You’re back in Bangalore? With your family? How has it been since you returned home?
It’s been very hectic. I have had a lot of well-wishers coming and visiting me. Lots of family, my neighbours…some of them don’t know me as Zubair from , they just know me as Zubair. I have had visitors streaming in till 12 in the night. Not many in my extended family really knew the exact nature of my work…it was only after my arrest that they came to know the full import of what I do.
Has there been much support from them? Or are you receiving a lot of lectures on staying out of trouble? You know what I mean. Family always wants you to be cautious of what you write, what you say, etc.
Most of the people are very proud and happy. I can say this for almost everyone who’s come. A few elders, of course, you know like in every family, they told me to be cautious. "You know how things are with this government," they would say. "We don’t want you to stop but be cautious of what you say." People who know me are very proud.
Did you feel that you’d get bail or did you feel you were going in for the long haul?
Initially, when I was arrested by the Delhi police, I spoke to lawyers and itself was so weak that I was sure it’ll take time but I will get bail, at least after 14 days. Then UP police entered the picture. The is also pretty weak but then I had filed against me. I was reading the newspaper in Tihar when I was in judicial custody and read that there is an SIT being formed. That’s when I thought…okay, yeh lamba plan kar rahe hain.
You were taken to Sitapur by the UP police. Tell me a bit about that.
So, this was in a sort of an office space in the same compound as the Sitapur lockup. They took me to a room with 35-40 policemen. They questioned me from 10 am until around 5.30 pm. This was a little unnerving – 12 people surrounding me…and shooting questions. Two people would form a group and I would take questions from six such groups with senior officers also chiming in every now and then. A higher official did at one point come up to me and asked me not to worry and that the questioning would follow due process, and that I need not answer if I didn’t want to.
Tell me about the line of questioning.
Almost all of them had the same question but it was asked in different ways. Initially, it was pretty simple questions about my childhood, where I was born, my friends, my neighbours, my engineering days, names of each of my relatives, how many of them are abroad…how many lived in Saudi or Dubai. I guess they wanted to establish some connection with Saudi or Middle East ki koi toh connection hoga iska bahar.
I was asked how many times I have visited Jamia and JNU. How many times have I visited Dubai because I have relatives there…they were a bit surprised to know that I hadn’t and asked me if I was hiding it.
Then also questions on my work — why do I only fact-check information pertaining to UP and not other states?
Really? They asked that?
Haan thoda whataboutery tha. Why do you only fact-check Hindus? Why didn't you tweet when ? Why do you always tweet about UP, and why not Kerala or Tamil Nadu?
But how does one answer such a question?
I mean I told them that it’s good for the state’s law and order machinery if we are debunking misinformation related to UP. We also speak to the police for our stories…but they would circle back to me not talking enough about Muslim fundamentalists. I gave them the example of how I have who regularly visit TV channels and abuse Hindus or become punching bags…how they enable hate speech in a way. But I don’t know if I was able to get through to them. One interesting thing was that I think they were referring to OpIndia articles and even asked me about George Soros funding Alt News.
That’s straight out of the , UP police bringing up George Soros.
Ya, I laughed and asked them if they were referring to a thread by a right-wing ideologue on Twitter — I remembered he had made similar allegations that went viral, and I think they understood who I was referring to. So then they asked if not from George Soros, but is it true you get foreign funding?
They wondered why people in India who don’t pay Rs 10 for a newspaper would donate Rs 1,000 to Alt News.
So you had to explain the donation/subscription model to them?
Ya [laughs]. I mean the line of questioning was like, India itni ghareeb country hai, koi bhi aapko paise kyun dega sirf fact-check karne ke liye. [India is such a poor country, why would anyone donate to you just because you do fact-checking.] I must say though that when I was questioned about writing against BJP, one of the senior officers stopped it midway.
But this is a sort of readymade conspiracy theory not just against Alt News but against anyone who is seen as anti-establishment — that we are getting funded by a mysterious foreign entity.
This is quite comical in a way…but it’s not funny when it’s happening to you.
