This story was updated on August 12, 2022

Mohammed Zubair, who helped found “Alt News,” an Indian fact-checking website, was arrested on June 27 for a joke he tweeted based on a screenshot from a 1983 Hindi movie. Alt News has consistently annoyed the right wing Hindu supremacists who dominate Indian politics and the Indian media, even though the site uncovers and debunks all manner of disinformation. 

That said, Zubair seemed to particularly relish his online battles with supporters of the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its infamous “IT Cell” trolls.

In the end, he was undone by the lamest of quips. The gag in the movie was a pun on the word “honeymoon” and the Hindu god “Hanuman,” a gentle jab about the need for a hotel for honeymooners to change its name in smalltown India to suit conservative sensibilities. 

Mohammed Zubair (wearing cap) being led by police to a Delhi courthouse. A prominent fact-checker, Zubair is currently in judicial custody for a joke he tweeted in 2018. Photo by Salman Ali/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Zubair contemporized it to make the hardly radical point that since 2014, under prime minister Narendra Modi, India has been bullish about its “Hindu first” values. For some onlookers, Zubair’s arrest is further confirmation that Modi’s India is taking a distinctly repressive turn.

What takes this already strange story into Kafkaesque territory is that Zubair had made his joke on March 24, 2018, over four years before any offense was alleged to have been caused.

Sanjay Rajoura, a comedian and part of a three-man group of satirists, told us that “there is no comedy without politics.” He said that while his views have caught the attention of the police, his critics who dish out personal abuse and death threats do so with impunity. 

“We have a right-wing, fascist government,” he told us. “I have friends who are in jail. This is a very difficult country.”

A controversial figure, Rajoura was last year accused of sexual harassment in an anonymous post on Instagram by a woman who said she had been taken in by his image as a progressive and feminist voice. He denied the allegations on Facebook but “Newsclick,” an independent news website “with a focus on progressive movements,” chose to suspend his show until an investigation was completed though it’s unclear if any investigation ever took place. 

Newsclick itself has also been on the receiving end of the BJP’s ire, with a party spokesperson claiming the site “received crores [tens of millions] of rupees from abroad in a suspicious manner with a motive to portray India’s system and government as a failed one.”

Despite the general feeling that the BJP is eager to jail people for fairly tame social media criticism, and that there’s a Twitter mob of right-wing Hindu nationalists ever willing to claim that their “sentiments” have been hurt and file reports, there is no exact figure to show how many arrests are being made as a result of social media posts.

What is clear, though, is that the government is seeking more control over social media, and demanding more compliance with requests to remove content and prevent Indian users from accessing content the government does not like.

Twitter has filed a lawsuit against the Indian government in the Karnataka High Court, describing its demands to take down or limit content as “disproportionate” and a form of censorship.

Zubair’s arrest indicates the arbitrary nature of the police response. It took just one complaint from an anonymous Twitter user, whose account has since become defunct, for the Delhi police to act. 

The account holder, who had only one follower before Zubair’s arrest, had made only one tweet, tagging the Delhi police on June 19 and urging it to take action against Zubair because “Linking our God Hanuman ji with Honey Moon is direct insult of Hindus.”

After Zubair’s arrest, the Delhi police sent a team to Bangalore to seize “electronic evidence,” including his laptop and hard drives though there was no dispute that he was the author of the tweet. In court, Zubair’s lawyer described the police as going on a “fishing and roving” expedition. 

The solicitor general of India, representing the state, argued that the first information report prompting Zubair’s arrest was only an “initiation of proceedings” and that charges could be added as more evidence was gathered. Zubair is now being held for 14 days “in judicial custody,” as the police investigate a slew of charges.

It’s worth reiterating here that the catalyst for this convoluted legal drama was a joke Zubair made on social media four years ago.

Indian social media, perhaps more than ever, is rife with claims of hurt religious sentiments but also calls for people to be arrested for run of the mill mockery of public figures. Examples abound of ordinary Indians finding themselves mired in legal trouble, including spells in prison, for jokes and satire aimed at politicians across parties. 

On the day Zubair was arrested, ostensibly for making a joke, Anirban Roy was in court in Kolkata, learning to his relief that he was being granted bail after three weeks in jail for comments he had made in a Facebook live session that were construed to be offensive to West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee. 

A regional leader of growing national status, Banerjee often accuses Modi of using national investigating agencies to intimidate his critics and opponents. The report which led to Roy’s arrest in Goa by a team from the “anti-rowdy” department of the Kolkata police was filed by a spokesperson for Banerjee’s All India Trinamool Congress (TMC) party.

In his popular videos, Roy, whose stage name is Roddur Roy (“roddur” can be translated from Bengali as “sunshine”) adopts the persona of a profane streetside prophet, a poet of disdain who delights in his own spittle-flecked performative rage.

He has hundreds of thousands of followers and subscribers on Facebook and YouTube and his content is deliberately designed to prick the pomposity and shibboleths of Bengali polite society. 

For instance, among his most celebrated and controversial videos is his expletive-ridden version of a love song by Rabindranath Tagore, the towering figure in Bengal’s cultural imagination, becoming in 1913 the first Indian, indeed non-European, to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. 

