“In India, offending religious sentiments have nothing to do with journalism. Instead, it concerns Hindu nationalists impeding press freedom, and ending what little accountability there is left for the heinous Hindutva crimes”
It was a weekend for International diplomacy when the group of seven, commonly known as the G7 met in Germany. The agenda for this year’s summit was diverse but mainly focused on Ukraine, interlinked with rising energy and food insecurity. At the end of its first outreach session, leaders of G7 and its five partner countries including India—committed to strengthening the resilience of democracies—jointly signed off a “2022 Resilient Democracies Statement.” The statement was classified into four areas of commitment including; global responsibility for promoting rule-based international order, defending open and pluralistic debate, protecting free and vibrant civic space, and lastly, promoting an inclusive environment.
While India was gracing itself with the badges of democracy and pledging to advocate ‘freedom of expression,’ at home, the BJP-led government was laying a siege on dissent voices. The timing proved to be sinister when Delhi police arrested a reputed journalist known as, Muhammad Zubair the same day as India signed off a democratic pledge. Mr. Zubair is the co-founder of Alt News, a fact-checking website embarked on challenging BJP via debunking its fake news and right-wing Hindu propaganda. He has been under BJP’s radar for a long time but caught global mass attention after he tweeted a video clip of a television debate where BJP spokesperson—now suspended Nurpur Sharma—made derogatory remarks about the Prophet PBUH.
Understanding the matter better
At present, Muhammad Zubair, a Muslim journalist is booked under 153A (promoting enmity) and 295A (deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings). His arrest came in response to a 2018 tweet which was a satirical political comment. The four-years-ago tweet included a picture of a sign that had been painted to read “Hanuman Hotel” instead of the original “Honeymoon Hotel.” Upon internal inquiry, it turned out to be a screenshot from a 1983 Hindi comedy movie, “Kissi se na Kehna. The movie is unsurprisingly available on YouTube and is surprisingly not censored by the Central Board of Film Certification—meaning it was never deemed as a plot that could hurt religious sentiments, for which Mr. Zubair was taken into custody.
Several media organizations and opposition have raised concerns regarding the arrest of truthful voices who expose BJP’s hate and bigotry, calling it another low for press freedom. However, this assault on truth is not finite to Zubair alone, many have fallen victim to it. Including but not limited to the recent arrest of Teesta Setalvad, Indian rights defender; who alleged floating baseless information to the police during the 2002 anti-Muslim riots. Although international organizations like Amnesty and the UN have called out India for shrinking the space for dissent in the country at the local level, the violence still prevails. It is unquestionably the result of these marginalization policies and violence against the journalism that dropped India’s ranking on the World Press Freedom index to 150/180 countries.
In a study, “Behind Bars” by Geeta Seshu, around 67 journalists were arrested and 200 were attacked physically in 2020. This clampdown on journalists has exposed the perils of BJP-led Indian politics, as journalists who are critics of the government face the most heat. In a country where the flow of information is threatened by right-wing propagandists, the circulation of fake news has come as the biggest challenge to the Indian media—where thousands of fake stories are circulated via WhatsApp and believed by domestic audiences. In many cases, these fake stories have acted as a pretext for violence resulting in the suffering of innocent people.
Resultantly, this unfair restrain on journalists in India has made it hard for them to write the truth in a country that claims freedom of expression/speech as tenets of its democracy. While India advocates itself as the proponent of democracy on global forums, its people back home, especially the 204 million Muslim suffer and suffocate under the BJP-led government. Nevertheless, the Indian government should work towards improving its standard of democracy as it advocates globally. It should not bound its democracy to lip-servicing only because its unfinished business at home could anytime risk the credibility of its economic prowess abroad.
The writer is a Research Officer at the Institute of Regional Studies, Islamabad. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.