A day before Independence Day, a 28-year-old PhD student at Gauhati University — Rehna Sultana — got to know that her face was being brandished across Assamese TV news channels and branded as an “anti-national”.
Two years ago, after an especially embarrassing defeat of the Indian cricket team to Pakistan, Rehna – who says, “my family and I are crazy about cricket” – posted a Facebook update sitting in her rented room in Guwahati, wherein she partook of the joy of our neighbour’s victory and said she was celebrating by eating beef.
“I was angry and felt frustrated. Even Virat Kohli was out for zero that day, then Jadeja came and went… I’d been posting on Facebook, even while the match was going on, lamenting how bad India was playing,” Rehna tells NewsClick.
It’s Independence Day, Rehna is sitting inside a house at a village in Assam, where she had gone seeking anonymity and some peace of mind — after the local media had cops saying they had not only booked her and were investigating the case, but were looking for her.
Sometime before noon on August 14, Rehna had received a phone call from a friend alerting her about an article in a Guwahati-based news portal called InsideNE — carrying a screenshot of the “Pakistan/beef-eating” Facebook post. The article claimed it had been posted on the day of Bakrid, August 12, this year.
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“Today we are also participating in Pakistan’s joy by eating lots of beef! What I eat is my tongue’s choice. Now don’t create controversy simply for talking about the taboo subject of beef” — read the status update, roughly translated from Assamese.
Back in June 2017, Rehna had deleted the said post within a few minutes after receiving a barrage of comments — the garden-variety “go to Pakistan”, mostly — condemning the post and her.
“After deleting the post, I had posted a clarification,” says Rehna. But she continued receiving abuses and even rape threats on social media for the next few days.
A couple of days after the incident, the research scholar was even called on a talk show of local news channel Assam Talks. “I was questioned on screen regarding the post and again gave a clarification about why I had posted it and what I had meant, as well as the context of my sadness and frustration regarding India’s performance, as was evident from my posts minutes prior to this one.”
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On August 14 this year, the post was picked up and sensationalised by several local TV channels and websites, and it spread like wildfire. The same day, Assam Police registered a suo motu case against Rehna under the Information Technology Act.
All of these channels claimed that it was posted on Eid al-Adha this year, while completely isolating it from the context of the cricket match. (The screenshot showed the time of posting as 6 minutes ago.)
Rehna distantly knew the InsideNE editor, Afrida Hussain, and called her up as soon as she saw the article. She was told she could send her clarification on WhatsApp to a staff working on the website, whose number Hussain would message her. But Rehna did not receive any number.
“It was meant to be sarcastic, an expression of frustration!,” she says, adding, “But this was also a time when news of mob lynching of innocent people for eating beef or transporting cattle were becoming routine.”
Incidentally, a friend of Rehna — they were watching the match together — also posted an update that same day saying “India murdabad”, she says, but no one paid any notice to this friend, “probably because she is not a Muslim”.
She says she had received a call from the Guwahati Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) on August 14, “He called and identified himself, and enquired about the matter. I told him it was a two-year-old post, and explained myself honestly. He said someone would probably call me and I would have to give my statement at the police station. But no one has called yet.”
Since then, it has been reported that the police have said they are “unlikely” to arrest Rehna — and her brother, Rofiqul Islam, has filed an FIR against Afrida Hussain for defaming and implicating the research scholar in “fake news”.
This is not the first FIR against Rehna, daughter of a school teacher and one among five siblings, who hails from Sontali village in Kamrup district of Assam.
The village and nearby areas are inhabited primarily by East Bengali-origin Muslims (also known as Miya) — a contentious “identity” in Assam, which has a history of ethnic conflicts and anti-immigrant sentiment, and is currently experiencing turmoil over the National Register of Citizens (NRC).
A student of Assamese literature, Rehna is also a poet — and a Miya poet, too.
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In early July, after Rehna featured along with some other Miya poets in a video made by Karwan-e-Mohabbat, two FIRs were registered against her, one by a local individual and another by an identity-based organisation. FIRs were also filed against at least nine other Miya poets. She and others had filed for anticipatory bail.
Rehna has been actively working with the people in her village and nearby areas, helping and guiding them through the NRC process. “I along with other volunteers also helped them during the recent hearings. Many people from the community are illiterate. So they need help even with basic stuff like reading notices and filling forms,” she says.
She suspects that she is being targetted because of her NRC-related work.
“Why else would anyone take a two-year-old screenshot and spread it now? At this point in time?,” she asks. Her family is scared for her, she says.
“I come from a small and remote village. My family has never even seen the police. In my area, an FIR against a girl is a very big deal,” she adds.
“I am afraid for my family. Also the news reports of mob lynching and violence that keep pouring in are very scary. But, otherwise, I am not afraid. I have not done anything wrong, so why should I be?,” she asks.
However, Rehna is entirely off social media for now, as she continues to receive hateful and sexually abusive comments.
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