Prisoners of memes, social media victims


X Scalper

Initially, they all thought it was a joke when the police turned up. Once the prison gates opened, reality sunk in. Entering the dark, stinking cells, filled with dangerous looking strangers, they all felt a mix of emotions. There was of course incomprehension, fear, and an unexplainable feeling of guilt for an unknown crime. But the sheen of innocence held steady, at least in their mind. It was after all just a social media post, or comment, or argument.

Trouble has a strange way of announcing its arrival that makes one sit up and take notice—a knock on the door at 3 am; men in jackboots rummaging through the house without permission; a couple of police jeeps waiting outside the house well past midnight. When policemen from another state chase you down on an otherwise ordinary day, that’s when you realise, in India, there is no such thing as “just a social media post”.

In 2017 and 2018, based on reported incidents accessed by Mint, at least 50 people were arrested across India for posts on social media. Some spent half-a-year behind bars, a few were in jail for roughly a month, while others were let off within a week. The most recent ones to get added to the list were five men, all Muslim, who were arrested on 15 November and booked under the Information Technology Act for making “derogatory remarks” on Facebook against Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath and the RSS. The arrests have been across geographies and the political spectrum. Defence analyst Abhijit Iyer Mitra, a vocal BJP supporter, has spent over a month in an Odisha jail after a ‘joke’ on social media.

Among those arrested over the past year, almost all are very poor; most are illiterate; over half are Muslims; and many are recent Internet users (one of them had acquired his first smartphone less than a fortnight before his arrest). “What is common in a lot of these cases is that they concern a comment on social media, either about a political personality or an issue of public interest. These are not direct threats that are being made against any person,” says Apar Gupta, executive director of Internet Freedom Foundation, a digital rights advocacy group.

As more and more Indians get online at a dizzying pace, both social media offenders and offense-takers are only going to increase. In just the past year, the number of Indians with access to mobile Internet shot up from 20% to 31%, according to a Lokniti-CSDS Mood of the Nation survey. Social media apps are the first to get installed—nearly half of India’s 18 to 25 year olds are already on WhatsApp.

Nayantara Ranganathan of civil society organization Internet Democracy Project says, “In cases where arrests are made, it is mostly people criticizing say the Prime Minister, or the ruling party, with notable exceptions. In a lot of these cases, the reasons are really frivolous. I don’t think these will stand up to scrutiny if they go further in the court of law, but what matters is that the arrests are taking place. That in itself creates a chilling effect.”

As these cases chug through the court system, irrespective of the outcome, they leave behind devastated lives and families. Mint captures the fallout in 10 cases from across the country:

‘Each court hearing involves changing six buses and ₹550’

Mohammad Shaqib | 18 (Saharanpur, UP)

Shaqib is the only son in his family of seven. His father is an agricultural labourer, who earns ₹5,000 per month. Apart from Shaqib’s on-and-off earnings, his father is the only earning member of the family. He is shy and barely speaks, but he is the ghar ka laadla (the beloved son). So, all the members come together to do whatever it takes to give him what he wants. Last year, in late September, after taking tailoring lessons in his hometown of Saharanpur, his father Mohammad Saleem decided to send him to Aaduwala village in the outskirts of Dehradun. The salary wasn’t much, but there were many boys from his village working there. Fifteen days later, Shaqib came back home for four days—this time, with a mission. He wanted something no one in his family had. He wanted a smartphone. “Everyone around me had smartphones. Everyone was on social media. The phone I had was barely a phone…(It was a basic feature phone),” says Shaqib.

Unlike his father, Shaqib didn’t want a device that could just give a missed call and send texts. He wanted to be one of the country’s 400 million smartphone users. After a lot of tantrum throwing, as his mother puts it, his father gave in. He took a microfinance loan and got him a Redmi phone that cost ₹8,000. Shaqib went back happy and started experimenting with his new toy. And like many in his age bracket, he downloaded WhatsApp. Despite its no frills interface, it took Shaqib a while to understand how it worked. On 18 November, when it had been just 12 days after he acquired the phone, six men barged into his shop. They demanded to know his name and walked away with his phone. He followed them and saw a police jeep waiting outside. The team led by Pradeep Kumar, an inspector with the Haryana Police, had come all the way to Vikaspur after a Tohana resident filed a complaint claiming Shaqib had shared an offensive photograph on WhatsApp.

