Additional Solicitor General SV Raju on Friday described Hindutva supremacist seer Bajrang Muni, who had in April issued rape threats to Muslim women, as a “respected religious leader”, Live Law reported.

He made the comment at Supreme Court hearing on a petition filed by Alt News co-founder Mohammed Zubair challenging a case filed against him in Uttar Pradesh. The police in Uttar Pradesh have booked him for calling three Hindutva supremacists, including Muni, “hatemongers”.

Muni and the other two seers mentioned by Zubair have been booked in hate speech cases in the past few months for making inflammatory statements about Muslims.

SV Raju, appearing for the investigating officer in the case, told the Supreme Court that Bajrang Muni was a respected religious leader in Sitapur, and his followers were offended by Zubair’s tweet.

“Bajrang Muni is a respected mahant...a religious leader in Sitapur with large following,” the additional solicitor general told a bench comprising Justices Indira Banerjee and JK Maheshwari. “When you call a religious leader hatemonger, it raises problems.”

On the other hand, Zubair’s lawyer, Senior Advocate Colin Golsalves, contended that his client had only raised his voice against hate speech by religious leaders and had not engaged in such an act himself.

“All the others [were] released on bail but I, a secular tweeter, was arrested,” Gonsalves said. “When I say hate monger I am not wrong. The police has prosecuted them [the seers] under 295A IPC [Indian Penal Code section related to deliberately outraging religious feelings].”

In April, videos of Muni making threats to rape Muslim women in Sitapur were shared widely on social media. The videos were purportedly shot in Khairabad town on April 2 on the occasion of Navratri and Hindu New Year.

In one of the videos, the seer can be seen addressing a crowd near a mosque.

“I am telling this to you [Muslims] with love that if a single Hindu girl is teased by you in Khairabad, I will openly bring your daughters and daughter-in-laws out of your home and rape them,” Muni can be heard telling a crowd.

His remarks were met with loud cheers of “Jai Shri Ram” by the crowd.

Another video of the incident, which was shot from a different angle, showed him making the hate speech in presence of police officers.

Several social media users expressed shock on Friday at the additional solicitor general’s comment about Muni.

Congress leader Gaurav Pandhi said that Bajrang Muni could not be called a respected religious leader merely because he has followers in a region. “Everywhere, religious fundamentalists have followers, it doesn’t make them close to being called respected,” he said.

Congress youth wing leader Srinivas BV shared another video of Muni threatening to rape Muslim women.

Several other Twitter users also criticised SV Raju’s statement in the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court on Friday granted interim bail to Zubair till July 12, the next date of hearing. Zubair, however, will not be able to walk free immediately as he is in judicial custody in a separate case filed by the Delhi Police.