NEW DELHI: The police in central India have charged a man with sedition, a colonial-era offense that can result in life imprisonment, based on Facebook content he shared or posted calling for India to withdraw from Kashmir.
Tauseef Ahmad Bhat, 29, a Kashmiri engineer working at a mobile phone company in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh, was arrested on Wednesday, accused of “liking, sharing and posting anti-India content on Facebook,” said Amresh Mishra, superintendent of the police in the district where the arrest occurred.
A formal complaint brought by the police said a post on Bhat’s Facebook page had called for India to withdraw from Kashmir, which is divided between India and Pakistan, and had shown the flags of China and Pakistan flying in the background, as well as masked men holding black flags.
Another post, the complaint said, displayed a caricature of a hand with a broom, shooing away a mouse rendered in the colors of the Indian flag, with the caption, “Get out from Kashmir.” The complaint also said that Bhat had posted material critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India.
Mishra, who oversaw the arrest on Wednesday after bringing the complaint on Tuesday night, said that the charges were based solely on Bhat’s Facebook posts and that Bhat “was not found to be involved in any other activity.” He said that “certain members of civil society” had identified the Facebook posts and reported them to the police.
“These things are and may be normal in Kashmir, but not in this part of the country,” he said.
Bhat could not be reached for comment.
Mishra said that Bhat, who has a master’s in engineering, was apprehended on a train headed for the city of Jammu. He said that the train was stopped after it crossed into a neighboring state and that Bhat was brought back to Chhattisgarh.
The arrest was prompted by activists from a right-wing Hindu group, the Bajrang Dal. They were scouring social media on Tuesday evening, looking for content harmful to India’s image, when they came across Mr. Bhat’s posts, according to Ratan Yadav, 42, coordinator of the organization in the area.
"I immediately instructed my local workers, the young lovers of Hinduism, to do one thing: take screenshots,” Yadav said. “Mr. Bhat has abused the army, the police and India in the posts that he has liked and shared.”
“He has been abusive of the thing” that matters most, Yadav said, “Bharat Mata, or Mother India.”
Mishra said that the activists “have a right to protest” and that he filed the complaint against Bhat on Tuesday night.
The law against sedition, which the British colonial administration introduced in India, can be used against anyone who “brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite dissatisfaction towards, the government established by law.”
The Constitution protects freedom of speech and expression but with exceptions, among them speech that undermines “the sovereignty and integrity of India.” Governments in the country have broadly used sedition charges, often for political gain. In 2012, a cartoonist was charged with sedition, as were a group of Kashmiri students cheering the Pakistani cricket team in 2014.
Yadav, the Hindu activist, said that Bhat, whom he does not know but has tracked on Facebook, “formed a group of Kashmiris and, while living on Indian soil, he is talking of dividing India.”
“Anti-India activities have gone up on social media of late, and Kashmiris are using it to the hilt to further an anti-India agenda,” he said. “We are keeping watch.”
He added that his organization had mobilized to “save cows from the Muslims and whoever else might be smuggling or slaughtering them” and that it had ensured “the culprits are punished.”
Lawrence Liang, a visiting professor of law at Yale, said in an interview that “in comparison to charges of sedition slapped on the basis of social media posts and likes, those for hate speech are more common.”
“Arrests on charges of sedition for social media posts are rare,” he added.
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