Mumbai: On 18 April 2021, a 38-year-old Muslim barber-shop owner from Uttar Pradesh’s (UP) northwestern district of Pilibhit district posted a status update on his Facebook page. Written when the Indian government allowed over 9 million to attend the Hindu religious gathering of the Kumbh Mela despite a deadly surge in Covid cases, the Facebook post featured an image of Naga sadhus crowded together, clad in scant loincloth.
The accompanying text said: “Looking at this photo from Haridwar’s Kumbh Mela, people across the world are saying that Indians wear their masks very low, which is why corona is spreading so much.”
Two days later, the man in question, Aslam Ansari, found himself in a temporary prison in the district jail premises, after the area’s regional presidents of Hindu right-wing groups, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Shiv Sena, complained to station house officer Atar Singh at the Pilibhit police station.
“I was actually copying a post of someone else,” said Ansari, who spent three days in jail before he made bail. “Immediately after I posted it, a gang of men from Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Bajrang Dal and Shiv Sena filed a complaint against me. I requested them several times, even my family begged and apologised but they refused to compromise. They simply wanted to teach me a lesson.”
Pilibhit Shiv Sena president Shailendra Sharma said their complaint wasn’t motivated by a Facebook post, but referred to their belief that Ansari was responsible for “mohalle ki Hindu auraton ko chhedna (he was responsible for sexually harrassing Hindu women of the neighbourhood)” and having a “rape case registered against him elsewhere”.
But Pilibhit police superintendent Kirit Rathore said that the concerned first information report (FIR) was “regarding a social media post, and he had already received bail”. For Ansari, the incident reflects an exercise by the UP government “to hide its failures, and is supported by Hindutva vigilante groups in places like ours”.
A copy of the FIR shows that Ansari was booked under section 295 (injury of a place of worship with intent to insult that religion) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) 1860, and section 67 of the Information Technology Act (IT Act) 2000, referring to “obscenity”, a provision repeatedly criticised (here and here) for its vagueness.
A 2017 study conducted by gender and disability rights-organisation Point of View found that this law has been frequently used to curb “political, religious comments and artistic freedom”. Of the 99 cases they examined between 2015 and 2017, only 28 involved a non-consensual production of images and videos.
Apar Gupta, a lawyer and executive-director of the Internet Freedom Foundation noted there was “a definite problem with the statute” with respect to section 67 of the IT Act and the related section 292 of the IPC.
“This is troubling given that the offence is particularly vague” said Gupta. “What is necessary under the constituent elements of ‘obscenity’ under the IPC is the existence of sexual expression or leading to arousal.”
Days after Ansari’s release, UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath issued a statement calling for “seizure of property” and registering of cases against all those who “spread rumours” and tried to “spoil the atmosphere” by posting about Covid on social media.
Close on the heels of this statement, police in UP’s central district of Amethi tweeted about registering a case against a young man called Shashank Yadav who sought help online for oxygen.
“My nana (maternal grandfather) had a pacemaker and impulser in his heart, he needed oxygen for this,” said Yadav, speaking a month later to Article 14. “A friend tagged journalist Arfa Khanum for help, who in turn tagged Smriti Irani. By the time Smriti ma’am called me, it was night and I was asleep with my phone switched off.”
Yadav, whose grandfather died on the night of 26 April 2021, woke up to police at his house the next afternoon.
The Amethi police accused Yadav of spreading misinformation and “fear” in society because their inquiry found that his grandfather did not have Covid. In a series of now-deleted tweets, police charged him under various sections pertaining to negligence and “public mischief” under the IPC, with related provisions under section 3 (disobedience to a public servant during a pandemic) of the Epidemic Diseases Act (Epidemics Act) 1897, and section 54 (spread of false information) of the Disaster Management Act, 2005.
Yadav said he later clarified to police that the oxygen was not required for his father as a “Covid patient”, but for his heart condition. It, thus, was not fake news.
Yadav said the Amethi police finally “let him go without taking further action”, yet was hesitant to say why the police were so quick to wrongly charge him in the first place.
Yadav’s case was just the start.
Despite Supreme Court Warning, Slew Of FIRs
Even as the Supreme Court said no action be taken against anyone seeking Covid-relief or airing their grievances online, a slew of cases across UP revealed how the government has registered FIRs and issued “show-cause notices” to social-media users, journalists and others commenting on the government’s handling of the pandemic.
