IN JULY, ONE BABLOO Khan, a small-time glass artisan from Bisauli, Uttar Pradesh, uploaded a selfie on Facebook. There was a digital frame around the photograph—of a Pakistani flag with text on top. It said, ‘I support Pakistan’. Two weeks on, the Bisauli police turned up at his workshop, took him to the local police station and charged him with sedition. The magistrate court placed him in judicial custody for 14 days, the maximum permitted. A probe was initiated against some 20 others who had ‘liked’ or commented on Khan’s picture. This wasn’t an isolated incident, said the police. Only three months ago, they had charged 60 people for a similarly ‘seditious’ act of waving the Pakistani flag at an Eid procession.
While clearly provocative, the use of ‘sedition’ charges in both these cases seemed questionable. India hasn’t formally declared Pakistan an enemy state. Even after Prime Minister Narendra Modi called it a “mothership of terrorism” last October, the Home Ministry opposed a bill in the Rajya Sabha that sought to officially label Pakistan a ‘terrorist state’. The Indian chapter of Amnesty International, which has repeatedly called for the colonial-era law to be repealed, said earlier this year that a charge of sedition ‘has no place in a rights-respecting society, let alone one that has a proud tradition of pluralism and debate.’
The Bisauli police didn’t seem to think so. The law penalises attempts ‘to bring hatred, or excite disaffection towards the government’, a description they say can be used to charge those expressing support for a country like Pakistan. But why did so many residents of Bisauli,a semi-urban town in Badaun district of UP, seem to have developed a soft corner for Pakistan in recent months? Didn’t they know they were courting trouble, given the prevailing tensions between the two countries? Hadn’t they heard about the Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka police charging 19 men with sedition for celebrating Pakistan’s cricket win over India in June? Or of former MP Ramya being similarly booked for simply calling Pakistan a “good country, not hell” last August?
There was only one way to find out.
RAJESH KUMAR KASHYAP, the benign-faced head of Bisauli police station, seems pleased with himself. Only minutes ago, he helped reunite a husband who had run away from his wife’s place, hoping to eventually get a divorce. “You should celebrate over sweets,” he told the couple’s parents as the husband stood forlorn. They chuckled politely. “I mean it,” said Kashyap, and they scurried to the local halwai. Minutes later, the two families hugged each other awkwardly, and the sub-inspector bit into a cube of kalakand.
“That boy might run away again,” Kashyap says after the families take his leave, “but I can’t give a guarantee for that, can I?”
For all such restraint, Kashyap had had no hesitation in assuring me an audience with Babloo Khan. Wasn’t he in jail, I had asked, a day before I booked tickets from Mumbai to Badaun on August 10th. Yes, but you only need permission from the district’s Chief Judicial Magistrate, he’d replied. Once you submit a written request, it should take a maximum of 30 minutes to get an answer.
But the CJM, collector’s office, district police chief and superintendent of Badaun prison each had told me the responsibility lies with the other. Finally, Kailashpati Tripathi, the superintendent, told me that he couldn’t take forward my application as he has misplaced the government directives explaining the process. “I want to help,” he’d implored, “but I just can’t seem to find them.”
How long would it take, I’d asked. “Some time,” he’d said. “Certainly not within the time you are in town”—nearly a week.
Back in Bisauli, Kashyap invites me to a round of chai and pakoras . This has always been a backward area, he tells me, a place mainly of the poor and uneducated. Earlier a Samajwadi Party stronghold, the recently concluded state elections saw BJP MLAs winning five of its six seats, riding on anti-incumbency, a pro-development pitch and communal rhetoric. Save for a marginal improvement in the supply of electricity, little has changed in terms of living conditions, infrastructure or work ethic since. You’ll find that people still squat on roadsides waiting for public transport (timings: “once in an hour or thrice in a minute”), temples and mosques are far better maintained than most schools and hospitals, and tasks in administrative offices often need incentives beyond a monthly paycheck. A senior official would later confess he wakes up every day hoping to receive transfer orders. There is, however, one visible change: a lot more banners for Hindu awakening, upcoming rath yatras and religious sermons.
Khan’s family says it’s not unusual to find fans of Pakistani cricket in Bisauli, but supporting the country beyond the game only because of a shared faith is wrong
“We had received a tip-off about the photo from our higher authorities,” says Kashyap, recounting how Babloo Khan’s arrest unfolded. These higher-ups had been alerted by the Bajrang Dal, whose members had taken screenshots of Babloo’s Facebook profile and threatened to protest publicly if no action was taken. The police tracked the profile to a glass-shop owner, a reedy 20-year-old.
