A couple of weeks after Dussehra last year, Mudassir Rana received an ‘amusing’ forward on WhatsApp. It had the faces of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, some BJP ministers and RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat superimposed on a painting of the ten heads of Ravana. Rana shared it on Facebook without a comment just as he was finishing lunch on 11 October. The following night, he was arrested from his house in Sardhana, Meerut in Uttar Pradesh.
Rana is among the dozens of Indians who were arrested for ‘insulting’, mocking or criticising Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other BJP ministers in WhatsApp forwards or Facebook posts. A majority of these cases were reported after the BJP was elected at the Centre in 2014. However, there has been precedents of such arrests before the BJP came to power. In 2012, cartoonist Aseem Trivedi was arrested on charges of ‘sedition’ for posting cartoons that depicted the Indian parliament as a toilet. The same year, two school girls from Palghar in Thane, Maharashtra were arrested for a Facebook post criticising the Shiv Sena bringing Mumbai to a standstill during Bal Thackeray’s funeral. That year itself, a professor was arrested by Kolkata Police for forwarding an email with a cartoon that made fun of West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee.
While working on this report, it was found that very few of these cases were followed up by the media and mostly no one spoke to the people arrested and their families, though a majority of reports had quotes from the party which filed the FIR. However, getting arrested affects everything from prospects of employment, higher education, travel and often comes attached with huge social stigma.
“It was just a joke”
A few hours after Rana uploaded the meme, he received a call from a man who identified himself as a ‘Bajrang Dal member’. “Before I could say anything, he started saying that I should mend my ways or there will be consequences,” Rana said. He was slightly disturbed by the tone of the caller, but didn’t read much into it. After all, it was a ‘just a joke’.
In the afternoon next day, a local journalist and acquaintance called Rana to warn him about a First Information Report (FIR) being lodged against him. Taken by surprise, Rana, who had lived in the small town all his life made a few calls to reach out to the local Bajrang Dal members. “I managed to make a common acquaintance call the person in charge in Bajrang Dal. By then, the police had already visited my house once and asked me to come to the police station,” Rana said.
As the evening wore on, the interlocutor informed Rana that the Bajrang Dal men have demanded an apology. Though he had pulled down the post by then, screenshots had already been taken and Bajrang Dal asked Rana to visit their office. “They told the common friend that I had to go down on my knees, lie prostrate and beg for their forgiveness. Now I would definitely say sorry, but I was not okay with being humiliated like that,” he said.
An hour or so after that phone call, the police arrived at his doorstep the second time in the day and Rana decided to go with them. It was mayhem in Rana’s house. A man who has never had run-ins with the law and ran a school in the neighbourhood, it was impossible for his wife and three children to believe he was being arrested for a Facebook post. “Obviously, they started imagining the worst,” Rana said. At the police station, Rana said outside on a bench on all night. However, occasionally some policemen would come and loudly ask their colleagues why he wasn’t put inside a lock-up with other ‘criminals’. “I think it was to intimidate me,” Rana said.
The Section 66A of the Information Technology Act 2000, which was struck down in 2015 by the Supreme Court, made it possible to lodge FIRs on the most unconvincing grounds. It allowed a person to lodge a complaint against another if any content shared by the person caused ‘annoyance’, inconvenience or was an ‘insult’ to another individual or group. Though the Supreme Court struck down the section calling it ‘draconian’, the persistence of such incidents of arrests shows that the police and complainants find other laws to ‘penalise’ people whose social media content they find ‘offensive’. For example, last year, All Indian Bakchod (AIB) was booked for defamation, under section 500 of IPC. They were also charged under the Section 67 of the IT act (punishment for publishing or transmitting obscene material in electronic form).
“They are in power, I am scared”
Rana has been running a junior school which teaches students till the 8th standard. The school has 700 students and according to Rana, 80 percent of the staff is Hindu while 20% of the students in the school are Hindu. However, since the incident last year, Rana says he has faced a social boycott of sorts from the local Hindus affiliated to Hindutva organisations. “Initially I used to go to their family functions, weddings etc. Now, they don’t call me. They also refuse to turn up at functions where I am invited as well, making the hosts jittery,” he added. “The principal of my school is a Brahmin, even he couldn’t believe the reason I was being ostracised,” Rana said.