On 30 April 2021, during a hearing by a three-judge Bench, Justice D Y Chandrachud warned against any “clampdown of information”, stressing that the Court would “treat it as a contempt (of court) if such grievances are considered for action.”
The same day as these observations in the Supreme Court, Ram Abhilash, additional district magistrate (ADM) in UP’s southern district of Rae Bareli, sent show-cause notices to three local journalists for sharing a news report on Facebook and also allegedly sent notice to a fourth person, Arya, who according to journalist Anuj Awasthi, “simply shared my status on his own Facebook account”.
The journalists in question—Anuj Awasthi of Kanwhizz Times, Shivam Trivedi of the Daily News Activist and Durgesh Singh Chauhan of the Rashtriya Kavach—had shared a news clipping on supply of oxygen published by the Rae Bareli bureau of Kanwhizz Times.
Rae Bareli ADM Abhilash told the Indian Express that notices were sent because the journalists had circulated “false information”.
Anuj Awasthi and Durgesh Chauhan denied there was any fake news involved. “The article we shared even cited an ANItweet which said that 20 tons of oxygen from Rae Bareli was transported to Kanpur,” said Awasthi. “There was a crisis in Rae Bareli at the time. After seeing ANI’s tweet I even posted a video on social media.”
Chauhan said the ADM asked for proof of their sources, and they sent the administration clippings from ANI, Hindustan and Amar Ujala.
After the initial notices, the journalists said authorities had not pressed any charges. But questions remained why these notices were sent in the first place. Awasthi said the notice sent to him invoked section 66A (sending any “offensive messages” on Internet) of the IT Act, a law that the Supreme Court struck down six years ago in 2015.
Advocate Sarim Naved, who practises in courts across Delhi and UP, said this notice by Rae Bareli authorities was clearly “contempt of court”. The UP government’s response to the pandemic has been to “send the police and intimidation”, Naved said. “66A of the IT Act was struck down, that notice is subject to at least a preliminary inquiry. Police have no right to investigate or send a notice unless there’s a cognizable offence under IPC or existing laws. If the law doesn’t exist then it’s completely contempt of court.”
“Even without arrests, the UP authorities’ actions can certainly be challenged as contempt. Acts of censorship need not be deprivation of physical liberty, they can also be processes which cause a ‘chilling effect’,” said Gupta of Internet Freedom Foundation. Even sending notices under section 91 of the Criminal Procedure Code 1973 (by which police orders a person to furnish documents or sources of information prior to investigating a matter), can be contempt, he said.
Intimidation by authorities across UP did not stop there.
TV Channel Alleges ‘State-Sponsored Violence’ Against Reporter On 16 May 2021, the correspondent of a TV news channel called Bharat Samachar from the north-eastern UP district of Siddharth Nagar, 22-year-old Ameen Farooqui, was in a now-viral video, beaten outside the district community health centre by allegedly “close to 50 men” as per his account.
Farooqui was trying to report Covid deaths in a nearby village called Dhanauri and the opening of a shop of the sub-divisional magistrate’s (SDM) “chaheete aadmi (cronies) when other shops remained shut in lockdown”.
“When I discovered the story about this shop getting preferential treatment, SDM saab sent me threats on Whatsapp,” said Farooqui. “He even said we aren’t media but swaarthi (self-serving) people.”
When Farooqui registered a complaint against local BJP MLA Raghavendra Pratap Singh and the SDM, police lodged a counter FIR against the journalist, including charges of incitement to riot and voluntarily causing hurt.
At a time when the Indian media, especially Hindi ones in the country’s north, have been widely criticised for being pro-government, Bharat Samachar’s reporters have faced FIRs and intimidation for their coverage of the Yogi Adityanath-led state’s functioning. Reporters were subject to deep fakes themselves—a doctored video surfaced which showed one of its reporters being stabbed by assailants.
Bharat Samachar’s editor-in-chief Brajesh Misra said his reporter was beaten because Siddarth Nagar was a very remote area, near the Nepal border.
“Lots of people died there, there’s no tests, no ambulances, no oxygen,” said Misra “What happened was an act of state-sponsored violence against our reporter, so we responded by sending two more reporters there, so as to ensure he has more support and to provide more coverage.”
Naved said the government could continue to intimidate despite the Supreme Court’s intervention because “the officers (police and bureaucrats) who register these offences have nothing to lose”. The UP government, he said, used the police in a “heavy-handed” manner for the last five years, and officers who wrongly use the law “are routinely pardoned and not held to account”.
