The “most horrific” part of his 23 days of incarceration, Mohammed Zubair said, were the 10-hour long journeys to Uttar Pradesh in cramped Delhi police buses. Yet, in those backbreaking trips, the co-founder of the AltNews fact-checking site said he found hope – in conversations with the police personnel accompanying him.

“I must have met over 20 cops, head constables, constables who would travel with me,” he said. “After speaking to them, I felt there are people who are aware of what’s happening in the country. Maybe it doesn’t reflect in their voting, but they know.”

The policemen, he said, were all uniformly disparaging of loud pro-establishment television news anchors.

“Most of them were Ravish Kumar fans,” he recalled, referring to the mild-mannered NDTV news anchor – a stand-out figure in the increasingly servile world of Indian television news.

“Some said ‘theek hai thoda leftist hai, par mudde ki baat toh karta hai’ – he may be a leftist, but at least he talks about the things that matter. ‘Haan kabhi kabhi kuch zyada kar deta hai, par baaki toh kuch karte hi nahi’ – sometimes he goes overboard, but others don’t speak up at all.”

It isn’t tough to fathom why the factchecker may have found solace in those conversations. The torrent of police action against him was essentially a result of a tweet in which he claims he was calling out one such television news anchor and channel.

On May 27, Zubair, who has nearly 600,000 followers on Twitter, tweeted a clip of Nupur Sharma, then the Bharatiya Janata Party’s spokesperson, going on a tirade against Prophet Mohammad on a show on Times Now, a news channel with a decidedly pro-government slant.

“Prime Time debates in India have become a platform to encourage hate mongers to speak ill about other religions,” he tweeted, tagging the anchor moderating the show, Navika Sharma, and Vineet Jain, the managing director of the channel’s parent company.

The tweet got widely noticed, leading to a major diplomatic row, with seven countries, including the oil-rich nations of the Middle East, summoning Indian ambassadors to object to Sharma’s comments. The BJP was forced to suspend her. But the suspension did not go down well with the party’s supporters, who called for retributive action against Zubair.

Exactly a month later, the Delhi police arrested him. The charge: an anonymous Twitter user’s complaint about their religious sentiments being hurt because Zubair had in 2018 tweeted a still from a 1983 Bollywood movie.

The Uttar Pradesh police jumped into the fray soon after. First, it arrested Zubair for calling three seers book for hate speech “hate mongers”. When the court granted him relief in that case, it resurrected several old cases, most of them related to Zubair’s work of fact-checking and documenting hate speech. The Uttar Pradesh police even went on to constitute a special investigations team to probe six cases lodged against Zubair in various districts of the state.

On July 20, the Supreme Court granted him bail in all the cases and gave him protection from arrest in any other case lodged against him for the same cause of action. It also disbanded the Uttar Pradesh police SIT and dismissed the state counsel’s plea for Zubair to be gagged.

Four days later, when I spoke to Zubair on Sunday, he was back home in Bengaluru, and had spent the day giving a string of interviews to reporters. More were lined up, he said. Yet, he didn’t, even for a moment, betray signs of impatience. He began the conversation by apologising for making me wait.

It didn’t come as a surprise, therefore, when he told me he had made friends with “almost all 80” inmates in the ward in the Tihar Jail he was lodged in.

Zubair was incarcerated in a ward that housed several “high-profile” people accused of financial crimes. Among his immediate neighbours was Malvinder Mohan Singh, the former chairman of Ranbaxy Laboratories. “Everyone there had done some multi-crore scam – and there I was among all of them for my tweets,” he said.

One of Zubair’s cell-mates was a businessman who is a staunch supporter of the Shiv Sena, a Hindu right-wing party. Naturally, he wasn’t the warmest when he first met Zubair – he told him he had seen in the news that the factchecker had made fun of Hindu deities.

But on the day Zubair got bail, he hugged him hard and cried: “Zubair bhai, aapki bail lag gayi! – you’ve been granted bail.”

After the initial trepidation, friendship between the two had blossomed fast. “Despite completely different ideologies, we became so attached to each other in 10-15 days,” Zubair said. “Maybe it was because of our interaction. It gave me some hope that maybe if we have more interactions, people can be changed.”

Zubair – perhaps understandably – seemed reluctant to speak much about the Nupur Sharma affair. He, however, underlined that he did not tweet out Sharma’s clip because he believed her comments to be blasphemous – as some commentators have suggested.

“My only intention was to call out the news channel,” he said. “How the anchor didn’t even bother to stop…in the flow she might have said something she shouldn’t have, it is the job of the anchor to stop anyone who crosses a line.”

He added: “I only wanted to call out the anchor and owner, the news channel, something I have been doing, calling out news channels for platforming hate speech.”

Zubair pointed out that he had also flagged a speech of All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen parliamentarian Imtiyaz Jaleel in which he had endorsed violence against Sharma for her comments. “I was the first one to put out the video, saying it amounted to inciting hate,” Zubair said. (Jaleel later claimed he did not mean what he had said, he had spoken the language of the crowd to help the police disperse it.)

But did Zubair support police action against Sharma? “I personally think she shouldn’t be arrested, but by not arresting her, the government probably wanted things to escalate,” he said. “People started comparing – how you can be arrested for sharing a Facebook post criticising a politician but not her. I think that made people outrage more, do rallies calling for her arrest which unfortunately turned violent.”

A stream of well wishers and journalists at his home – and the absence of a phone of his own as the police seized his old one – has meant Zubair is yet to start work. However, it was only a matter of time before he gets back to it – the phone is expected to arrive by Monday. “I will keep doing what I do,” he said.