Roy has covered many canonical Tagore songs, usually in a peculiar accent, with much atonal yowling and inept strumming on an ukulele. These patently absurd covers were also the subject of an information report filed with the Kolkata police, as was a 2020 video in which he swears repeatedly and extravagantly at Modi.

A condition of Roy’s bail is that he make a video apologizing for his alleged slurs against the Indian constitution and flag by the time he makes his next court appearance on August 2. “They don’t understand art,” Roy yelled at bystanders as the police led him away for the apparent crime of épater le bourgeois.

When we contacted Roy’s friends, they were reluctant to speak about his weeks in custody, saying it was “not a good time” and that they feared reprisals. Saket Gokhale, a national spokesperson for the TMC with a large social media presence, did not respond when we asked him to specify his party’s position on satire.

Back in 2012, not long after Mamata Banerjee became chief minister of West Bengal, a professor was arrested for forwarding a cartoon about Banerjee. The section, 66-A, of India’s “Information Technology Act” which the police cited has since been struck down by the Supreme Court for its disproportionate interference in free speech and expression.

Activists point out that though the section was ruled to be unconstitutional in 2015, hundreds of cases remain pending in the courts. In 2017, Zakir Ali Tyagi, then still a teenager, was arrested for a set of sarcastic Facebook posts he had made about the BJP-appointed Hindu nationalist chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, a monk who goes by the name Yogi Adityanath.

Among the statutes the police invoked when they arrested Tyagi, including sedition, was the already discredited section 66-A. “They scoured my Facebook timeline and days later the police started following me home,” Tyagi told us.

“They showed me screenshots of my social media posts and took me to the station, saying I’d be let off in a few hours, but I was jailed for 42 days.” A journalist and a human rights campaigner, the now 23-year-old Tyagi told us that Zubair’s arrest was a reminder that even if the Supreme Court had declared section 66-A unconstitutional its spirit lingers.

In May, an actor, Ketaki Chitale, was arrested in Maharashtra for posting a satirical poem on Facebook that mocked the powerful, exceedingly well connected National Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar. The phrases (translated from Marathi) reported in the Indian media to be the basis for the arrest include “hell is waiting” and “you hate Brahmins.”

Actor Ketaki Chitale (in sari) was in jail for weeks awaiting bail for a satirical poem she posted on Facebook about a powerful politician. She said she hadn’t even written the poem. Photo by Praful Gangurde/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Chitale says she didn’t even write the poem. After she was released on bail, she told the Indian news station NDTV that she was “behind bars for 51 days for no rhyme or reason because Pawar is not a religion.”

Bombay High Court lawyer, Anirudh Ganu, who represented a 22-year-old student brought before judges last month for also making offensive posts about Pawar, told us that there were key differences between the arrests of his client, of Chitale and of Zubair. 

“Ridiculing someone’s religion,” he said, referring to Zubair, is not the same as throwing barbs, however pointed, at a politician. “Causing a rift between communities,” he said, is an offense that warrants police action.

Last year, in a case that garnered international attention, Munawar Faruqui, a young Muslim comedian, was arrested during a show by police in Indore, a city in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. The arrests were made at the behest of the son of a BJP legislator. 

Faruqui was supposedly making jokes about Hindu gods, though the superintendent of the Indore police told news website “Article 14” that no such jokes had actually been made during the performance. Instead, the police acted on “oral evidence” that the jokes were “going to” be made.

That is, someone had complained to the police that they heard Faruqui making the jokes backstage. Despite receiving widespread support, including from comedians in the Indian diaspora, Faruqui said he would be quitting comedy after a dozen upcoming shows were canceled as a result of his arrest.

“Hate won and the artist lost,” he said to a newspaper reporter. He has since recovered a measure of minor celebrity, albeit through his appearance on a reality show rather than through politically-tinged comedy. Among the other comedians arrested alongside Faruqui at the show was Nalin Yadav.

He spent 57 days in jail before he got bail. “And we didn’t even crack the jokes they said we did,” he told us. “There is no line,” Yadav says, “there is no way of knowing when you’ve gone too far.” For instance, on May 17, a 50-year-old professor at a Delhi college was arrested — the Delhi police knocking on his door late at night — for a joke he made on Facebook. 

His crime was being sarcastic about the supposed discovery of a “Shivling” — a symbol of the Hindu god Shiva with phallic connotations — in a 17th-century mosque. When granting him bail, a judge said there were 1.3 billion potential opinions in India. 

“The feeling of hurt felt by an individual,” he said, “cannot represent the entire group or community.”  

But even at the time of writing, the offense-taking continues to rise to a single high-pitched screech, a note of such keening intensity that it drowns out all the other noise in India’s once proudly noisy, argumentative democracy.

UPDATE: A BJP state legislator was so angered by the prospect of Faruqui performing in Hyderabad on August 20 that he threatened to burn down the venue. “Let them see what will happen if he is invited to stage a show in Hyderabad,” the legislator said, referring to the state government which had earlier said it had no objections to Faruqui performing in Hyderabad. “Wherever the programme is held, we shall beat him up.” 

Mohammed Zubair was released on bail a little over three weeks after being arrested. The court also refused to consider a request from the Uttar Pradesh government – which moved with alacrity to file six cases in local courts once Zubair was arrested in Delhi – to stop him from tweeting.