Disbelief was the first emotion that crossed Manish’s* mind when he came to know of his suspension. Manish was working at the site he was posted at on Diwali last year when he learnt about the decision to suspend him on vernacular television. “They said I am being suspended for insulting the Prime Minister in a WhatsApp message. I couldn’t believe what was happening,” Manish told HuffPost India over phone, following desperate requests to not reveal his identity as he feared a backlash that could endanger his livelihood. We are not disclosing his profession or location to protect his identity. “Within moments, I got frantic calls from my family. They wanted to know what I had done, are the police going to arrest me? And I had no answer to their questions. I was terrified, I really don’t remember being that terrified my entire life,” Manish told HuffPost India.
“I had not even sent the message. Someone had sent it to me,” Manish said. He says, someone in his family may have forwarded the message to a group by mistake and a colleague, who knew him well, lodged the complaint against him. He was immediately suspended, pending enquiry. He refused to reveal whether he confronted the man, or what the message was. “Please forgive me madam, these people are in power now. And I have mouths to feed. I don’t want to say much,” he said.
Manish said he has stopped sharing anything on WhatsApp unless it’s important information and has requested his friends to stop sending anything that is not ‘important’ — jokes, memes, videos anything. “I can’t tell you what I went through. Don’t want that to happen again,” he said. After a week, Manish was asked to resume work.
“Someone else in my place would’ve committed suicide”
Twenty-seven-year-old Pankaj Mishra’s story, however, would make Manish seem like he was lucky to get his job back. Mishra was 22 when he dropped out of the second year of an LLB course and joined the CRPF in 2013. “My parents are poor farmers and I needed to earn money,” Mishra, a resident of Bihar’s Arra district told HuffPost India. He was posted in Durgapur, West Bengal when Maoists ambushed a battalion of CRPF personnel in Sukma, Chhattisgarh on 24 April last year. In what was called the ‘deadliest Maoist attack’ in years, 26 jawans died. One of them was Mishra’s 29-year-old cousin Abhay Mishra.
The two had often spent time together growing up and have even lived under the same roof for a while. “My brother was dead. Aur Rajnath Singh bol rahe the ‘hum mooh tod jawab denge’ (and Rajnath Singh was we will give a fitting reply),” Mishra said. Something snapped inside him, Mishra said. “There were these pundits on TV quarreling, analysing if the CRPF personnel are properly trained etc. And politicians everywhere saying what they always say after an attack like this — our respects to the martyrs etc,” Mishra said. In a fit of rage, he shot a video on his mobile phone criticising the government, Rajnath Singh, Narendra Modi and demanded that CRPF personnel get better amenities. He then uploaded the video on his Facebook profile.
Three days later, some senior officers caught hold of Mishra and snatched his phone away. It was then that Mishra realised his video had gone viral and had been picked up by some news channels.
“Then they (senior officers) herded me to a office and beat me up behind closed doors. All that time they kept shouting ‘what were you trying to prove’, ‘you think you are very smart’,” Mishra said. His phone still confiscated and body sore from the beating, Mishra ran away from the camp two days later. “I had not anticipated anything like this. I did not know what to do. I was scared they will hurt me more…”
Five days after he fled the camp, Mishra ‘surrendered’ at Delhi HC and was soon transferred to Jorhat in Assam. A couple of weeks went by, following which he was called to the Assam headquarters and told he had been suspended and an enquiry ordered. “I still don’t know what my crime was. He handed me a letter written in English, which I couldn’t read. Someone else read it out to me and I figured it was some sort of a disciplinary action for the video I had posted in April criticising the government,” he said.
Mishra alleges that the people conducting the enquiry were hand-in-glove with the officers he reported to in Jorhat. During hearings, he alleges, they kept chatting completely ignoring Mishra’s pleas. “In fact, in front of me, they were telling my former commanding officers what to write in the complaint so that I won’t get off. After a while, I couldn’t stay quiet anymore and told them, ‘you are like a judge here, sir. aren’t you supposed to be impartial’,” Mishra said. That, he says, got their goat. Mishra said he was then taken into a room, tied up and beaten up brutally by his former officers and ones at the headquarters. “It was as if I was a dog,” he said.
After he was released, Mishra said he was followed around like a common criminal. “Even if I had to use the bathroom, four-five men would guard me,” he said. He started to take videos of the food they were served and in two consequent Facebook posts from his phone shared his ordeal and reiterated his demands to the government for the CRPF be treated better. Then October 14 last year, he was dismissed from duty and immediately jailed. Reports quoted the deputy superintendent of Jorhat police saying, “Constable Mishra was arrested on Sunday on the basis of objectionable social media posts against the prime minister and the home minister. He was picked up from the CRPF’s camp.” A complaint against him was filed by CRPF sub-inspector Rupam Saikia on behalf of commandant Balram Behera, reports Wire.
