A friend WhatsApped Mudassir Rana a meme as he browsed through his phone over lunch one afternoon in October 2016. Rana shared it on Facebook without comment. Next evening, there was a knock on his door. It was the police. Mudassir Rana, the owner of a school in Sardhana, Uttar Pradesh, was under arrest.
His crime was his Facebook post: a cartoonish illustration of the faces of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Rashritya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat, and several ministers of the ruling Bharatiya Janta Party, depicted as the ten heads of Ravan.
Rana is just one of dozens of Indians arrested for sharing memes, cartoons, and messages criticising Modi since his government swept to power in 2014.
Over the past four years, news reports of arrests for insulting Modi have appeared with alarming regularity. The arrested include teachers, students, businessmen, auto-rickshaw drivers, and members of the police and paramilitary forces. Such arrests, which once caused a stir on social media platforms, now attract only passing mention.
When Prime Minister Modi claimed he welcomed criticism in a statement in London last week, HuffPost reached to those arrested for lampooning him, to find scores of everyday ordinary citizens living in continual fear of imprisonment for the crime of forwarding a WhatsApp message.
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I want this Government to be criticised. Criticism makes democracy strong: PM @narendramodi— PMO India (@PMOIndia) April 18, 2018
A few hours after Rana posted the Modi meme on Facebook, he got a call from a man who identified himself as a member of the Bajrang Dal.
"He said I should mend my ways or there will be consequences," Rana said. The next day, a local journalist called Rana to warn him that a First Information Report (FIR) had been lodged against him. A few hours later, an interlocutor informed Rana that the Bajrang Dal wanted him to come to their office.
"They told the common friend that I had to go down on my knees, lie prostrate and beg for their forgiveness," Rana said. "I was ready to say sorry, but I was not okay with being humiliated like that."
That was the night police arrived at his doorstep and took him to the police station. He was charged under Section 153-A of IPC for 'promoting disharmony'.
There was mayhem in Rana's house; his wife and three children could not believe he was being arrested for a Facebook post.
"The case is yet to reach the court. Till it is resolved and I am let off the hook, this will hang on my and my family's head."
"Obviously, they started imagining the worst," Rana said. At the police station, Rana sat on a bench all night. Occasionally, a policeman would come and ask another to throw him in the lock-up. The next morning, Rana's lawyer posted bail and he was released.
Since then, Rana says, many Hindu families, who empathise with Hindu far-right organisations in Sardhana, have distanced themselves from him.
"Initially I used to go to their family functions and weddings. Now, they don't call me. They also refuse to turn up at functions where I am invited as well, making the hosts jittery," he added. "The principal of my school is a Brahmin, even he couldn't believe the reason I was being ostracised."
Rana was planning to travel abroad for his son's higher studies, but the family has shelved the plans as getting visas and passports could get complicated.
"The case is yet to reach the court. Till it is resolved and I am let off the hook, this will hang on my and my family's head," Rana said. "But I won't go down without a fight."
It is a cognizable offence to 'cause annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred or ill will, persistently by making use of such computer resource or a communication device' under Section 66A of the Information Technology Act 2000. This section was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2015, but policemen continue to use it in conjunction with other penal provisions to arrest people for social media posts.
Lawyer Apar Gupta said that since no advisory was issued informing the general public of the court order, it is possible that several police stations aren't yet aware of the development. "The literature that they may have at the police stations may also be outdated, leading them to file cases under the defunct law," he said.
Last year, All Indian Bakchod (AIB) was booked for defamation, under section 500 of IPC. They were also charged under a similar section of the act: Section 67, which penalises the accused for publishing or transmitting obscene material in electronic form.
Gupta pointed out that since there is no objective definition of 'obscene' mentioned in the section, it is often misused. In cases involving social media posts, it becomes a long, unfair process for people like Rana.
Narendra Modi's fans are not the only Indian political supporters incapable of taking a joke. In 2012, cartoonist Aseem Trivedi was arrested on charges of 'sedition' for posting cartoons that depicted the Indian parliament as a toilet; two school girls from Palghar in Thane, Maharashtra were arrested for a Facebook post criticising the Shiv Sena; and a professor in Kolkata was arrested for forwarding an email with a cartoon that made fun of West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee. In 2015, 19-year-old student was arrested for mocking Samajwadi Party's Azam Khan.
The WhatsApp nightmare
The government employee was at work and watching television one evening last year, when he learnt he had been suspended from his post.
"The news anchor said I was suspended for insulting the Prime Minister in a WhatsApp message. I couldn't believe what was happening," he said, requesting anonymity as he feared losing his job.
