instead of blaming what had been said.”
Zubair could see a plan, he said, to attack him for the threats Nupur received. As the row escalated on Twitter, Times Now deleted its video of the debate, and prominent right-wing handles began to target him, some suggesting that he had tweeted a doctored clip.
“They said if anything happens to her it would be only me who was responsible. OpIndia wrote several articles blaming me,” said Zubair. “Several people from the BJP, verified handles, Kanchan Gupta (a government adviser) and many others, started blaming me.”
Much of online hate speech in India is posted by people associated with or supporters of the BJP, whose social media wing sets or spurs online trends that reach millions nationwide.
“Hum jo chaahein woh sandesh janta tak pahuncha saktey hain, chaahe khatta ho ya meetha ho, sacha ho ya jhoota ho (We can reach whatever message we want to the people, whether sour or sweet, truth or lies),” home minister Amit Shah had said in 2018. Shah said the party then had 3.2 million people in their Whatsapp groups.
These groups were part of an ecosystem that runs online campaigns and files real-life cases against journalists they consider inimical to the ruling party.
Zubair now faces five criminal cases, filed over the last 21 months in five cities of three states. He is one of dozens of Indian journalists facing government hostility and criminal cases for their professional work amid a synchronised choking of independent voices in the media alongside disinformation campaigns. Article 14 has reported extensively on the war against India’s free press, particularly in Kashmir and in Uttar Pradesh (here, here and here).
In his latest attack on Zubair, Yati Narsinghanand, chief priest of the Dasna temple in the western UP city of Ghaziabad, called Zubair a “jihad”, and accused him, with no evidence, of engineering calls for violence against Hindu leaders by doctoring video clips with fake voices and comments.
“Then his community’s jihadis get ready to attack those he has targeted,” Narsinghanand said, going on to claim that Zubair was responsible for Nupur Sharma’s troubles and for the case against Jitendra Tyagi, an accused in the Haridwar Dharm Sansad (religious parliament) hate speech case of December 2021. “This Zubair is the one who is trying to get everyone killed.”
‘The Fear That We Could Be Arrested Is Always There’
Asked whether the Alt News team lives in fear that one of them may be arrested, co-founder Pratik Sinha cited the arrest on 20 April 2022 of Congress legislator Jignesh Mevani by an Assam police team that travelled all the way to Gujarat, and the long incarceration of former students’ union leader Umar Khalid.
“The fear that one of us could be arrested is always there,” he said. “But more than that, the problem is the amount of time and energy expended on the legal cases.”
While Zubair faces five FIRs, a civil defamation suit was filed in the Delhi district court against Alt News. The suit is pending, though no injunction was passed against them.
Apart from these, there are dozens of legal notices to respond to every other week, according to Nirjhari Sinha, Pratik’s mother, a veteran Gujarat activist and now director of Pravda Media Foundation, the website’s parent company. Six separate lawyers have appeared for the company in different cities, apart from a team of advocates in Ahmedabad that helps with legal advice.
“Trolling is something that we are used to, it has been happening for years now,” Pratik Sinha said. “But the amount of time, energy and money that it takes to deal with these cases, travelling all the way to wherever the case is filed, whether for anticipatory bail or to get an FIR quashed, whatever legal procedures are to be done, it takes time and effort that we could be utilising better by working.”
POCSO, Promoting Enmity: The Cases Zubair Faces
In September 2020, the Delhi police’s cyber cell and the police in the city of Raipur in Chhattisgarh booked Zubair in cases under sections of the Information Technology (IT) Act 2000, and the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act 2012, for posting the photograph of a minor girl, with her face blurred, along with her father. The girl’s father had been engaged in an online exchange of words with Zubair, who later posted the man’s display image.
In May 2022, the Delhi police told the Delhi high court during a hearing seeking quashing of the FIR that the tweet “does not constitute any cognisable offence”. Zubair had earlier been granted protection from arrest in the case in Delhi as well as in Raipur.
