By Rajini Vaidyanathan
Like millions of others around the world, Nafeesa Attari was glued to her screen as India played Pakistan in the opening match of the T20 World Cup.
The schoolteacher from the northern Indian city of Udaipur watched as Pakistan won the match by 10 wickets in what was a clinical and emphatic win.
Days later she was arrested and held in a police cell. Her apparent crime: her WhatsApp status celebrating Pakistan’s victory.
She is among several Muslims in India who have been arrested or detained for supporting Pakistan in the recent match – raising fresh concerns about freedom of speech in the world’s largest democracy. Observers argue that these arrests are the latest weapon in the governing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) agenda to target Muslim minorities, a charge the government strongly refutes.
“Jeeeet gayeeee… We wonnn,” Ms Attari wrote, over an image of some of the team’s players in her WhatsApp status.
Her post was spotted by one of her students’ parents, who sent it to others before it went viral on the messaging service.
Ms Attari was fired from her teaching job, and arrested under a section of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalises “assertions prejudicial to national integration”.
In an interview with a local TV channel, she appeared visibly distressed as she apologised for causing offence.
“Someone messaged me [replying to my status] and asked if I was supporting Pakistan. As the message had emojis and there was a playful atmosphere, I said yes”, she said.
“This doesn’t mean I support Pakistan. I am an Indian, I love India.”
Having secured bail, she is back home with her husband and young child, and is fighting the charges.
“What the police have done is absolutely wrong. If someone makes a mistake or if you don’t agree with someone, that’s not a crime or anti-national”, her lawyer Rajesh Singhvi said. “This is against the constitution and our laws.”
Rajendra Parmar, a member of the hardline Hindu nationalist group Bajrang Dal, had reported Ms Attari to the police.
“These people should go to Pakistan. You’re living in India, earning here but you’re celebrating their win,” he told the BBC.
Mr Parmar said he had no regrets about making the complaint. “This should be a [lesson] for her. She’s a teacher in a school. What kind of education will she give those children?”
His comments cut deep into the visceral hostility many in India and Pakistan feel towards each other, ever since the two nations were created after the partition of British India in 1947.
And relations are particularly tense in Indian-administered Kashmir, where an insurgency against Indian rule has been under way since the late 1980s.
A group of medical students in Kashmir have also been charged – under a strict anti-terror law – for allegedly rooting for the Pakistani cricket team.
In a video which has surfaced online, a man, allegedly former BJP lawmaker Vikram Randhawa, can be heard saying the students should be “skinned alive” and have their degrees and citizenship cancelled for raising pro-Pakistan slogans on Indian soil.
Mr Randhawa has been charged by police for hate speech, and has been reprimanded by the BJP, which has asked him to apologise within 48 hours for these remarks.
While the party is distancing itself from the use of such severe language, other senior members of the BJP have condemned those supporting Pakistan, with some saying it should be considered a crime.
Former Indian cricketer turned BJP politician Gautam Gambhir said anyone who celebrated Pakistan’s win was “shameful”.
“Those bursting crackers on Pak winning can’t be Indian! We stand by our boys,” he wrote on Twitter.
Yogi Adityanath, a close ally of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and chief minister of the country’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh, told a newspaper that Indians who cheered the victory should be charged with sedition.
India’s colonial era sedition law criminalises criticism of the government. Many say it’s increasingly being used to stifle free speech.
“What we’re seeing here is part of a political process of the BJP consolidating the Hindu vote by ‘otherising’ Muslims,” said Amit Varma, host of the podcast The Seen and the Unseen.
“They’ve weaponised issues that have been dormant in our politics for decades: cow slaughter, Hindu-Muslim marriages, and even Indians supporting Pakistan.”
“None of these have any substance to them. They are just issues to whip up anti-Muslim passions which, sadly seem to be widespread,” he argued.
But a senior Indian government spokesperson said it was “preposterous” for anyone to say that taking action against a very small number of Muslims amounted to penalising the millions of people who belong to the faith in the country.
“They [those arrested] were celebrating India’s defeat… every such act has the potential of setting into motion a ‘law and order situation’, so that has to be prevented by all means,” Kanchan Gupta, senior adviser to the ministry of information and broadcasting, told the BBC as he defended the arrests.
“If two students here, five students there, or a teacher somewhere decides to do something which is provocative and has the potential to instigate further problems, that needs to be checked… and investigated” he added.
The families of many who are being held believe the actions are wholly disproportionate.
Seven people in Uttar Pradesh were also accused of celebrating Pakistan’s win.
Police said they had used disrespectful words and anti-national comments against the Indian cricket team to disturb the peace.
Three of them – Arshad Yousef, Inayat Altaf and Shaukat Ahmad, all engineering students at a college in Agra – are in jail. The men, who have been suspended from their college, struggled to find a lawyer.
“We are not going to provide any legal assistance to these students as they were celebrating Pakistan’s victory while living in India,” said Nitin Verma, president of the Young Lawyers’ Association in the city.
“This is against our country and anti-national. It is our duty to oppose them, so such acts are not encouraged in the future.”
This isn’t the first time a cricket match has provoked such a strong response.
In 2014, 60 Kashmiri students in Uttar Pradesh were charged with sedition for cheering Pakistan against India. But the charges were later dropped following legal advice from the law ministry.
Cricket has always been a big part of the Indian psyche, but a recent survey from the Pew Research Center found that a slim majority of adults in the country (56%) felt it was important to support India’s cricket team to be truly Indian.
“When in the law is it a crime to support an opposition cricket team?” asks Sharda Ugra, a cricket journalist and social commentator.
“Should people of Indian origin in the UK or Australia be arrested for supporting India? It’s obviously a deliberate religious divide that’s being provoked on both sides.”
When it comes to cricket, passions run high in both nations, but these latest arrests in India have come as a shock to many who feel that the space for freedom of expression is shrinking fast. — Courtesy BBC