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.
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...