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Indian Muslim journalist, critic of Modi, arrested over tweets

Police patrol a bus terminal in New Delhi last year. (Hindustan Times/Getty Images)
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NEW DELHI — Mohammed Zubair, a Muslim Indian journalist and prominent critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was arrested Monday over posts he made on Twitter, with press freedom groups swiftly condemning the charges.

Zubair, co-founder of the fact-checking site Alt News, was charged with “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings” over a post he shared in 2018 that referred to the Hindu god Hanuman. He was sentenced to a four days in jail late Tuesday.

The arrest came weeks after Zubair, who has more than a half-million Twitter followers, gained international prominence by calling attention to controversial remarks about the prophet Muhammad by an official from Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party. The derogatory comments about Muhammad’s marriages by BJP spokeswoman Nupur Sharma led to widespread condemnation from the Islamic world and apologies from the Indian government.

The timing of Zubair’s arrest — and the nature of the charges — have raised suspicions that he is facing retribution at a time when the Modi government and its supporters are increasingly hitting back at critics who are active on social media. In recent years, Indian authorities have arrested opposition politicians for their tweets and pressured Twitter to remove posts by protesting farmers criticizing Modi.

In 2021, the government also asked Twitter to censor tweets from the advocacy group Freedom House, which has written negatively about the Indian government, the tech blog Entrackr and the Press Trust of India news agency reported this week, citing a new Twitter document.

Zubair said last week that he had received notice from Twitter that the Indian government had told the social media company that his account — in its entirety, rather than specific tweets — “violates the law(s) of India.”

A police investigation into Zubair’s account was spurred by a tweet earlier this month from an anonymous account calling out a post by Zubair in 2018 about the name of a hotel, according to local media. “Before 2014 : Honeymoon Hotel,” the tweet read. “After 2014 : Hanuman Hotel.”

The anonymous account — which used the name Hanuman Bhakt, an apparent reference to the Hindu god mentioned in Zubair’s post — asked the Delhi police to “kindly take action against this guy.” The linking of Hanuman, who is said to be celibate, to “Honeymoon” was a “direct insult of Hindus,” the account said in the tweet last week.

Suman Nalwa, a spokeswoman for the Delhi police, confirmed in a phone interview that the charges were based on Zubair’s Twitter posts. “He had posted some things on his Twitter handle which were demeaning to one community,” she said. “They were highly provocative, and it is assumed that he had done it deliberately.”

Steven Butler, the Asia program coordinator of the Committee to Protect Journalists, a nonprofit that advocates for press freedoms around the world, said in a statement: “The arrest of journalist Mohammad Zubair marks another low for press freedom in India, where the government has created a hostile and unsafe environment for members of the press reporting on sectarian issues. Authorities must immediately and unconditionally release Zubair, and allow him to pursue his journalistic work without further interference.”

Digipub, a group of news sites in India, also condemned the arrest, saying “it is unjustifiable that such stringent laws are being used as tools against journalists.” The Press Club of India called Modi hypocritical for signing on to a Group of Seven commitment the same day that promises to protect “freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief” and promote “inter-faith dialogue.”

Modi has been widely criticized for taking a Hindu-nationalist approach to managing India’s religious tensions and for his treatment of the country’s minority Muslim population. In 2002, when he was chief minister of the state of Gujarat, he was accused of inaction after communal violence resulted in the brutal killings of 1,000 to 2,000 Muslims.

Communal clashes have escalated across India in recent months, and tensions over Sharma’s remarks about the prophet have had deadly consequences. On Tuesday, two men in the state of Rajasthan hacked to death a tailor who had voiced support for the BJP spokeswoman on social media. The killing, which was recorded by the two perpetrators, set off mass protests in the western city of Udaipur, where police cut internet service to contain unrest.

Zubair has used social media in the past to expose hate speech against Muslims and was previously reprimanded by police for a tweet calling out right-wing Hindu activists, according to Digipub.

Pratik Sinha, who co-founded Alt News with Zubair, said his colleague was detained despite having received previous protection from the High Court, and that neither he nor Zubair was given proper notice of his arrest “despite repeated requests.”

Pietsch reported from Seoul. Amy Cheng contributed to this report.

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