India’s Supreme Court has granted interim bail to fact-checker and journalist Mohammed Zubair, who was arrested last month days after he brought international attention to controversial remarks made by a former spokesperson for prime minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
On Wednesday, the court granted interim bail to the fact-checker in all six cases registered against him in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. It added that all the cases would be probed by the Delhi police, where a legal complaint was first registered against him last month.
It also said that any future cases would also be investigated by the Delhi police.
The relief for Mr Zubair, who is the co-founder of fact-checking website Alt News, comes two days after the apex court directed the Uttar Pradesh state’s police to not take any “precipitative action” against him in connection with the FIRs (First Information Reports, generally the first step of a police investigation in India), registered against him in various areas of the state till 20 July.
Directing that all the FIRs against him be clubbed together and probed by one authority, the court also disbanded a special investigation team (SIT) formed by the Uttar Pradesh police.
The court also came down hard on the police and said that it must use its power of arrest sparingly.
Reading out Mr Zubair’s bail order, Justice DY Chandrachud said: “Existence of powers of arrest must be distinguished from the exercise of powers of arrest which must be used sparingly.”
He added that there is “no justification to keep the petitioner in continued detention, especially since the gravamen of allegations in UP FIRs is similar to that in Delhi police FIR”.
#BREAKING Supreme Court orders disbanding of the SIT formed by UP Police for investigation of FIRs against Mohammed Zubair.
— Live Law (@LiveLawIndia) July 20, 2022
The court added that no conditions would be imposed on him.
“We can’t say that he won’t tweet again. It is like telling a lawyer that you should not argue. How can we tell a journalist that he will not write? If there is any tweets against law, he will be answerable. How can we pass any anticipatory order that someone will not speak,” the court said.
Mr Zubair was arrested by the Delhi police on 27 June following a complaint by an anonymous Twitter user who goes by the handle @balajikijaiin.
The complaint flagged a satirical tweet posted over four years ago, which included a screengrab from 1983 movie Kissi se Na Kehna.
The tweet showed a hotel signboard with the name “Honeymoon Hotel” repainted to “Hanuman Hotel”. It was captioned “Before 2014” and “After 2014” respectively. Mr Modi’s BJP government came to power in 2014.
According to a report from Indian media outlet The Wire, the anonymous Twitter handle is linked to Vikash Ahir, state president of the Hindu Yuva Vahini and co-convenor of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha, the youth wing of BJP.
The complaint alleged that the tweet mocked the Hindu god Hanuman.
Justice DY Chandrachud: There is no justification to keep the petitioner in continued detention especially since the gravamen of allegations in UP FIRs is similar to that in Delhi police FIR@AltNews #Zubairarrest #SupremeCourt
— Bar & Bench (@barandbench) July 20, 2022
Mr Zubair, who has routinely called out misinformation on social media and hate speech by right wing fringe groups, had been charged with promoting enmity between different religious groups, outraging religious feelings, among others.
During investigation, other charges including violation of FCRA [Foreign Contribution (Regulation), Act] norms were added against him.
His arrest last month came only days after he flagged derogatory remarks about Prophet Muhammad made by the BJP’s now-suspended spokesperson Nupur Sharma.
Her comments had won India widespread international condemnation, including from over a dozen West Asian countries as well as the US.
The BJP had then issued an apology and distanced itself from Ms Sharma’s comments.
Mr Zubair’s arrest had led to widespread outrage and was also condemned by international organsations including the United Nations, which said last month that journalists should be allowed to express themselves without facing harassment from authorities.