The state’s former inspector general of police (IGP) and Lucknow-based activist S R Darapuri, agreed. “They are all compromised now,” he said. “No police official or bureaucrat will even talk to you honestly about this story.”
Darapuri should know. In December 2019, he was among those arrested on charges of rioting and arson, incarcerated for over two weeks and allegedly tortured, because he participated in peaceful protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) 2019, and National Register of Citizens (NRC).
Darapuri was served property-eviction notices over his involvement in peaceful anti-CAA-NRC protests. The retired IPS officer said the Covid social-media clampdown is another “part of their high-handedness”.
From Denial To Manufacturing Of ‘Fake News’ And Alternate Realities
The censorship of social media in modern-day UP is part of a larger clampdown.
From filing cases against villagers in Mewla Gopalgarh village in western UP who complained to The Wire and NDTV about poor medical facilities to registering an FIR against an ambulance driver supplying oxygen, alleging “false remarks against the government”, the UP government has repeatedly made attempts to censor and intimidate citizens and even hospitals (see here and here) for Covid-related grievances. As with social media posts, they are accused of “false news”, “rumours” and “disinformation”.
Singh faces three Covid-related cases, one filed by police in Lucknow, Varanasi and Unnao each.
The first FIR against Singh was filed in June 2020 by the Lucknow police over his tweet that said “the strategy of UP: No Test = No Corona”. He questioned UP’s testing policy, alleging testing was deliberately slow to keep a lid on the actual number of Covid-19 cases.
The second Covid-related FIR was filed on 10 May 2021 by the Varanasi Police who accused him of “spreading rumours” and “encouraging objectionable remarks on constitutional post-holders” for tweeting a 34-second video featuring the remains of a Covid patient who died in a local government hospital and whose body was found in a nearby drain. It was a 25 August 2020 story from the news channel and website Aaj Tak reporting the incident.
Varanasi’s additional deputy commissioner of police Vikas Chandra Tripathi claimed the video was “fake and a year old”. “An older date does not change the fact that it happened and the person died like this because of Covid,” said Singh.
Three days later, Unnao police filed another case over a new tweet. The FIR alleged that Singh tweeted a seven-year-old photograph of bodies floating in the Ganga near the Baksar village of UP’s southern district of Unnao. Singh said he “merely used a representative photograph” to shed light on the issue of floating bodies.
“I later tweeted multiple clippings showing there have been dead bodies in Ballia. This has been reported in Hindustan, TV9, NDTV,” said Singh. “Kissi ghatna ka swaroop dikhana, kisi phenomenon ko photo se depict karna is fake news? (To portray a representation of an actual incident, to depict reality with a similar photo is fake news?).”
Singh, in both FIRs, was charged with spreading “misinformation” and “false propaganda” citing the offence of “public mischief” under section 505 of the IPC.
On 31 May, 11 days after he talked to Article 14, the Kanpur police filed an FIR against Singh, again under section 505 IPC and section 66 of the IT Act.
It alleged Singh’s’s tweet of 30 May was a “conspiracy (saazish) to defame” the complainant and the Adityanath government. Singh had tweeted this audio-clip revealing how people are paid Rs 2 per tweet to post “positive news” of the UP government.
On 5 June, Singh received a notice from Twitter saying Indian authorities wanted the tweet featuring the audio-recording removed, as it “violates laws of India”. On the same day, the Unnao Police went to his home in Lucknow and spent close to 6 hours allegedly questioning him over an aforementioned tweet about floating bodies for which there was an FIR. Just days earlier, the Allahabad High Court ordered a stay on taking action against that tweet, but the police nevertheless went to interrogate him. Singh said this was done only to intimidate him for “exposing the UP government”.
The Illegal Use Of The Law
“Fake news is an expression for what is actually a wide index of disinformation ranging from being innocent to malicious in intent,” said Gupta of the Internet Freedom Foundation. “Section 505 isn't aimed at curbing factual inaccuracy in public statements but aimed at preventing incitement, public disorder and a sense of public panic.”
“If it’s fake news, why do they just keep filing FIRs but never arrest me?” said Singh. “They’re angry my tweets are getting viral! How am I spreading fear? Makeshift graveyards, people dying in hospitals, dead bodies floating in rivers—isn’t the actual reality more fearful?”
(Sabah Gurmat is a student of law at the University of Delhi and a freelance journalist.)