Mishra managed to get out on bail three days later. He returned home without of job and virtually unemployable as he didn’t have a college degree and people were skeptical about employing a person fired by the CRPF and had been in jail.
“It was only the thought of my parents that stopped me from committing suicide. Anyone else in my place would have,” he said.
“Drained off the last rupee”
Mishra said he had written several letters citing his performance at his job to various highly-placed CRPF officials and government, asking to be reinstated. “I have not earned a paisa for days and my parents are poor. The lawyers you need to fight a case in the High Courts charge a lot of money and I was drained off my last rupee,” Mishra said. He added that most lawyers he knew were unwilling to take up his case as that would mean sparring with the BJP. He stays at home at present writing letters, hoping something would come of it. In Assam, he has recruited a lawyer who keeps going to hearings on his behalf.
Manish too told HuffPost that the fear of losing his livelihood was something that haunted him to this day. On the other hand, Rana, had to cancel his plan to take his son to Ukraine for medical college as he wouldn’t be issued a passport. His son shelved the plans as well fearing a background check at this moment may give people a misleading idea. “The case is yet to reach the court. Till it is resolved and I am let off the hook, this will hang on my and my family’s head. But I won’t go down without a fight,” he said.
Devu Chodankar, a 30 something formerly employed with a shipping company, ran up a huge debt paying lawyers after a FIR was filed against him for a Facebook post criticising Narendra Modi and Goa CM Manohar Parrikar. “In addition there was cost of lawyers and hosting supporters, travels etc, much of which went on my credit card. I spent next two years paying this debt of direct and indirect costs which ran to at least 5-6 lakhs,” Chodankar told HuffPost.
In March 2014, Chodankar, who used to be a BJP supporter and even participated in various activities organised by the RSS in Mumbai few years earlier, wrote a Facebook post warning the country of a ‘holocaust-like’ situation if Narendra Modi came to power. He said he was an enthusiastic BJP supporter and had even met Manohar Parrikar once through common acquaintances in the Sangh and party. However, over the years, he got disillusioned and often picked up fights with RSS and BJP members on social media, who he had befriended during his days as a party supporter. He said that the attacks on him had particularly intensified in 2013 when he objected to the Parrikar government’s decision to build an airport at Mopa plateau, which would cause great environmental damage. And in 2014, months before Narendra Modi came to power, a BJP supporter who was his ‘Facebook friend’ filed a FIR against him. “He is an industrialist and is close to Parrikar,” Chodankar said.
He had not been aware of the FIR for several weeks and had found a new job which would require him to move to Vishakhapatnam. While Chodankar was on his first week of his new job, his father received summons from the police in Goa.
“I called my father, who gave a written request seeking time to appear before Goa Police as I was in Visakhapatnam. That request was rejected and a second summons was issued within two days. I took an urgent flight to Goa and filed for an anticipatory bail which was rejected by court,” Chodankar said. Meanwhile, considering his initial proximity to the party and his recent history of disputes with its members, Chodankar’s acquaintances warned him of possible violence in custody. Meanwhile, BJP had won the 2014 elections and Narendra Modi was being sworn in as the Prime Minister. Fearing violence, with the help of friends, some of who were from opposition parties, Chodankar went underground. He only appeared before the police after they assured his acquaintances that there will be no custodial interrogation. When he turned up at the police station, he was grilled for six hours about the Facebook post and his laptop and hard discs seized.
And all this while, Chodankar said, he kept getting anonymous threats on social media accounts and on phone. His health suffered, his ran up staggering debts to pay lawyers, and he couldn’t continue at his job with the case going on. “With the social media shaming, it became impossible for me to find a job in India,” he added.
In 2016, Chodankar moved to Belgium to study. The ‘investigation’ into his FB post and the case are still on. “Those couple of years were unbearable. The water tank in my house was contaminated. Every other day, I would find the electricity connection to the house cut off. And I kept getting hate messages from unknown people. Over and above that, I had a case to fight,” Chodankar said. He added that though he has no evidence that BJP supporters were behind these deeds, he is “pretty sure” they were.