I knew that whatever I would say would not come out in the media. For example, on the Razorpay question, I think I was very clear during the questioning about how we simply cannot take donations from anyone who does not have an Indian bank account. It’s a technical impossibility. We even take PAN numbers of people when they donate. I thought I was pretty clear and I felt even the police officials understood this…but then when I saw the newspapers, the media was running stories on how we get money from Pakistan, Syria and other countries. What I said didn’t make it to the news…so I understood main kuch bhi bolun farak nahin padta.
Where did the come from? That you get paid so much per tweet?
I have no idea…no such question was asked. I was asked questions about joining Alt News, how I know Pratik…if I knew about Mukul Sinha’s anti-Modi activism. Did I join Alt News because I knew of that? But the allegation that I accepted Rs 2 crore — I wasn’t even asked about it. I don’t even…I mean…how can anyone even think ki koi ek bande ko tweet ke liye Rs 2 crore mil sakta hai. Even the BJP IT cell will think twice before making such a claim.
What was going through your mind through all of this?
I was very comfortable talking about Alt News funding and finances. Pratik, Nirjhari aunty and I have often discussed this, especially with all the smear campaigns about us and canards spread about our funding. So we have kept everything very transparent and by the book. There were questions about my Unofficial Subramanian Swamy Facebook profile where I would often satirise news events. For example, posts about Tripura Chief Minister Biplab Deb saying there was internet during Mahabharat…when you take that out of the context, it seems like a Muslim is making fun of Mahabharata or a Hindu god. But that wasn’t the case.
Interestingly, I met one police official who said he followed my page from back in 2015, and quite liked it.
Was that a line of questioning, though? Why do you make fun of Hindus?
In Sitapur, they asked me why I didn’t tweet ? That I only tweeted his rape threat but not the apology video he tweeted hours after the police had filed a case against him. I was like why should I? His video didn’t appear like an apology to me and it’s no excuse.
They were very shocked that out of 15 employees, Alt News has only three Muslims on its team, including me. They wanted me to name all the employees, so I named them. At least two or three of them were shocked that almost all of them were Hindus– "Tum Hindu hoke, you write against Hindus". I said we don’t do that…we only write against people who spread misinformation. Moreover, most of our donors are Hindus.
In the Delhi case, I explained how I only tweeted and there are examples of supporters of the government who tweeted the same image. They didn’t like the fact that I mentioned 2014. Soon after, they too switched to Alt News funding…but this has been my experience in all the previous cases too. The line of questioning is about Alt News funding. They showed me the donor list. Asked me why people would donate 40,000 or so.
They were actually pretty nice to me but I was a bit shocked at the Patiala court when they accused us of getting foreign funding…and that I was directly getting money in my account. Though I think they were convinced during the questioning that whatever money we received was through Indian accounts. Be it on Razorpay or Instamojo, you can’t enter foreign cards.
Many journalists who are making the powerful uncomfortable, I think in some way expect a CBI or ED or IT knock. But you’re never really prepared till it happens.
I remember discussing with friends that I am sure I can’t be arrested in the 2020 case because the Delhi High Court had granted protection from arrest. But what if they file a new FIR? Because this has happened, you know what happened with Jignesh. And I was told to cool down, and that may be I am overthinking. We thought itna kharab situation nahin hoga…I don’t think aisa hoga. But then…
The thought of being in jail, away from your family…it can break the best of us. There comes a time when you wonder if it’s worth it. Did you have such thoughts?
Maybe once it did cross my mind, ki shayad agar Alt News main nahin hota, toh I would be in Japan because I was in Nokia before this. My parents would say that I would earn more, etc. But I think what I have been able to do in Alt News is immensely gratifying. After going to jail, my belief has strengthened more because of the support I have received. Now, I think I should have done Mass Communication not Engineering. Shuru se yehi karna tha.
There is the problem of misinformation but a bigger problem is that most of the misinformation is directed towards the Muslim community. This is worrying. Most of the primetime debates are all about Hindu versus Muslim. I know what my community is facing, how they are being targeted. Along with doing journalism, I have always felt that I have to call this out.
