It was around 8.45 pm on April 2 when 18-year-old Zakir Ali Tyagi returned home after attending a programme at a nearby madrasa. He was living with a relative, Waris Khan, in the town of Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh. As Tyagi entered, he saw unexpected guests: two police officers.
Tyagi moved to the town from his village 90 km away last year to work as an accountant in Khan’s transport company. The small firm’s main client was an iron and steel factory, but it shut down recently. The teenager is now enrolled in a Bachelor of Arts distance education programme at a university in Meerut.
“As I was asked to fetch glasses of water for the guests, I saw them chatting with my relative, often breaking into guffaws,” Tyagi said. “I assumed the visit was related to some formality about my relative’s business until one of the officers held me by my wrist as I was about to leave for the other room and asked me to come with them.”
Tyagi said that when his relatives asked why, the officers said they were taking him to the Kotwali Nagar police station to be questioned in connection with a Facebook post he had allegedly put up about the state’s chief minister, Adityanath, who had assumed office two weeks before. The policemen assured Tyagi and his relatives saying he would not be gone for more than an hour.
But the interrogation turned into a 42-day spell in jail for Tyagi as he was arrested on charges of cheating and sharing offensive content through a computer. His ordeal began soon after he reached the police station. “Around 11 pm, a man in civil dress entered the police station and beat me up severely,” he said. “I still do not know who he was.”
Six months on, Tyagi says he is still looking for answers about why he was arrested and jailed. On Tuesday, he was brought to Delhi by the Bhim Army Defence Committee, a forum led by noted lawyers such as Colin Gonsalves that takes up cases of alleged injustice against Dalits, minorities and other marginalised groups. At the Press Club of India here, he spoke with some journalists.
His story assumes significance as it comes in the wake of allegations of a crackdown by Facebook on posts that are critical of the government, the ruling BJP and Hindutva groups. The social networking site has been accused of blocking numerous accounts under pressure from the government.
The first offence listed against Tyagi in a police complaint attached to the first information report filed in the case is that Facebook profile picture was the photograph of a police officer who had been killed while pursuing a murder suspect in Dadri district last year.
The complaint goes on to mention comments allegedly made by Tyagi on Facebook on a range of subjects. One post was about an Uttarakhand High Court ruling giving the Ganga the status of a living entity, and asked whether criminal charges would be initiated against the river if someone drowne in it. The BJP government in that state had moved the Supreme Court against the order and managed to get a stay on it.
Quoting from another post, the first information report states: “There is also a mention of his post that the ‘promise of the government on Ram mandir was nothing but a gimmick which will be made before the next polls again to lure voters, like the promise to send mullahs to Pakistan.’”
In a third post mentioned in the complaint, Tyagi allegedly asked if the Central government would stop its Air India Haj subsidy, by which Muslims making the pilgrimage are offered reduced air fares on the national carrier.
Tyagi said officers at the police station had told his relatives that they had been instructed by higher authorities to arrest him immediately for his “wrong comments” on Facebook. However, he said these posts were originally put up by others, including journalists from the Urdu press and social activists, and that he had only shared them.
He also said the police had cited his alleged comment on Adityanath as the reason for his being questioned. But there was no mention of this in the first information report.
The account of Tyagi’s arrest in the first information report also differs from his narrative. According to the report, an unidentified person who lodged the complaint and a police officer named Dharmendra Singh waited for Tyagi outside Waris Khan’s house. Tyagi was arrested from a spot around 50 metres from the house. After the complainant identified him, Singh confiscated Tyagi’s mobile phone and found the Facebook posts in question.
‘I was kept with hardened criminals’
On May 13, Tyagi was released on bail. The first thing he did was change his profile picture, he said. He was out of jail but was immediately confronted with another problem. He no longer had his job, and the Rs 8,000 monthly salary that came with it, as Waris Khan, who is also a Congress worker, had shut down his business after incurring losses.
Recalling his time in jail, Tyagi said he had been kept in a cell with hardened criminals. He also said he was no closer to understanding why he was arrested and jailed. “I still fail to understand my crime,” he said. “I used the dead police officer’s image as my profile picture as a mark of respect for the martyr, like I have often seen people using images of Mohammad Akhlaq [who was lynched over rumours that he had consumed beef in Dadri in 2015] and Rohith Vemula”, the University of Hyderabad scholar whose suicide last year had sparked protests across the country.
Tyagi’s lawyer Qazi Ahmed said the police had later added sedition charges against Tyagi. But this claim could not be independently verified.
Sedition, under the law, covers any act aimed at “exciting disaffection against the government” and conviction could lead to a life sentence.
Social activist Wasiq Nadeem Khan was also quoted as saying by the Press Trust of India: “On Zakir’s first bail hearing, the magistrate came late and postponed it to the next week. In the second hearing, the plea for bail was simply dismissed on grounds that the ‘matter is serious’. Subsequently, he had to spent 42 days in Muzaffarnagar jail. We will now move the Allahabad High Court for relief.”
The superintendent of police in Muzaffarnagar told the news agency that he was not aware of the case as he had joined office in April. But he added that cases of objectionable posts on social media can in general be brought under the ambit of the Information Technology Act. The Act is the primary law that deals with cyber crimes and cases involving electronic communication.