On a balmy April night, Zakir Ali Tyagi had just returned from a soiree of Urdu poetry, when a police team showed up at his residence in Muzaffarnagar. The 18-year-old thought it was a harmless visit, and went about serving water to the cops.

But soon, he was called into a separate room, where he was asked to verify if a picture that the cops brought along, was his. On display were printouts bearing screenshots of Tyagi’s facebook profile and posts.

Tyagi was whisked away by the police team, that said they were under pressure to arrest him. Tyagi claims that when his relatives raised their voice, the cops admitted they were acting under ‘orders from above.’

Barely two weeks before Tyagi’s arrest, Yogi Adiyanath had taken over as Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister. While speaking for the for first time in Gorakhpur after his win, Yogi promised to rid his hometown and bastion of Goonda raj. Tyagi had reportedly put up a post on Facebook that questioned the Chief Minister on criminal cases registered against him.

From Free Speech to a 40- Day Imprisonment in a Matter 24 Hours

What was supposed to be a ‘brief investigation’ soon turned into a 40-day stint in prison. Tyagi was first taken to Kotwali Nagar police station, were he was allegedly beaten up and abused by an unknown man.

After identifying me, a man dressed in jeans came up and beat me up. He was abusing me, saying that people would label me a terrorist and throw stones at my house if they learnt about my anti-Yogi posts. His support for Yogi was so overwhelming, that it made me think he was a BJP worker.
Zakir Ali Tyagi

Tyagi was shifted to Muzaffarnagar jail the next day, were he spent 40 days in a cramped cell with hardened criminals. From exercising his freedom of speech on social media to being labelled a ‘terrorist’, Tyagi’s life had undergone a sea-change in a matter of 24 hours.

Tyagi’s Critical Social Media Presence

According to The Telegraph, the police had initially slapped Section 66-A on Tyagi, which was set aside by a 2015 Supreme Court Judgement. Tyagi lawyer Wasiq Nadeem Khan told the daily that the police later dropped ‘A’ , after realising that it was scrapped by the Apex Court and merely retained Section 66, which deals with hacking and prescribes three years in jail,

Prior to being arrested, Tyagi had changed his Facebook profile picture to that of a cop who died while chasing a criminal in Dadri. Acting on his usage of a different person’s picture as his own, the police later added section 420, which deals with cheating. But Tyagi beliefs it was a ploy to ensure he spends a longer time in Jail.

When the police realised that my Facebook posts didn’t merit a jail term, they quickly added section 420, accusing me of forging my picture on social media. But I had only thought of the deceased cop as a hero and changed my profile picture in honour of his sacrifice.
Zakir Ali Tyagi

Tyagi had also put up a comment questioning the logic behind a Uttarakhand High Court judgement that had bestowed the status of a ‘living entity’ upon the Ganga. In his comment, Tyagi ha written, “The Ganga has been declared a living entity; will criminal charges be initiated if someone drowns in it?”

Is Everyone At Risk for FB Posts?

Tyagi is now out on bail and is fighting a legal battle. He has since refrained from posting anything against the government, an impact that he says the government set out to achieve.

Tyagi maintains that he was suppressed for being a ‘Muslim, who spoke truth to power.’ Following his arrest, some of his friends, also Muslims, who were critical of government policies on social media, have fallen silent.

The present-day government, he says, doesn’t like to be reminded of the truth and has turned into a “dictatorial regime”. He cites the recent killing of journalist Gauri Lankesh and the multiple CBI raids on NDTV promoters as a textbook case of the government’s aversion to the truth.

Tyagi wanted to be a journalist who could write freely, but fears his chances are now slim.

Video Editor: Sandeep Suman & Ashutosh Bhardwaj

Shot,Reported & Produced by Anthony Sanu Rozario