What had he done wrong, Khan asked them blank-faced. They showed him his Facebook profile. You live in India and yet want to support Pakistan? But he didn’t mean it, Khan wept. His friends had told him it looked good. Once it was up, 20 of them even ‘liked’ the photograph. But once he started receiving flak from others, including an angry emoji, he’d changed it. Look, now he was only wearing a red shirt and sunglasses.
“He said he didn’t have any other motives,” says the sub-inspector. Their subsequent investigations didn’t reveal anything incriminatory either.
So why was he charged with sedition?
Such words of support to Pakistan, according to Kashyap, fall under the legal definition of “exciting disaffection” in India. “When you stay in India, work in India, you can’t do such things.”
Does this apply to ‘I Love NY’ t-shirts popular across India? Or those ‘Je Suis Charlie’ digital frames from a few years ago, expressing support for France?
No, says Kashyap. The buck stops with Pakistan.
DURING THE EID procession in Bisauli last December, one of the revellers was recorded waving a flag with a white crescent-and-star on green. As the video went viral, Muslim community leaders met senior police officials along with the culprits and had them apologise. The police filed an FIR against ‘50-60 unknown persons’ for ‘defiling a place of worship with intent to insult religion’. No one was arrested. After all, it was said, the video was shot from a distance and the faces of those waving the flag were unclear.
“At the time, it was still Samajwadi Party rule. The Yadav- Muslim combine held sway,” Ghanshyamdas Gupta, the local leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, told me at his sweet-shop in Bisauli’s crowded market street. Nearly 3,000 people turned up at a march he had organised. Instead of arresting the flag-wavers as the protestors had intended, the police booked many of those marching for ‘hurting religious sentiments’.
“Then came the BJP government,” says Gupta, referring to the state elections in March. He called up Sadhvi Prachi, an influential leader of the VHP, infamous for her Islamophobia and a role in the 1992 Babri Masjid demolition. She, in turn, called up the Badaun district magistrate. Soon after, the police arrested Salman, a tailor, and a minor, both from Bisauli. They also added an additional charge of sedition in the initial FIR. The police deny political pressure— the district superintendent of police told me the arrests were made at the instructions of the trial court. “That’s not true,” says Gupta. “I visited the police station five times myself.”
Speak to the locals, and a third version emerges. In this telling, the two accused persons are naive and temperamental (“One of them even peed on the walls of a mosque once”), with no sense of what their actions might lead to. Sher Mohammad, an uncle of Salman whom I met at his sari-shop, said that the arrests came soon after his nephew confronted two Hindu boys over a video the latter had made abusing Muslims. The two groups had got into a scrape. The police arrested them both, and this time, also charged Salman and a friend with sedition.
Sher Mohammed is cagey—if not outright dismissive—of his nephew’s actions and intent. He plays down his flag-waving antics, the possibility of communal tensions on the rise, or the popular narrative that labels some Muslims as supporters of Pakistan because of a shared religion. “I don’t know why they would think we sympathise with Pakistan,” he raves at one point. “Din raat bawaal bana rehta hai wahaan (Chaos is the only constant there).”
For the two to four Indian soldiers who die every day, their kids are orphans, their wives are crying. If you like Pakistan, that’s shameful. You might like it but you can’t say it” - Ghanshyamdas Gupta Bisauli head, VHP
Earlier this August, Gupta’s Bajrang Dal associates informed him of another Muslim chap who seemed to have declared allegiance to Pakistan. After checking Babloo Khan’s Facebook profile, Gupta notified a friend in the local crime branch. This time, the arrest was made swiftly.
So how does an apparently pro-Pakistan stand equal anti- India? Even Sunny Deol’s character in Gadar had said “Pakistan zindabad” to curry favour with his father-in-law from across the border. “Ask the two to four Indian soldiers who die every day,” says Gupta. “Their kids are orphans, wives are crying, fathers and mothers are crying, the whole village is going hungry. Yet if you like Pakistan, that’s shameful. You might like it but you can’t say it.” It’s not an original answer, but one meant in earnest.
At one point in our conversation, Gupta chuckles. He’s remembered something. When India had beaten Pakistan in a cricket match last year, a Virat Kohli fan from Pakistan was arrested for hoisting the tricolour in appreciation. He was sentenced for 10 years.
“And this guy had done nothing!” says Gupta. I agree. “But India should do it too,” he adds quickly. “Otherwise there will be lots of disturbances.”
