New Delhi: The dissemination of information without restraints, the conception of original views and the free exchange of ideas are basic indicators of a free society, a Delhi court said in its order while granting bail to AltNews co-founder Mohammed Zubair Friday.
Granting him bail on the condition that he would furnish a surety of Rs 50,000 and not leave the country, the Patiala House court also observed that followers of the Hindu religion are “tolerant” and that political parties in India are “open to criticism”.
However, he will continue to be behind bars as he faces multiple FIRs in Uttar Pradesh.
Zubair was arrested in the present case on 27 June after being summoned by the Delhi Police Cyber Cell (IFSO) in connection with a separate case from 2020 in which he had already been granted interim protection from arrest.
The new case concerns a 2018 tweet by the fact-checker that a Twitter user — ‘Hanuman Bhakt’ — reported to the Delhi Police on 19 June, alleging that it had ‘hurt his religious sentiments’.
Showing a still from Kissi Se Na Kehna, a 1983 Hindi movie directed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee, the tweet in question read: “Before 2014: Honeymoon hotel, After 2014: Hanuman Hotel.”
Zubair was initially booked under sections 153A (promoting enmity between different groups) and 295A (deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). The police later added charges of criminal conspiracy and destruction of evidence, along with receipt of foreign funding punishable under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA).
‘Film had CBFC certificate, Hindus are tolerant’
Arguing against Zubair’s bail plea, the prosecution said that the image from the 1983 movie hurt the religious sentiments of Hindus and was sufficient to incite hatred, punishable under 295A and 153A, respectively.
The prosecution further claimed that the reference to 2014 points “towards the ruling political party” to project the state of affairs in a “prejudicial manner”.
The court, while granting bail to the journalist, noted that Zubair had posted the image from a 1983 movie certified by the Central Board of the Film Certification (CBFC), which is a statutory body of the Government of India, and that no complaint had ever been filed with the claim that the particular scene hurt religious sentiments.
Additional Sessions Judge Devender Kumar Jangala observed that while the tweet was posted in 2018, no other complaint, alleging that the tweet was offensive to the Hindu community or showed disrespect to Lord Hanuman, had been received all this time.
“Hindu religion is one of the oldest religions and most tolerant. The followers of the Hindu religion are also tolerant. Hindu religion is so tolerant that its followers proudly name their institution/ organisation/ facilities in the name of their holy God or Goddess,” the judge said.
On the prosecution’s contention over the mention of 2014, the year Narendra Modi took office as prime minister, the court said that “in Indian democracy, political parties are open to criticism”.
The court further said that the “voice of dissent is necessary for healthy democracy” and hence, it is not justified to invoke 153A and 295A for mere criticism of a political party.
Police failed to find ‘offended’ user, foreign donations
Observing that the Delhi Police had failed to establish the identity of the Twitter user who was allegedly offended by Zubair’s tweet, the judge noted that the police also failed to record the offended person’s statement under Section 161 of the CrPC, despite them being bound to proceed with their investigation according to the provisions of the Code of Criminal Procedure.
On the FCRA charge against Zubair, the court noted that the record reflects a statement on the website of AltNews saying that only Indian citizens with Indian bank accounts should contribute to it. This shows prima facie due diligence taken by Zubair in accordance with Section 39 of the FCRA, the judge said.
Last week, Harshil Mathur, the CEO of Razorpay — the payment gateway AltNews uses to receive donations — had said in a tweet that for AltNews, the platform only enables donations made from Indian bank accounts, in line with the fintech company’s policy of not allowing international transactions without FCRA registration.
The Delhi Police had claimed that Pravda Media foundation, the parent company of AltNews, had received funds — over Rs 2 lakh — from foreign countries, including from Pakistan and Syria.
(Edited by Amrtansh Arora)