"Within moments, I got frantic calls from my family. They wanted to know: What I had done? Was the police going to arrest me?" he said. " I had no answers to their questions. I was terrified, I really don't remember being that terrified my entire life."
The worst part, the government employee said, was that he had not even sent the offending message.
"Someone had sent it to me," he said. "And someone in my family may have forwarded it to a larger group by mistake."
He was eventually reinstated at his post, ten days later, but with a warning. He barely uses Whatsapp anymore and has urged his friends not to send him any – no jokes, no memes, no videos, nothing.
"These people are in power now," he said. "And I have mouths to feed."
No country for criticism?
Pankaj Mishra was 22 when he dropped out of college and joined the Central Reserve Police Force in 2013.
"My parents are poor farmers and I needed to earn money," Mishra, a resident of Bihar's Arra district said.
In April last year, Mishra was posted in Durgapur, West Bengal, when guerrilla fighters of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) ambushed a CRPF battalion in Chhattisgarh, killing 26 troopers. One of them was Mishra's 29-year-old cousin Abhay.
"My brother was dead, and Rajnath Singh claimed we will give a fitting reply," Mishra said, referring to India's Home Minister. "These politicians said what they always say after an attack like this – respect the martyrs."
Mishra was fed up with these platitudes, something snapped inside him. He shot a video on his mobile phone criticising the government, Rajnath Singh, Narendra Modi and uploaded the video on his Facebook profile.
Three days later, a senior officer caught hold of Mishra and snatched his phone away. That was when Mishra realised his video had gone viral.
With little money left, Mishra has given up the idea of hiring a powerful lawyer to take up his case of 'wrongful' dismissal.
"They (senior officers) herded me to a office and beat me up," Mishra said. Terrified, Mishra ran away from the camp two days later. "I had not anticipated anything like this. I did not know what to do. I was scared they will hurt me more."
Five days after he fled the camp, Mishra 'surrendered' at the Delhi High Court and was soon transferred to Jorhat in Assam. A couple of weeks went by, following which he was called to the Assam headquarters and told he had been suspended and an enquiry ordered.
On October 14 last year, he was dismissed from duty and jailed. Mishra alleges that he was beaten up like "they didn't think I was a human" in the days following his suspension. He uploaded two more videos on Facebook criticising the government while the enquiry was on.
"Constable Mishra was arrested on Sunday on the basis of objectionable social media posts against the prime minister and the home minister," Dilip Barua, superintendent of Jorhat police said. "He was picked up from the CRPF's camp."
Mishra was locked up at the Jorhat Central Jail and got bail two-and-half months later. He now lives at home with his parents, virtually unemployable as he doesn't have a college degree and prospective employers are put off by his jail record.
With little money left, Mishra has given up the idea of hiring a powerful lawyer to take up his case of 'wrongful' dismissal. "I can't pay good lawyers and very few I know aren't willing to take up a case against the government and BJP," he said.
"It was only the thought of my parents that stopped me from committing suicide," he said. "Anyone else in my place would have."
Chased away from home
The glacial pace of India's legal system means years of court fees and lawyer bills for those arrested for insulting Prime Minister Modi.
Devu Chodankar, a 38-year-old former shipping executive in Goa, estimates he spent at least Rs 6,00,000 in legal fees and travel costs after he was booked in 2014 for a Facebook post warning of a "holocaust-like" situation if Modi came to power.
"I spent two years repaying the direct and indirect costs," Chodankar said. His health suffered, his debts piled up, and he lost his job.
"With the social media shaming, it became impossible for me to find a job in India," he added.
Chodankar had once been an BJP supporter, but came to change his mind. One turning point was the party's decision to build an airport at Mopa plateau, which – environmentalists said -- would cause great ecological damage.
"The water tank in my house was contaminated. Every other day, I would find the electricity connection to the house cut off"
Chodankar was working in Vishakapatnam when his father received summons from the police for his Facebook post. When he flew back home and presented himself before the police, he was interrogated for six hours and his laptop and hard disks were seized. Fearing backlash from BJP supporters who he had sparred with, Chodankar went into hiding for almost a week around the time Narendra Modi was being sworn in.
It was becoming impossible to live in Goa anymore.
"The water tank in my house was contaminated. Every other day, I would find the electricity connection to the house cut off," Chodankar said. "I kept getting hate messages from unknown people."
In 2016, Chodankar moved to Belgium to study.
Back home in India, Prime Minister Modi is plotting his campaign for the next general election, and the police continue to investigate Chodankar's Facebook post from four years ago.
Editor's note: The story has been updated to reflect the year of Mudassir Rana's arrest.