A couple of days after our first meeting, two men show up at my hotel room around 10.30 pm and start asking questions: who are you really, why are you in Bisauli, why did you ask all those questions of Ghanshyamdas Gupta from the VHP? I refuse to budge. After much insistence, they call Gupta and ask him to join us. He admits the two are his acquaintances: “I tried telling them you were a decent guy, but they said I should confirm your identity.”
A long round of questions follow. Finally, the trio look satisfied. “These are bad times we live in,” one of them says, “You know, things are not quite right at the border...”
THE PARANOIA OF the complainants seems to extend to the other side too. Hamid Khan, brother of Babloo Khan, switches off his cellphone as soon as I introduce myself. His uncle, more willing to hear me out, helps set up a meeting with him later. We sit in the rickety chairs in the courtyard of a government office complex in Bisauli. Hamid apologises. He had panicked, he says sheepishly.
The Khans are residents of Naglapurva, some 50 km from Bisauli. To reach it, you cut through dusty roads with lush wheat fields on sides, and hope people point you in the right direction, for there are no signposts to be seen. Its poverty and lack of basic amenities—schools, dispensaries, stable electricity connections, clean, motorable roads—rankle residents. “It’s like we’re a gateway to a graveyard,” one of them tells me later.
Fourth of five siblings, Babloo was forced to abandon his studies in the eighth grade after his farmer father could no longer afford the fees. His friends went to Delhi and Shimla in search of work, and Babloo joined his elder brother’s glass workshop in the neighbouring Sambhal district. The siblings worked up to 10 hours a day, and once they opened another workshop for Babloo in Bisauli, there was little time for much else, not even Facebook.
It’s not unusual to find fans of Pakistan, says Hamid. You most often see them coming out when India plays against them in cricket. But supporting them beyond the game, only because of a shared faith, is wrong. “Pakistan is Pakistan,” he says. “If it bombs India, it’s not like we [Muslims] will be unscathed. We too are its enemies.”
When we meet, Hamid has only just returned from a meeting with his brother in jail. Babloo is holding up much better now, he tells me. In a prison of 1,907 inmates, four times the sanctioned capacity, his brother shares his cell with 156 people. He’s learnt to gulp down the watery colours they serve as dal twice a day, spend his afternoons watching television and steel his nerves every time someone calls him a deshdrohi (traitor). One should be punished for uploading such a photo as provocative, says Hamid, but only if the person had done it wittingly. Babloo had never imagined what using an inappropriate Facebook frame could do.
Hamid’s words resonate when I meet Rajiv Arya, Bisauli’s Bajrang Dal chief, later that evening. Arya, a beefy man in his twenties, is wearing a slim-fit tee with swastikas, with the photograph of the man who made it infamous. I ask if he knows who the man is. Gandhi maybe, someone offers, and is shot down. (“It’s someone foreign. That’s why I bought it.”) Hitler, is it, says another. There is some frantic googling. “Yes,” the Bajrang Dal chief beams. “Hitler it is.”
AS INDEPENDENCE DAY approaches, biker gangs start doing their rounds in Badaun, thumbs jammed on their horns, yelling “Bharat Mata ki jai” at the top of their voices. By now, the UP government had directed state-funded madrassas to hold cultural programmes and sing the national anthem on the occasion of August 15th, asking for video recordings as proof of it.
As songs of pride, valour and sacrifice of the soldiers and freedom fighters start playing from racks of speakers, you know that patriotism, for some, is measured in decibels. At 5.30 pm, the Bisauli unit of the RSS had organised a rally marking 70 years of Indian independence. Nearly 100 people turn up, mostly men wearing khakis, holding the tricolour. As we walk around the town, kids join in, mothers peek out of their balconies, even cows look up from their ruminations. The crowd swells, and chants of ‘Hindustan zindabad’ fill the narrow lanes of Bisauli. A gang of bikers in it follow it up with ‘Pakistan murdabad’.
That evening, I mention these chants to the organiser of the rally and deputy head of Bisauli RSS, Tejendra Singh. It wasn’t the doing of the Sangh, he assures me. Interestingly, while none of the bystanders had joined in these chants, none of them stopped the group either.
It was a strange echo of Ghanshyamdas Gupta’s reflection on the incident of the green-and-white flag being waved last Eid: “But it would have been heartening if community members had protested themselves, if they had caught the boys, beaten him up and set the flag on fire,” he had said. “The troublemakers are usually only 20 per cent, but here, the rest 80 per cent support them.