Wed. Dec 1st, 2021

New Delhi, India For several times since Saturday, the horrible thought of spending time in jail has come to the mind of a 20-year-old Indian journalist who works for a small and emerging news store.

The journalist’s social media account, who did not want to be named, is among 102 Twitter, Facebook and YouTube accounts being investigated by police in the northeastern state of Tripura under the strict Illegal Activities (Prevention) Act or UAPA.

The social media accounts are accused of sharing “fake news” after attacks on several mosques in Tripura last month by alleged members of Hindu right-wing groups.

The rare incidents in the remote state bordering Bangladesh were an apparent retaliation for the religious violence in that country after a photo of the Koran placed on an idol of a Hindu god during the Durga Puja festival , caused riots in which at least two Hindus were killed.

Days after the violence in Bangladesh, members of the far-right Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) and other Hindu groups marched in Tripura and allegedly Muslims attacked and their religious sites, including mosques.

The VHP is affiliated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological mentor of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who also runs the state government in Tripura.

‘I just did my job’

The violence and vandalism scared Tripura’s 350,000 Muslims while journalists, activists, lawyers and community leaders continued to demand action against the perpetrators.

Student groups raise slogans against violence in Tripura during protest in New Delhi [Prakash Singh/AFP]

Police allege misleading information and images were shared on social media to allegedly incite further violence – an allegation denied by the accused.

“I just did my job to report an assault on a Muslim man [in Tripura]. “I also mentioned how the police immediately came to his rescue,” the young journalist told Al Jazeera.

“Instead of arresting the rioters, the police are pursuing journalists and activists.”

Another accused, a senior member of the Student Islamic Organization of India, told Al Jazeera the cases against him and others were intended to “harass those who raise their voices against injustice and divert attention from violence”.

He said his tweet was not false and that he had all the evidence and testimonies to substantiate his claim.

If convicted under UAPA, the accused could face up to seven years in prison.

Last week, a team of Supreme Court lawyers visited Tripura’s quiet regions and released a fact report on the violence.

A day later, two members of the team – Ansar Indori and Mukesh Kumar – were accused of making statements “that promoted enmity between religious groups and provoking the people of different religious communities to cause breach of peace” and charged under various laws, including UAPA.

Indori said he was “stunned” by the harsh charges and wondered why he was being booked.

“We have gone there to serve democracy and protect the rights of citizens,” he said. “We did our job within the scope of the law and liaised with the police and administration,” he told Al Jazeera.

By filing the cases, he said, the BJP government had given a message that it could not be held accountable for the violence and that there would be consequences to asking questions.

“Of course, it will send fear among civil society and every activist will think twice before uttering a word.”

Journalists and activists have also accused Tripura police of underplaying and denying reports of attacks and burning of mosques, claiming the situation is under control.

Rahul Gandhi, leader of India’s main opposition party, the Congress, said the cases against the journalists and activists were the BJP’s ‘cover-up tactic’ by “shooting the messenger”.

“Truth cannot be silenced by UAPA,” Gandhi tweeted on Monday.

But Tripura police say they have “found some well-known and unknown individuals and organizations who directly or indirectly promote the crime – who promote hatred and enmity – through social media as part of the conspiracy”.

Arindam Nath, Inspector General of Police in Tripura, defended the use of UAPA against the 102 accused.

“We used these laws because the volume of social media posts was enormous. “We came up with 150 posts, of which we shortlisted 102 accounts for sharing provocative material,” he told Al Jazeera over the phone.

The issue of social media posts is the latest escalation in the government’s suppression of online discord in India.

In April, when the country was engaged in a brutal second wave of the coronavirus pandemic, the government asked Twitter to block all content that is critical of dealing with the crisis.

Earlier this year, India also came up with new information technology laws to regulate social media and digital news. While the government has defended the moves with reference to national security, legal groups and experts have expressed concern about free speech.

According to Mishi Choudhary, a lawyer and activist in New York, police can enlist the help of social media companies for an investigation, but cannot ask for a person’s account to be blocked.

She told Al Jazeera that only the central government was authorized to make such requests under India’s laws and called the cases brought in Tripura an example of “overactive policing”.

“The abuse of UAPA against individuals in cases that do not necessarily fall into the category of terrorism cases must also stop.”

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