The cops told Shaqib not to worry, and that he would be let off. The forward was a photograph of a dark complexioned woman being touched inappropriately by a man, whose face had been morphed to resemble Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The text roughly read: Modi has brought back all the black money (in effect, mocking the anti-black money drive). Shaqib spent eight days in a bacha jail (juvenile home). He was booked under Section 67 (publishing or transmitting obscene material in electronic form), 67 A of the IT Act (transmission or publishing of sexually explicit material), and Section 292A (putting into circulation a grossly indecent or scurrilous picture) of the IPC (Indian Penal Code). It has been almost a year since Shaqib’s arrest. There have been four hearings in court—each deciding the date of the next hearing, and each court appearance involving a change of six buses from Saharanpur to Tohana, along with an expense of ₹550 per person. The family has reconciled with the fact that the case will go on for a while. But his father has decided not to give his son a smartphone again, and not to let Shaqib step out of Saharanpur—even if that means keeping his only son more or less unemployed.

‘My family is now called ghaddar’

Aleem Ahmad | 16 (Meerut, UP)

Aleem’s family in Meerut had, for long, commanded respect in their village, Nagla Salempur. His father was almost like a mukhya in the village. On 16August, when Atal Bihari Vajpayee died, Aleem wrote a Facebook post expressing anger against Vajpayee and implicitly pointing to his role in the demolition of Babri Masjid. Three days later, at 3 am, the family was woken up by a bang on the door. A group of policemen entered the house asking for Aleem. He was in Delhi then. On being told he wasn’t there, they went around looking for him “as if he was some big, wanted criminal,” his brother Azeem Ahmad recalls.

They went to the first floor, despite being told that women of the family were sleeping there. There were two police jeeps and some 15 policemen, Azeem claims. Their father was taken in “for questioning” and was told he may lose his government job. On 20 August, Aleem surrendered and was taken to a bacha jail in Noida. In the bacha jail, he was locked in with murderers and drug addicts and Aleem ended up spending 39 days there, after his bail was rejected thrice. The villagers, the family claims, have changed their behavior towards them. The family is now called “ghaddar” and “desh drohi”.

…administration has successfully had a chilling effect on free speech, not only of that individual but an entire…community– Sanjay Hegde, Senior Supreme Court Advocate

Aleem was booked under Section 153 A (promoting enmity between different groups) 153 B (assertions prejudicial to national integration), 295 (deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings) of the IPC and Section 67 of the IT Act (punishment for publishing or transmitting obscene material in electronic form). Aleem’s wasn’t an isolated case. Several other arrests were made for social media posts after Vajpayee’s death. Naushad Khan, 24, from Varanasi, spent three months in jail for his post on Vajpayee. Another person, Arif Malik (23), a resident of Saharanpur, faced similar charges when he wrote a Facebook post without naming Vajpayee. He was sent to the district jail and an FIR was lodged against his friends – Arif, Rihan, Hasnain, Ali, Anees, who commented on Naushad’s status and agreed with the post.

‘Responsibility to respond lies …with the country’

S. Thirumurugan | 18 (Virudhunagar, Tamil Nadu)

For many of the adolescents who’ve had to face arrest, the fear of being picked up settles into a seething anger about being arrested in the first place. For example, S Thirumurugan could have settled his case with an apology, which would have saved him a whole lot of trouble. But he was so angry that he couldn’t bring himself to say sorry.

On 29 October, 2017, local BJP functionary K. Marimuthu had sent a broadcast message on Facebook to a number of his friends criticizing actor Vijay’s recent film Mersal, which had admonished the Modi government’s botched implementation of the new GST tax regime. Among the many people who received the message, Thirumurugan, who is studying a polytechnic course, responded by calling Modi names. The Facebook fight escalated. Marimuthu wanted to “teach the kid a lesson” and forwarded the screenshots to the Superintendent of Police. Marimuthu says if Thirumurugan had ‘apologized’, he’d have withdrawn the case, but the 19-year-old didn’t budge.

On 30 October, Thirumurugan was arrested from his house and booked under Section 67 of the IT Act and Section 505 (public mischief) of the IPC. He was subsequently released on bail in a few days “due to student pressure,” claims Marimuthu, but the case is still pending before a district court. After the release, Thirumurugan’s phone was taken away by his parents. According to his father, the teenager has not used a phone in a year, and he is no longer allowed access to social media. The family is terrified and secretly hoping that the courts will forget about the case. They say that they will compromise if the matter comes up in a court. “We don’t let him go out much. The responsibility to respond to the foisting of such cases lies not with us, but with the country, when elections happen again,” his father says.