It’s personal in a way. Even though I watch the debates you’re talking about, it doesn’t impact me as directly as it would to you…because you’re a Muslim.
Yes, especially the news channels…the hashtags they use. Every night. It’s hurtful… I guess not just to me…when I shared Nupur Sharma’s clip on Times Now, that was my intention, to highlight this. This is not the first time that someone abused the Prophet or even the religion. I mean several people come on my timeline and say all sorts of stuff about the religion, the Prophet and so on, I have never bothered with that.
In this particular case, the spokesperson of the biggest national party goes to a big news channel, says what she does, and the anchor doesn’t even think of stopping her — I remember , too, where you said that Nupur had said the same thing on two other channels and she was stopped there, on News 24 and Republic Bharat. I actually wanted to call out the news channel and news anchor, and I feel a bit bad that people are not calling out the news channel but going into a different angle.
You’ve actually received some amount of criticism for spotlighting what Nupur said. I don’t know if you read . But basically questions have been raised on whether your motivation of highlighting what Nupur said was secular, liberal enough. The argument is that you highlighted Nupur’s utterances as blasphemy, that was your main intention. And that's not the job of a journalist.
Wow. I haven’t read most of the pieces or criticisms you’re talking about. But I think people who are saying this have not actually read my or seen my thread. Nowhere have I even mentioned blasphemy.
My intention was to call out the channel. I have tagged Times Now, Vineet Jain…my main aim was to call out the news anchor and how they have normalised Hindu versus Muslim debates, encouraging people to abuse other religions, promoting hate speech. I wanted to highlight how these channels don’t talk about real issues. I have these channels are worse than Dharam Sansad. I don’t how others took it as me highlighting blasphemy.
Did you expect your tweet to go so viral? And that it would snowball into this big diplomatic controversy?
Not really. I didn’t imagine it would have the reach it did. But I think it was wrong to make it a case of “insult to India”, it was an insult to the BJP. The aim of me highlighting the international condemnation on the issue was to highlight how India was being embarrassed by a spokesperson of a party.
Did you at some point feel uncomfortable about how it became about blasphemy.
Yes, especially with the Kanpur incident. Muslim leaders calling for beheading, small children in Andheri participating in rallies. It became very volatile with leaders from responsible parties asking for Nupur’s hanging. To my mind, Nupur being suspended from her party is bigger than any demand for her arrest. What is the point of calling for her arrest? The suspension created the deterrence.
Do you feel now retrospectively on Twitter, you should have put a clear statement saying you don’t support this whole blasphemy direction the controversy took?
I didn’t think of giving a clarification at that time…maybe I should have, I don't know. There was a whole , people were asking for my arrest. There was an impending sense that I may be in jail. I was advised by people to stay off social media. I wasn’t feeling safe myself. People were announcing awards to file FIRs against me…so in a way, everything went pretty out of control.
But you know the police official I was talking about earlier who liked my Subramanian Swamy page, even he told me that shayad aapko Nupur ka video tweet nahin karna chahiye tha because people in India are very emotional. In a way, I didn't imagine this level of outrage…I don’t know but my intention was always to expose the news channel. That was really it.
It’s quite something for people to remain committed to their principles despite the might of the state against them. In your case, it seems your fact-checking has put you in the crosshairs of law. Don’t you wonder sometimes if it's worth your personal, physical freedom? Where do you draw your strength knowing that this may not be the last attempt to keep you locked?
My well-wishers. You know it’s hard for a Muslim to may be reach the place I have, to be able to have the impact I have had. So many of my well-wishers have told me to use that privilege well and not let them down. Now that I have this influence, I should use it well. Mere arrest ke baad sab dar gaye, ki tweet ya fact check karne ke liye arrest ho sakte hain, toh ground reporters ka kya hoga. I think for that reason, too, it’s important to keep doing the journalism that I do.
My wife has been a huge support. I didn’t know she was so strong until my arrest. I haven't said this to her…but she really took care of my parents when I was locked up. They would have been completely broken otherwise, they aren’t very political you know so it has been hard on them.
What did you miss the most in jail?
Playing with my three-month old daughter.
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