The third FIR pertained to a video clip of a senior citizen appearing to be assaulted in UP’s Ghaziabad district in June 2021. The Ghaziabad police booked several people, including Zubair, journalists Rana Ayub and Saba Naqvi, news website The Wire and a few others including Congress members.
They face cases under sections 153 (provocation to incite a riot), 153A (promoting enmity between different groups), 295A (acts intended to outrage religious feelings), 505 (statements causing mischief), 120B (criminal conspiracy) and 34 (common intention) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860.
The police said the accused had tweeted the video clip with comments that suggested the assault had resulted from a communal matter when, in fact, the victim and his assailants had a personal dispute.
Zubair had tweeted the clip and the police clarification.
In July 2021, a man in Muzaffarpur, UP, accused Zubair of issuing death threats to him on the phone. According to Alt News, no phone call was ever made to the complainant.
The latest case was filed in Sitapur, UP, by an office-bearer of a Hindu organisation who took umbrage at Zubair’s tweet in which he referred to three Hindu seers as “hatemongers”.
Zubair was booked under section 295A of the IPC and section 67 (publishing or transmitting obscene material in electronic form) of the IT Act.
Multiple Criminal Proceedings For Same Act, No Remedy
Abhinav Sekhri, a lawyer who practises in Delhi and focuses on criminal law and procedure, said that while the registering of FIRs is in fact as per law—a Supreme Court judgement mandates police stations to file FIRs on receipt of a complaint—the question that arises is whether India’s judicial processes are robust enough to establish a false case to be false.
“The answer is that we are not certain in that knowledge, the process is not robust enough, starting from the FIR stage itself,” said Sekhri.
The case of journalist Amish Devgan who faced FIRs in multiple states for an alleged derogatory remark against Sufi saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti was strikingly similar to Zubair’s multiple FIRs for posting a minor girl’s photo, he said.
The only available remedy was to approach the SC for an order clubbing all the investigations in one police station. The remedies have not kept up with the times and do not offer succour to those hounded by multiple law enforcement agencies for a single act, he said.
“In the digital age, when there are horrible consequences when anybody in any corner of the country has the ability to file a complaint against a person for publication of speech or content in any other part of the country, we go back to the question of whether the process is robust enough,” said Sekhri. “I really don’t think it is.”
Meanwhile, Zubair continued to receive emails from Twitter informing him of police enquiries about his tweets exposing hate speech. The latest was from the Mumbai police, who appeared to have received a complaint about a video clip he tweeted on 7 April, in which a priest is seen threatening to rape Muslim women. The video appeared to have been shot in the vicinity of a mosque.
“Should people stop documenting hate speeches?” Zubair tweeted.
According to M N Reddi, a former Bengaluru police commissioner and a Karnataka director general of police, repeat offenders in hate speech cases should be restrained by police using provisions in the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC), 1973.
Sections 105 to 110 of the CrPC deal with habitual offenders and maintenance of peace. “Under these, there are powers available to executive magistrates, who are neither police nor courts, to bind them (offenders) over and take an assurance that they will not repeat the offence,” Reddi told Article 14. “The executive magistrate may warn that a certain amount will be collected, like a fine, in case of a repeat offence.”
Reddi said police officers should identify such people and produce them before executive magistrates to initiate such proceedings. “There is enough legal architecture available within the CrPC and IPC to take preventive action,” he said. “The idea is to not only book them once but prevent repeat offences.”
Busting Fake News: The Alt News Stylebook
The painstaking work of debunking fake news, sometimes with a simple reverse image search, but often requiring more extensive application of search filters to establish where social media posts or messages originated or contacting authorities or experts to verify facts, has evolved since February 2017 when Alt News was established.
The appearance of fake viral posts such as a doctored front page of the New York Times with a purported report, possibly meant to be satirical, calling Indian prime minister Narendra Modi the “Last, Best Hope of Earth”, is now overshadowed by the almost daily rabble-rousing of religious leaders, particularly Hindus; misrepresentation of Muslims or Islamic gatherings and scare-mongering about supposed acts of anti-Hindu violence.