‘Some men beat me up in prison and threatened to burn my house’

Zakir Ali Tyagi | 19 (Muzaffarnagar, UP)

Zakir, a student of arts, says chor bantay nahi banaye jaatay hain (People don’t choose to be thieves, they are made thieves). In March of last year, Yogi Adityanath, who had just been sworn-in as Uttar Pradesh chief minister, addressed his first public meeting in Gorakhpur. As part of the speech, the politician said that “Goonda raj will end and there will be no place for lawlessness in Uttar Pradesh”. Reacting to that, Zakir posted that if Yogi really meant what he said, what about the “28 criminal cases against him, out of which 22 are serious offences?”

Days after the post, there was a jalsa (religious gathering) in a madrasa close to his house in Muzaffarnagar. On his way back home, he saw a police jeep outside the madrasa. The first thought he had was that the madrasa was probably in some kind of trouble, but then he realized that the jeep was actually following him. When he entered his house, cops followed him in. They showed him the screenshot of his Facebook post and asked him to come with them, and said he’d be let off in a couple of hours. After being arrested at 8pm, around 1:30am, Zakir says some men came to his cell, beat him up, and threatened that his house will be burnt down and he will be labeled a terrorist. He was released after 42 days. Zakir is angry, and scared for his life. His family doesn’t care about his employment anymore. They’d rather have their son safe. Even though he has disabled his Facebook, he is active on WhatsApp. He is charged with Section 124 A (Sedition) and Section 420, besides the IT Act. Police had initially slapped Section 66-A but later dropped ‘A’ after realizing that it was scrapped by the Supreme Court and merely retained Section 66.

‘Why was I held? Did I murder anyone?’ Was I involved in dacoity?

Rahat Khan | 23 (Greater Noida, UP)

Not far away, in Dankaur town of Gautam Buddha Nagar District in UP, 23-year-old Rahat Khan still can’t understand why he was arrested. “Every day you see so many people, celebrities as well as common people, sharing so many different things online—obscene, offensive, hate filled….why was I arrested? Why was I cherrypicked? Did I murder anyone? Was I involved in dacoity?” says Rahat. He still can’t comprehend how one click can land a person in prison. Rahat, a class XII fail, as he calls himself, saw a photograph of a lookalike of Yogi being circulated on Facebook and WhatsApp, and shared it on his timeline. Three days after sharing it, he was arrested from his workplace—a Jan Suvidha Seva Kendra. In his defence, Rahat says: “But this isn’t Yogi. It is a lookalike. I also have the video of this.”

Rahat was booked under Section 153A (promoting enmity between different groups) of the IPC and Section 66A (punishment for sending offensive messages through communication services) of the IT Act, 2000. He spent 42 days in jail after his bail was rejected twice. His shop was shut. He lost his customers. Like many of these men, he is also the sole earner in the house and has two brothers and two younger sisters. His family had to borrow money to pay for his bail. Rahat has stopped talking to people. He feels ashamed. The nature of the crime doesn’t really matter, as he is labelled a criminal now. He doesn’t have a lawyer yet, and doesn’t even know what sections he was charged with. He doesn’t have a copy of the FIR either.

‘I was just the group admin but the police came after me’

Krishna Sanna Thamma Naik | 29 (Doddabalse, Karnataka)

In a similar case, a 29-year-old autorickshaw driver, Krishna Sanna Thamma Naik, who has never gone to school, also doesn’t have any idea about which sections were slapped on him. He has his own auto and makes around ₹300-400 a day. Krishna, an admin of a WhatsApp group ‘The Balse Boys’, was arrested in May of last year after a member shared a morphed image of Prime Minister Modi. Naik had created this WhatsApp group with 75 of his friends—everyone from Doddabalse in Karnataka.

The distorted image of Modi on the group came from two people—who he says are Modi-haters. Krishna, a Modi abhimaani (fan) himself, would have never forwarded such an image, he says. He doesn’t see anything wrong with the complaint per se. He only has a problem with the fact that the police arrested him and not the two people who edited and posted that picture. “It’s not like they arrest the father or the head of the family when anyone in the family commits a crime. So why did they come after me? That can’t be the law. It seems so unfair even to someone like me,” he says. On the day of arrest, the two policemen from Murudeshwara tracked him down and asked him to come to the station. Krishna says he had never “climbed the stairs of a police station.” He was told he can arrange for bail but the judge was unavailable the next day, so he could not get bail immediately. He spent three nights in the jail. He has already spent ₹5,000 on lawyer’s fees and is expecting to be called for a hearing again soon.

