Kissi Se Na Kehna! Mohammed Zubair Arrested for Tweeting Photo from 1983 Hindi Film

New Delhi: Police Commissioner Rakesh Asthana must be wishing he knew Bollywood better: it turns out the ‘insulting’ Honeymoon-to-Hanuman hotel signboard photo for which the Delhi Police have arrested Mohammed Zubair – co-founder of fact-checking website AltNews – is from a 1983 Hindi comedy film directed by the legendary Hrishikesh Mukherjee.

Zubair was arrested on Monday under sections 153 (giving provocation with intent to cause riot) and 295 (deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs) of the Indian Penal Code. 

According to ANI, the reason given by the police for his arrest is a tweet from 2018, where Zubair tweeted a photograph of the hotel sign.

Zubair’s tweet is from March 24, 2018 and has been up for over four years now. 

The police also said that Zubair’s conduct during the investigation was found “questionable”, warranting his custodial interrogation to “unravel the conspiracy in this matter”.

The Twitter handle which complained to the police has tweeted only once since its apparent inception in October 2021 – the tweet targeting Zubair, published June 19.  

The image of the hotel signboard in the tweet which prompted Delhi Police to arrest Zubair was also used as the lead image in an article in the Indian Express in March 2018, and has received no particular attention from those religiously outraged. 

In fact, as Twitter user @SquareGas pointed out, the image is actually a screenshot from the 1983 Bollywood movie – Kissi Se Na Kehna, directed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee – duly cleared by the censor board at the time and shown innumerable times on television since then.

Zubair has recently been the target of a concerted campaign to portray him as ‘Hinduphobic’. This happened directly after he drew attention on social media to the video of erstwhile BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma making controversial comments about Prophet Muhammed – comments which caused widespread outrage in India and abroad and eventually led to her party suspending her. 

After Nupur Sharma alleged that Zubair’s reporting was responsible for her receiving threats against her body and life, Zubair also began receiving threats. The hashtag #ArrestMohammedZubair began to trend nationally, and an FIR was filed against him in Uttar Pradesh shortly after for referring to a number of hate-speech disseminating public religious figures as ‘hatemongers’.

However, the more diffuse campaign against him has focused on older satirical tweets being circulated without context, to suggest that Zubair has had a history of tweeting items which are offensive to the Hindu religion. 

The tweet for which Zubair has currently been arrested is part of this satirical series, each of which had a specific context.

1. In September 2018, Zubair posted a picture of a couple of monkeys sitting on a roof beside a BJP flag, with a monkey’s tail covering a banner featuring the face of Narendra Modi. It had the caption, “’Bajrang Bali’ ki aarti karna shuru karo, ‘hanuman chalisa’ ka path karo, bandar kabhi nuksaan nahin pahuchayega.” (Start worshiping Bajrang Bali, start reciting the Hanuman Chalisa, the monkey will never cause you trouble.”

The tweet is now being positioned as an incendiary comment against the Hindu god Hanuman and the BJP whereas it was a riff on a statement made by Yogi Adityanath five days earlier.

The UP chief minister had said, “Mai yahan aaya to mujhse kaha gaya ki yahan par bandar bade pareshan kar rahe hain. Maine kaha ‘Bajrang Bali’ ki aarti karna shuru karo, ‘hanuman chalisa’ ka path karo, bandar kabhi nuksaan nahin pahuchayega,” (When I came here I was told that monkeys trouble people here. I said, start worshipping Bajrang Bali, start reciting the Hanuman Chalisa, monkeys will never cause you trouble.) 

The tweet by Zubair said literally the same thing, and positioned it against the humorous context of the real life monkeys’ dangling their tails over Modi’s photograph. 

2. In April 2018, Zubair posted an edited picture captioned “Sanjay showing Facebook live video of Kurukshetra war of Mahabharat to Dhritrashtra:  Biplab Deb.” 

The satire was clearly aimed at the Tripura CM Biplab Deb, who that very day had made the absurd statement that internet and satellite technology existed in the same time period as the events of the Mahabharata. Several other Twitter humourists ran with the theme, creating meme-images featuring a juxtaposition of technology against mythical imagery, a compilation of which can be seen here

3. In April 2018, Zubair quotes a tweet in response to Sambit Patra, who had said “Two easiest ways of escaping Rape law:1) Turn Juvenile 2)Religious Conversion err I mean turn ‘Secular’..#Guide book to perform SAFE-‘RAPE’!” (sic).

In response, Zubair had tweeted: “Dear @sambitswaraj, Easiest way of escaping Rape Law in #RamRajya is to compare it with Lord Ram. Just like #Unnao BJP MLA said, ” मेरे ऊपर तो आरोप लगा है, आरोप तो भगवान राम पर भी लगा था” (An accusation has been made against me, an accusation was made against Lord Ram too!). 

While Hindutva activists now claim this tweet is insulting to the Hindu god Ram, Zubair had merely quoted the BJP MLA in question, who in 2018 had yet to be convicted of the gang-rape of which he had been accused. (He was convicted in 2019, with the court questioning why the CBI had taken a full year to file a chargesheet.) 

In the replies to this tweet from four years ago, Hindutva accounts can be seen to have tagged the Delhi Police earlier this month – five days before the tweet that has caused Zubair’s arrest. 

4. Another tweet being circulated as evidence that Zubair has been making fun of Hinduism is one saying that the satire page he ran called Unofficial Subramanian Swamy was inspired by a poster saying that the Vatican was made in the shape of a Shiv-ling, asking the bizarre question, “Has Vatika become Vatican”,”Christ came from Krishna”  and whether it was “All one big plagiarism from the West”

The irreverence in question was directed at his satire page. 

Posts from the now defunct satire page have been collected and circulated by right wing Twitter users.

One of Zubair’s posts says, “Breaking: Underwater Pushpak Vimana used by Raavan 5000 years ago found in Indian Ocean”, accompanied by an image of an underwater abandoned airplane. Another says, “I demand that Sri Ram (arun govil) be made the Chairman|Director of ISRO or the Dean of IISER. I mean who knows better about rocketry (vimanas) than him.”

The posts follow a similar thematic pattern of sarcastically imitating politicians who situate modern technology amongst ancient Indian artefacts with nonsensically flimsy ‘evidence’ to support their claims – for instance, in 2017, Minister of State for HRD Satya Pal Singh asked “Why are students not taught that before the Wright brothers, an Indian called Shivakar Babuji Talpade was the first to invent the airplane? This person invented the plane eight years before the Wright brothers. Are our students taught these things in IITs or not? They should be.”

Clearly, these so-called ‘Hinduphobic’ posts can all be located within an established tradition of satire – one where the objects of ridicule are politicians in positions of power and the irrationality associated with the retrospective historification of modern technology. The post he was specifically arrested for is particularly bizarre given its antecedents in Bollywood. 

However, the fact that multiple accounts constructed a narrative of ‘Hinduphobia’ around the same time, using tweets which are several years old, suggests the real purpose is to punish Zubair for his role in drawing attention to the hate speech of BJP spokespersons. 

This article was first published on The Wire.