According to Zubair, in the early days of Alt News in 2017, fact-checking revolved around unrelated photos, images from another country passed off as Indian. “Looking back now it seems that those days things were better than now,” he told Article 14.
The communal videos began to be shared a couple of years later, including killings claimed to be communal acts. A team of only three or four in 2017-18, the newsroom would pore over dozens of videos, gory killings and stabbings, to establish their origin and context. Once, Zubair fell ill after watching a video repeatedly, more than 200 times, to scan for minute details.
It was around 2019 that he began to call out people named in Alt News fact-checks. Instead of simply posting a report, he would tag, quote-tweet or reply to fake posts. “I began to tell people publicly that what they had posted was fake. And that was when people started targeting me.”
With 80,000-90,000 Twitter followers in 2018-19 (he now has more than half a million followers), when he quote-tweeted posts, calling them out as fake, people were forced to delete posts or apologise.
“I thought this was a good way to call out people,” said Zubair. It was also a good way to attract angry comments from right-wing handles. “…I used to directly call them out. That is when many of their followers started trolling me, abusing me,” he said.
For the past few months, he said, he has concentrated on calling out hate, in preparation for a new platform Pratik Sinha and he are designing, to be called Unhate.
In only the last three months, Alt News fact checks found false claims that a temple in Chittorgarh, Rajasthan, had been converted into a mosque; that another temple was taken over as a mosque in Mangalore; that a man seen on video assaulting a sadhu in Khandwa, Madhya Pradesh, was a Muslim; that a girl caught with a weapon in UP was a Muslim; that the West Bengal government would waive off goods and services tax for Muslim business owners.
Earlier, they found a video of a rice warehouse in Peru passed off as Muslim men adulterating foodgrain for ‘rice jihad’; and another video claiming that Muslim men scattered currency notes on a road to spread Covid-19.
In December 2019, they established that several Twitter handles had pretended to be Muslims supporting the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), 2019; that BJP workers had posed as local residents at the Singhu border outside Delhi, protesting the long sit-in by farmers outside the capital city. Increasingly, misinformation dredged up by Alt News fact-checkers was simply malevolence.
Naresh Fernandes, author and editor of website Scroll, said the work done by Zubair and others at Alt News sorted through “a toxic sea of stories” with rigour and impartiality.
“In the age of easy manipulation, they manage to bring context to digital images and videos from another time or from other places that are purported to be in the Indian situation,” said Fernandes. “In this strange time when almost everything is believable because everything is so toxic, they’re able to tell us which images have been manipulated, which are genuine.”
The clips that Zubair posts, of violence in speech and action, alert the world about what is happening in India, he said. “It is hard work and I cannot imagine the toll it takes on them.”
Co-founder Pratik Sinha, a software engineer who lives in Ahmedabad in Gujarat, said they tend to be more impactful than other contemporary fact-checking organisations because they willingly hold people in power accountable on social media and also hold up the mirror to platforms themselves.
While some other fact-checking organisations received funds from Facebook and others, Alt News instead tried to hold the platforms accountable too, he said.
According to Sinha, the disproportionate online attacks and threats they receive are rooted in their success at busting fake news narratives at key moments. He cited the year-long farmers’ protests outside New Delhi, particularly the Republic Day 2021 events, when claims were circulated that the Khalistani flag had been raised on Red Fort; and the organised attempt to accuse the Tablighi Jamaat’s gathering in New Delhi for the spread of Covid-19 cases.
“At these moments, we posted some critical articles,” he said, “And it was difficult to keep going on with a false narrative when we had provided a counter-narrative.”
Being A Fact-Checker In An ‘Electoral Autocracy’
The BJP general secretary Arun Singh’s statement on the suspension of Nupur Sharma said the party “does not promote such people or philosophy”, but in the course of the eight years that the BJP has been in power, multiple international reports have cautioned that India’s rankings on social and personal freedoms were slipping fast.
