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High price of anti-Modi FB updates: Journalist faces blasphemy charges

Sheeba Aslam Fehmi, journalist and Ph.D fellow at JNU’s Centre for Political Studies, finds herself in a rather bizarre situation. Her complaint to the cyber-crime cell in August 2011 about receiving anonymous mails warning her to stop posting ‘anti-Indian’ comments on Facebook or ‘be prepared for consequences’ has ended with a local Delhi court exonerating the accused, and charging her instead with serious charges of blasphemy and promoting enmity between religious groups.

BJP's PM Candidate Narendra Modi. AP

BJP's PM Candidate Narendra Modi. AP

Fehmi is no stranger to the dangers of taking on fundamentalist forces. Her home was ransacked and her family attacked three times after she dragged powerful Muslim clerics over mismanagement of public property and funds to court. A women’s rights activist, Fehmi’s stance on what she describes as ‘misogynistic traditions’ in Muslim and Hindu communities have made her an automatic target for the religious conservatives and self-proclaimed nationalists.

And now a series of Facebook comments that have been attributed to her– eight in all that include quotes against BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, comments on the patriarchal nature of rituals like karva chauth and on the right-wing bias of the Anna Hazare-led Jan Lokpal movement - quite unexpectedly have led to a court initiating criminal proceedings against her -- even as it has let the man who threatened her walk free.

In quashing the charges under the Information Technology Act against the accused who went by the handle ‘true hearted Indian’ -- and who incidentally admitted to sending the mails to Fehmi -- the judge said, “In my considered opinion, raising national slogans, opposing anti-national sentiments and words and opposing anti-establishment words, and asking for fair debate on anti-national sentiments of any person no way attracts the criminal law [italicise these words: even if the words used are harsh in nature] and are covered under the provisions of Fundamental Rights as provided under Article 19 of the Indian Constitution.” (emphasis added).

Writing about the controversial court order in a post titled ‘Delhi magistrate orders FIR against journalist for anti-Modi posts’ published in caravandaily.com, Kavita Krishnan secretary, All Indian Progressive Women’s Association says, “Clearly, Ms Fehmi had a critique of the anti-corruption and anti-rape movements. I personally disagree with some aspects of her assessment of the uniformly RSS or upper-caste bias of those movements…But how do those views, shared by many, become a threat to communal harmony or national integration, or an ‘insult to religious feelings’! How do such opinions become a crime?!”

Describing the court order as "unconstitutional", Krishnan writes, “Her (Fehmi’s) views on Modi as facilitator of genocide are shared by thousands. And her critique of the patriarchal underpinnings of raksha bandhan is common too – I came across scores of similar comments on social media this year, and have made similar critiques myself! How come all of us haven’t been arrested for similar posts... Metropolitan Magistrate RK Pandey’s order is outrageously unconstitutional, and must of course be challenged in and struck down by higher courts.”

But what is equally shocking about court proceedings that led to Fehmi being charged with serious sections of the Indian Penal Code is that no attempt was made to contact her to verify whether the comments allegedly made by her on Facebook post were accurately presented by the defence.

Speaking to Firstpost, Fehmi said, “The comments that have been cited in the court are not only tampered with, they are incomplete, they are without reference or context. And one of the citations is not mine even. It was a paragraph I took from a writer and posted on my page along with the link to the source.”

Elaborating on the nature of the posts, Fehmi said, “In one of the comments I have written a parody of a famous poem. And it was in response to Sushma Swaraj’s statement in Parliament. All this has been omitted. Only half the comment has reproduced. The parody itself has been manipulated. They have made a change in that.”

On the whether her comments included posts criticising Modi, Fehmi said, “There are three citations. I had cut and paste somebody’s article on extra-judicial killings in Gujarat ahead of the 2007 assembly elections. The comments were purely political. There was nothing against India.”

The senior journalist was never informed by the Delhi Police that an FIR had been lodged on her complaint against the ‘true hearted Indian’ who was identified as Pankaj Kumar Dwivedi and that he was charged under Section 66A of the IT Act or that a trial was under way at a local court.

“The funny part is, I was not even informed that a court case was going on in my name. I was not even given a chance to verify what was used in the court, whether those comments belonged to me or not. I was not given an opportunity to be heard. Secondly, in the court order justifying the slapping of these charges against me, the magistrate has cited the comments posted on my FB page from December 2012 and 2013. And the threat mail I received was in 2011. How can the court justify the threat mail that was in sent in 2011 with comments that were made in 2012 and 2013 ?” asks a bewildered Fehmi.

Speaking about the nature of the threatening mails she received in August 2011, Fehmi said, “The first mail was a warning that I should stop posting ‘anti-India’ and ‘anti-national’ mails or face consequences. I replied saying ‘Kindly read my comments again they are anti- establishment only. I love my mother land.’ He wrote back saying he wants to come to JNU and have discussion with me because it necessary to clean off all the ‘filth and dirt’ from my mind and make you ‘pure and pious’…He was insisting to meet me in person.”

Given that her anonymous stalker knew that she was research fellow at JNU, says Fehmi, suggests he might have been a ‘friend of a friend’ on her Facebook which allowed him to view her posts.

A few months after Fehmi forwarded the emails to the cyber-crime cell, the Delhi Police got in touch with her. “They told me that they were able to trace laptop from which the emails originated and the person who sent them and that he had accepted that he had sent me the mails. He told the police that he was annoyed with my comments on Facebook and that is why he had sent me those mails.”

Asked by the police how she wanted to proceed, Fehmi told them that she was not interested in “picking a fight” and only wanted to make sure “he doesn’t disturb my peace of mind in future and abstains from sending me anonymous mails. I left it to them to do what is best. It was as a precaution that I forwarded the mail to cyber-crime cell. I am already fighting battles against obscurantist and fundamental forces within Muslim community. They have attacked me many times. That is why is it is important for me to bring to the police’s notice any such activity that is suspicious as far as security is concerned.”

Fehmi didn’t hear from the police or the court after that. Cut to November 2013.

“On November 30, a friend of mine called me and told me that an FIR had been lodged against me and that it was reported in the newspapers. That is how I came to know that there is direction from police to lodge an FIR under against me under Section 153a (promoting enmity between different groups) 153b (assertions against national integration and and 295a (deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings) of the Indian Penal code. I then consulted my advocate and he advised me that the first step should be to apply for bail.”

Fehmi was granted anticipatory bail by a Delhi court on 7 December.

Responding to the charges that have been filed against her, Fehmi says, “How can we reform our society if we don’t question our rituals? Any society can only reform itself by looking within itself and not by being blind to its problems. I am doing this as Indian citizen. As a Muslim woman I am fighting for the rights of Muslim women and I am doing it by taking on the Muslim clergy and orthodox elements in my community. My writings are there for everyone to see…I feel today that the space for dissent is shrinking. Instead of making their voice stronger, it is being muzzled.”

Determined to fight back Fehmi says she welcomes social and legal support for her case. “It is about the right to freedom of expression and right of citizen’s right to intervene in one’s community to try to make it better. It is a nuanced debate. Just because I am Muslim woman doesn’t mean that I cannot criticise the rituals like karva chauth or raksha bandhan. That just won’t work.”


Updated Date: Dec 19, 2013 10:42 AM

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