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Mr Rathore, These People Were Arrested For 'Free Speech' Against BJP On Facebook

Former minister and BJP MP Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore has equated the recent criticism of Facebook in India with an attack on 'free speech'.
A file photo of BJP MP and former Union minister Rajyavardhan Rathore.
The India Today Group via Getty Images
A file photo of BJP MP and former Union minister Rajyavardhan Rathore.

If you managed to read past the first line of BJP MP Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore’s op-ed on The Indian Express on Monday that begins with a reference to George Orwell and says, “In George Orwell’s 1984, it was a thoughtcrime to actually disagree with the viewpoints established by Big Brother”, you are probably wondering if his communications team pulled a fast one on him. Because if anything, the BJP regime over the past 6 years has been a glaring example of what happens when you ‘disagree’ with ‘Big Brother’.

Students, activists and doctors continue to languish in jails for protesting against laws brought in by the government under charges such as sedition, arrested under a draconian National Security Act and incarcerated despite age and a looming threat of life-threatening Covid-19 infection in crowded jails.

Rathore writes in the Express that the recent criticism of Facebook over a WSJ story was “manufactured outrage”, adding that the “organised assault by the Left-Congress ecosystem on our fundamental right to exercise our free speech within the boundaries set by Indian law” should be resisted. Since this seems to be a question of free speech, here’s a reminder about students and activists who were targeted for Facebook posts that were not in line with either the BJP’s politics, or was critical of its ideological backbone ― Hindutva.

ADIVASI PROFESSOR ARRESTED FOR POST ON BEEF

In 2019, Adivasi professor Jeetrai Handa was arrested in Jamshedpur over a two-year-old post on his community’s right to consume beef and rituals of ceremonial cow sacrifice. In his post, Hansda commented that he opposed the central government’s ban on consumption of beef and pointed out that it was an aggression against the cultures and practices of minorities. He pointed out that Adivasis often consume peacocks, the national bird of India.

Hansda explicitly expressed his unwillingness to follow Hindu rituals and customs foisted on them through the government. Dasmath Hansdah, the chief of Majhi Pargana Mahal, a non-governmental body which works towards the preservation of Adivasi traditions had told HuffPost India last year, that they had tried to explain to the college that employed Hansda and threatened to suspend him following the post, that it was an accurate representation of Adivasi customs and traditions.

Despite pleas from Adivasi organisations, the college was reportedly under immense pressure from the ABVP to have Hansda fired. His wife told HuffPost India that he was not even accorded the dignity of a formal communication in 2017. “The principal called him and asked him to not come to college from the next day,” she told HuffPost India. Two years later, after the general elections were over, Hansda was apprehended.

ARREST WARRANT AGAINST WOMAN SCHOLAR FOR POST ON BEEF

In BJP-ruled Assam, the police filed a suo motu FIR against young scholar and activist Rehna Sultana based on a ‘tip-off’ over a Facebook post — which had been deleted two years ago. On investigation, HuffPost India found that a local English news portal InsideNE published an editorial peddling a fake piece of news, which created a furore against Sultana, leading to the arrest warrant against her.

People familiar with the case told HuffPost India that in 2017, Sultana, a cricket fan, had been watching an India versus Pakistan match during the ICC Champion’s Trophy and had been posting a series of updates, all cheering for India. When India lost, she posted a sarcastic comment on Pakistan’s win and India’s ban on consumption of beef. She also took it down immediately, after friends pointed out that it could be taken out of context, and posted an apology. Two years later, a screenshot of the post was photoshopped to change the date and circulated around Bakr-Eid, suggesting she was indulging in the ‘Joy of Pakistan’. InsideNE wrote a long editorial peddling lies which quickly went viral.

“Yes, we have not taken it down,” Afrida Hussain, the editor of InsideNE had told HuffPost India in November last year, adding that she carried the piece because she felt it was important to call out posts like Sultana’s which, according to her, made the Muslim community ‘look bad’.

Hussain had told us that InsideNE did not reach out to Sultana before writing the op-ed. She said that Sultana, however, had contacted them after the article was published and had told them the piece was erroneous.

The piece can’t be accessed on the website of InsideNE anymore.

ARREST OF MANIPURI STUDENT FOR ANTI-CAA POST

23-year-old Thokchom Veewon was allegedly roughed up by three men from Delhi Police and two from Manipur in his own rented flat in Delhi, bundled into a police vehicle and his family knew nothing about his whereabouts for the following two days. He was flown back to Manipur and was released after furnishing a bail bond of Rs 30,000.

Thokchom was booked for sedition for a Facebook post criticising the CAA.

In the post, the student leader had written, “Indefinite curfew imposed in Manipur. Internet banned for 5 days. All cable TV network asked not to cover any speech or footage of the protest. High possibility that CAB will be passed today at the Rajya Sabha. Manipur once burned down the state assembly in 2001. Self determination the only way forward.”

While the CAA has been rejected by almost all political groups in the north-east, though on different grounds, activists had told HuffPost India that Thokchom’s dramatic arrest was Manipur’s fledgling BJP leaders’ way of showing the central leadership that they are clamping down on any criticism against the bill, and perhaps earn a few brownie points.

Not only was Thokchom arrested but prior to that, hordes of policemen landed at his home in Manipur and threatened his family.

Manipuri activist Babloo Loitongbam had told HuffPost India, “Not only does Veewon speak beyond ethnic lines, he lives and works in Delhi. So his activism reaches a wider spectrum of people instead of the echo-chamber of the north eastern states.”

KASHMIRI STUDENT JAILED FOR 7-YEAR-OLD POST

Following the terror attack in Pulwama that killed around 40 CRPF jawans last year, India witnessed a wave of hatred and violence directed against Kashmiris. One of the victims of such blind hatred was a 19-year-old student of YS Parmar University of Forestry and Horticulture in Solan, Himachal Pradesh.

Aqib Rasool’s college-mates parsed his Facebook profile to find a photo of a Pakistani flag that the student had uploaded as his profile picture, seven years ago when he was 12 years old.

Based on a post made by Rasool when he was a child, the police filed an FIR which said, “It becomes clear from the post that the mentioned people are involved in anti-national activities and it is suspected that they are involved in seditious activities as well.” Rasool was booked under Section 153 of the Indian Penal Code for ‘causing provocation with the intent to cause riots’.

When Rasool’s family attempted to apply for bail, local lawyers boycotted any local from representing him in court.

Rasool’s desperate and shocked family had told HuffPost India in March last year, “How can they call him anti-national? He was a child, a kid! He has participated in everything from Independence Day to Republic Day and other nationalistic events with full vigour in college. How can they suddenly declare him anti-national?”

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This article exists as part of the online archive for HuffPost India, which closed in 2020. Some features are no longer enabled. If you have questions or concerns about this article, please contact indiasupport@huffpost.com.