The country was counted among the top 10 autocratising nations according to the latest report of the V-Dem Institute at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden; India has slipped on several measures according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2021 Democracy Index; and the Freedom In The World report by Washington DC-based Freedomhouse, which produces research on issues related to democracy, political rights and civil liberties, pegged India as ‘partly free’. The V-Dem report referred to India as an ‘electoral autocracy’, in the company of El Salvador, Nigeria, Tunisia and others.
“Nothing is predictable any more, nothing is as per law any more,” said Pratik Sinha, about how they cope with threats of violence and arrest. The team members all have families, and it’s “scary” he said, also because “one never knows what the police might do”.
Asked if the FIRs unnerved him, Zubair said, “Definitely.”
He was especially upset after the first case, involving the image of a minor girl (from a profile picture) that he posted amid an online spat with a Twitter user. He didn’t usually engage, but had done so on this occasion. He had, however, blurred the girl’s face. “I think people didn't have anything to target me with until then. This was a small mistake and they started targeting me,” he said.
He stayed away from social media and lived apart from his family for a month, until the courts granted him protection from arrest. On returning home, there was on one hand pressure from his family to quit Alt News, and the hashtag #IStandByZubair on the other.
In 2018, Pratik Sinha received a phone call during which the caller simply said, “Likhna band karo warna goli maar denge. Stop writing, or we’ll put a bullet in you.” Sinha and Zubair have both received threats from people sliding into their direct messages on social media.
Scroll editor Fernandes and Pratik Sinha were in agreement that Zubair’s Muslim identitiy is the reason for the multiple FIRs against him.
How Family History Plays Out For Alt News
Pratik Sinha’s father Mukul Sinha was among a small group of activists in Gujarat who resisted the spate of fake encounters in the state and publicly criticised the BJP government and then chief minister Narendra Modi in connection with the 2002 riots.
Mukul Sinha and Nirjhari Sinha set up a Facebook page called Truth Of Gujarat, but according to Pratik Sinha, his family’s history plays out in a different way for Alt News.
For example, in May 2020, the Bureau of Police Research and Development in the union ministry of home affairs published a 40-page manual intended for law enforcers on how to identify fake news, listing five signatories to the International Fact-Checking Network as resources, including Alt News, which was at the time a signatory. The manual was removed from the website less than 24 hours after it was published, with the inclusion of Alt News sparking instant outrage online, though officials said it had never been meant to be public.
Right-wing websites such as OpIndia have called Alt News a propaganda outlet, “watering down crimes committed by radical Islamists” and using fact-checking as a “tool for propaganda”.
Pratik Sinha said his family would always be remembered for their opposition to the 2002 carnage and the fake encounters. “...but I don’t think that is the issue in the attacks against Zubair.” He himself faced no FIRs, he pointed out. “Without a shadow of doubt I can say it is his Muslim identity that is the reason he is being attacked.”
Nirjhari Sinha said she saw India as a “democracy for the majority” in which if the majority community issues a threat, there is no consequence, but if the minority calls it out as hate speech, their social media handle is under threat of suspension or an FIR filed or a barrage of online abuse ensues.
Founder of Gujarat’s Jan Sangharsh Manch that works on labour and civil rights, Nirjhari Sinha said things were more challenging now. “In some ways it is worse than in 2002 when Modi was chief minister. At that time we could still protest, there was some freedom in the country for the media, now the media is completely controlled.”
Fernandes said there was a whole range of fact-checkers and somehow, Zubair was the one attacked most often. “In the case of the latest FIR, several media organisations have already called these people hate mongers, these men were booked for hate speech, and yet an FIR is filed against Zubair with no basis—it’s a real perversion of justice.”
The Successes: Bullibai Perpetrators Jailed, A Mention By Ravish
According to Nirjhari Sinha, Pratik’s upbringing, surrounded by activism, was markedly different from Zubair’s. “Zubair has a family. His wife and parents are not used to this,” she said. “They will naturally be more worried, disturbed.”