Krishna still uses WhatApp and is on various groups but does not even click on political messages, let alone forward them. Because his smartphone was seized by the police, he bought a new one for ₹4,000 but is now very careful about who he texts. He was admonished by his family for getting into trouble. Since everyone in his area knows he has been jailed, he says even getting married is becoming difficult.

‘I was so mentally disturbed that i wanted to commit suicide’

Debajit Roy | 39 (Balurghat, West Bengal)

The question of ‘why me’ is something that bothers Debajit Roy ever since he was arrested last year. In West Bengal, Debajit, a businessman was arrested for sharing a post on Facebook about some inconvenience he faced because of traffic restrictions imposed by the police in Balurghat during Durga Puja. In a post, Debajit narrated his experience of having had to walk 5 km to get medicine for his pregnant wife because they could not find any toto (battery operated rickshaw) or cycle rickshaw to hire.

The social media post went viral and several residents wrote comments. Toto drivers also staged a protest, claiming that the post had harmed their business. Debajit couldn’t comprehend what was happening when suddenly, days after he had created the post, he received a notice from the police (on October 8) accusing him of a slew of crimes – heckling an officer of duty, writing a communal post, and posting a pornographic image. Initially, he thought it was a joke. But then, realizing that the notice was real, he approached a lawyer and filed a petition in the High Court.

On October 19, when he was in his house, the police came and arrested him. The charges slapped on him include obstruction of a public servant discharging his functions, assault or criminal force to deter a civil servant, and making statements conducive to public mischief. He was remanded for two days in Balurghat, and his mobile phone was seized. When he was released, he received a hero’s welcome. People came in groups and whistled, but afterwards everyone started questioning his motives.

Debajit was so mentally disturbed by the ordeal that he claims he went to the DM’s office once seeking permission to commit suicide. “Why am I being treated like a criminal? So, basically, you can’t question anything that the authorities do?” asks Roy. He is the only earner in the house and has an annual income of ₹2 lakh. For every hearing in court, he has to stay away from work and lose a day’s earnings, in addition to spending money on the lawyers and travel.

‘No matter what I do, no one will give me a job’

Junaid Mev Khan | 21 (Talen, MP)

In Talen, a small town in Madhya Pradesh, Junaid was distributing his cousin’s wedding cards when he received a call from his father about the police being on the lookout for him. A BSc student in a private college in Rajgarh district, Junaid has three sisters and his 70-year-old father is the family’s sole earner. The father’s dream was to educate Junaid enough to finally relieve him of his responsibilities. But now, he isn’t sure that’s ever going to happen.

Police… have got into habit of presupposing illegality in the act of morphing itself. At best morphing can be an act of defamation…– Apar Gupta, Delhi-based lawyer

On February 13 this year, Junaid was arrested on charges of sedition because he was part of a WhatsApp group where a “religiously inflammatory” post was shared. While Junaid was part of the group, it was someone else who had posted it, and the sender, along with others, exited the group after sending the message, leaving him as the default admin. Junaid, not realizing what was happening, didn’t even give it a second thought. That is, until the police arrived at his doorstep. The day he was arrested, his family was told it will be just for questioning. But as soon as Junaid entered the Pachaur jail, he was beaten up, and his clothes were forcibly removed. Junaid was booked under Section 124A (Sedition), Section 295 A (deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings), Section 153A of the IPC, and Section 67 of the IT Act.

In August this year, after being denied bail twice, Junaid was released. But his friends have distanced themselves from him. His relatives are wary of mixing up with his family. Just to get him out jail for the time being, the family spent close to ₹3 lakh. “Iska record kharaab hogaya – police ke saamne, doston ke, rishtedaaron ke (his name has got spoilt, in front of the police, friends and relatives). This is not something that you can forget, not at an age that he is in,” says Mohammad Fakhruddin, Junaid’s cousin. Junaid, who wanted to study, is now too pessimistic about everything. “With this case slapped on me, no matter what I do I will always be a desh drohi. No one will give me a job,” he says.

