Mohammed Zubair got interim bail from the Supreme Court on Friday, but the Alt News cofounder will stay in custody. In a separate case, the court provided Zee News anchor Rohit Ranjan protection from coercive police action.
Giving Zubair five-day interim bail in a hate speech case registered by the Uttar Pradesh police in Sitapur, a vacation bench of the top court set a slew of conditions, including that the journalist must not tweet.
But the interim bail doesn’t count for much: Zubair remains in judicial custody in another case related to hurting Hindu religious sentiments filed by the Delhi police. The court specified that Friday’s bail order applies solely to the hate speech case filed against the journalist in Sitapur. In the written order published afterwards, the court said it was “not concerned at this stage with any FIR other than” the one in Sitapur, which was the subject matter of Friday’s proceedings.
Zubair was arrested by the Delhi police on June 27 for allegedly hurting Hindu religious sentiments by posting a four-year-old satirical tweet referencing a trope from a 1983 Bollywood film which an anonymous tweeter found offensive. The police later slapped charges of criminal conspiracy, disappearance of evidence and violation of foreign funding rules, and Zubair was subsequently sent in judicial custody for 14 days.
The Sitapur case against Zubair was filed early on a complaint by Bhagwan Shara, a member of the Hindutva group Rashtriya Hindu Sher Sena, under section 295A of the Indian Penal Code and section 67 of the Information Technology Act. These laws punish deliberately insulting religious belief and publishing obscene material in electronic form, respectively. Shara apparently had issue with a tweet in which Zubair referred to the extremist Hindu priests Mahant Bajrang Muni, Yati Narsinghanand and Swami Anand Swaroop as .
On Thursday, Zubair petitioned the Supreme Court to quash this case after the Allahabad High Court declined to do so. He said it had put his life in danger.
The court, meanwhile, granted protection from arrest to Rohit Ranjan. The on July 5 after he falsely reported on the primetime show DNA that Congress leader Rahul Gandhi had described the extremist Muslim men held for killing a Hindu tailor in Udaipur as children. He had not.
In a writ petition to the court, Ranjan claimed that after realising that his show contained “factual inaccuracies and unintentional error”, his TV news channel immediately retracted it and apologised on air.
‘Calling a religious leader a hatemonger raises problems’
Arguing for the Uttar Pradesh police, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta opposed Zubair’s bail plea alleging that the journalist “is part of a syndicate which regularly posts tweets to destabilise the country”.
Zubair’s tweet on the Hindu priests which forms the basis of the Sitapur case had caused a “law and order situation”, Mehta claimed.
“I am not here to defend that action,” he said, meaning Narsinghanand’s hate speech. “Nobody is protecting him. I am here on whether his tweet created a law and order situation.”
He added, referring to the journalist, “One isolated tweet is not the offence, his overall conduct is being criminally investigated. He is a habitual offender. There are six cases registered against him.”
Additional Solicitor General SV Raju, representing the investigating officer, claimed that Zubair’s tweet promoted disharmony between religious groups.
To buttress his claim, Raju said that Bajrang Muni was a respected religious leader in Sitapur and even then Zubair had called him a hatemonger. “You have outraged the religious feelings of a large number of followers of Bajrang Baba. Whether it is deliberate or not is a matter for trial. Prima facie offence is made,” he argued. “You are attempting to promote…religious disharmony or ill-will between different kinds of people. Calling a religious leader a hatemonger! If you were such a nice person, you could have sent a letter to the police. Why did you tweet?”
Muni was arrested in April for making rape threats, and later freed on bail. In a speech outside a mosque in Sitapur, the priest had called the Muslim community ‘jihadi’ and to rape their women if any Muslim man harassed a Hindu woman.
Appearing for Zubair, senior advocate Colin Gonsalves said, “The persons who made the hate speeches have been released on bail, but the person who exposed them is in jail. See what this country has come to?”
Zubair had acknowledged posting the tweet in question, Gonsalves said, “so where is the case against him”. “Why do they need to investigate his phone when he admits his tweet?”
The journalist hadn’t spoken against any religion either, Gonsalves added, so why was he booked for hurting religious sentiments? By pointing out hate speech and reporting it to the police, the lawyer argued, wasn't Zubair in fact promoting secularism?
There was a threat to the journalist’s life, Gonsalves claimed, pointing out that calls have been made to kill him and for police to torture him. There was even a reward of Rs 1 lakh out for shooting Zubair dead, he said.