Following the POCSO case, it was when YouTube channels began to post videos about Zubair that his parents began to see the circumstances of the FIR against their son. “They told me to be careful,” he said. “They said don't tweet much.”
His mother is now the first to find out what Zubair has tweeted or what was reported about him. He said she conducts a YouTube search for his name and compiles the latest links to be sent every morning to family and friends. “It’s kind of cute.” When Magsaysay awardee Ravish Kumar described Zubair’s work at length on his television show, nobody was more excited than his mother.
Things like the hashtag #ArrestZubair gave her sleepless nights. “She is happy with what I do, but she's also equally worried because of the current regime, you never know what they can do,” said Zubair. “Especially as there are three FIRs in UP against me.”
Active on social media since 2011-2012 during the India Against Corruption movement, Zubair had become an active follower of the very few political pages on Facebook in those days. He said he had watched the tone of those pages change after the 2014 election, suddenly beginning to favour the new BJP regime.
In 2014, he set up a social media parody account named ‘Unofficial Subramaniam Swamy’ with the Twitter handle ‘Sususwamy’. His satirical posts were hugely popular, prompting the original Swamy to demand that Facebook take down the parody page. (Eventually, a fan page was taken down.)
Having followed the Truth Of Gujarat page run by Pratik Sinha, the two met when Zubair visited Ahmedabad on work (he quit Nokia only in 2018 after over a year of convincing his parents).
When Nirjhari Sinha and other social activists launched their ‘Una Chalo’ campaign in 2016 following the flogging of seven Dalits for skinning a dead cow in Gir Somnath district’s Una town, in Gujarat, Pratik and Zubair documented the march for social media. Alt News was born a few months later.
Those who know Zubair described his ready wit and relentless pursuit of facts, his ability to remember long-ago comments made by leaders to pin them down for unexpected or sudden U-turns and his willingness to take them on publicly. But he is also unassuming, wearing his unexpected fame lightly, almost unaware of it.
The threats and abuses came his way even in 2014-15, he said, and he would usually ignore them or laugh it off. The abuse grew exponentially once he began to publicly take on right-wing handles. He continued to ignore them, but said it was grave enough to upset him at times, for example after he posted the Hindu dharam sansad video in December 2021-January 2022.
Following the communal clashes in Khargone in Madhya Pradesh and Jahangirpuri in Delhi, Zubair helped start a crowd-funding campaign to provide relief material to victims. The fund-raising was run by someone else, but he was personally involved in making sure the money reached the victims.
‘I Get More Love Than Hate On Twitter’
Zubair spoke of his future plans with a matter-of-fact straightforwardness. “We have no other choice, we will have to keep doing this. Maybe we must put more pressure on the government somehow.”
While many believe that hate speech has spiked after the Haridwar dharm sansad, in fact the event was being conducted every year for the last few years but had gone unreported in the mainstream media, he said. “People are asking us, why we are escalating it, why we are showing it here, why we are promoting them.” He said, “But in fact we don’t need to promote them, they (the godmen) have been around for several years.”
Impactful work that Alt News has done was a huge source of motivation—the BJP appearing to distance itself from Yati Narsinghanand after they posted videos of his comments on women; the Bullibai perpetrators being jailed, for example.
“There is happiness in our success but unfortunately, more and more people are doing it openly now,” he said. Prominent persons would rarely be seen speaking against Muslims or any other community, he said. “It was only trolls who did it earlier. Now spokespersons and many prominent, verified handles have started doing it.”
Zubair said what kept him going is the respect he gets on Facebook and Twitter, with some people even offering to pray for him. “That is one of the reasons I want to continue doing what I do,” he said, “for the love I get is equal, or maybe more, than the hate I get.”
(Kavitha Iyer is a senior editor with Article 14 and the author of ‘Landscapes of Loss’, a book on India’s farm crisis.)