‘No anti-national activity in a random WhatsApp message’

Tadikala Akbar Saleem | 37 (Chennai, Tamil Nadu)

Among the list of those whose lives were upturned by an unlikely arrest, Tadikala Akbar Saleem is the rare lucky one. In July 2017, the then 36-year-old man from Kadappa, Andhra Pradesh, who had come to the Chennai International Airport to receive his friend from the Gulf, was taken into custody out-of-the-blue by the air intelligence unit of the Customs department for a WhatsApp message he had received.He was booked under sedition charges for the “anti-national message” which said: “First time there will be a gathering of Muslims under maula asad magani saheb.. this is the only time to show our power…” The audio message, the police said, was circulated along with an apparently morphed photo of a woman who was seen with pages from the holy book of Quran tied around her feet. Even though the police filed the case, when brought in front of the court, his statement was taken and Saleem was released. Luckily for him, the magistrate said there was no material evidence to prove anti-national activity.

‘I said sorry to Ramdev Ji, to his followers, but I guess it was too late’

Raisuddin Chisti | 51 (Ghaziabad, UP)

While most can’t fathom how a post could land them in jail, some were quick to realize they were in trouble immediately after posting something online. Close to the national capital, Raisuddin Chisti, a 51-year-old man “accidentally” sent a message that his relative had forwarded on a WhatsApp group. Like Rahat, he also runs a Jan Seva Kendra, and also claims to run a WhatsApp based news service. This message was also forwarded to the group while he was sending across other news items as part of his “job”.

In the morphed photo posted on the group ‘Jai Hind’, yoga guru Ramdev is shown surrounded by men who seem to be lifting his leg, which appears objectionable. When he posted that picture, he was thrown out of the group after some people objected to the post. The admin then sent him a 5-7 line long text message saying he shouldn’t have done this. Raisuddin sent several texts apologizing. “I said sorry to Ramdev ji, to his followers, to those whose sentiments I hurt on the group, but I guess it was too late,” he says.

Within hours, he received a call from the SP Ghaziabad’s office. He went to a lawyer to seek legal advice. In the meantime, he tweeted out an apology as well. But on the third day, the circle officer asked him to visit the Kotwali. “They knew me from before. They said come to the police choki and then we will see. They knew it was a mistake. Mansikta kharaab nahi hai, ghalti hui hai bas (my intention wasn’t wrong, I made a mistake),” says Chisti. After the arrest, Patanjali’s managing director and close confidante of Ramdev, Balkrishna, took to Twitter to thank the Noida Police. He wrote in Hindi: “I thank Noida police for swift action against the man with a retarded mindset who tried to defame Baba Ramdev with an objectionable photo.”

Raisuddin doesn’t want to comment on how fair or unfair it is to arrest someone for a message, but he believes that had his name been Krishna Lal and not Raisuddin Chisti, the consequences would have been different. Chisti knows, like all the other young men awaiting their court date, it is going to take a long time to put an end to this chapter of his life, and to finally be a free man once again.

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WhatsApp: To be or not to be an admin

WhatsApp has been at the heart of several controversies recently amid a deluge of misinformation, rumour and fake messages being circulated through the Facebook-owned messaging platform – leading to several incidents of mob lynching across the country. As a result, since June this year, WhatsApp has introduced new functionalities like allowing only the administrators to send messages in some groups, reducing the number of people a message can be forwarded to from 100 to 5, and introducing a “suspicious link” label, which will appear alongside links where WhatsApp detects an obvious problem.

While these are all efforts rolled out by the app itself, admins as the intermediaries in a group setting are increasingly being mandated to exercise due diligence while discharging their obligations. These parameters of “due diligence” are defined under the Information Technology (Intermediaries guidelines) Rules, 2011, which were codified to ensure people using online platform do not publish content which may violate the law. “So, if WhatsApp admins do not comply with these parameters, they will be taken to be in the same capacity as the person posting the message, and they are liable to be prosecuted of the same offence,” says cyber expert and advocate Pawan Duggal.

“Those who posted an offensive message, as well as the admins, are in the same footing. Just because the legal liability is not being invoked in every case, people tend to get a feeling that sharing anything is fine. But the law is there, and the sword is hanging,” he adds. If liable, a person can be sued for damages up to ₹5 crore, and, in addition, one can also face criminal liability of imprisonment, ranging 3 years to life imprisonment, and a fine ranging from ₹1 lakh to ₹10 lakh. Earlier this month, WhatsApp announced that to raise awareness about fake news and harmful rumours, it will run a campaign comprising three 60-second films available on TV, Facebook, and YouTube.




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