HE WAS returning home from Muzaffarnagar Railway Station late on August 15 evening when Shahrukh, an unregistered porter at the station, stumbled upon a large Tricolour, apparently abandoned after the Independence Day celebrations. The room he had rented in a half-built brick house, in Rampuri area of Muzaffarnagar, had no door in the front but a tin shade. With the heat unrelenting, Shahrukh thought the flag would provide a perfect screen against the sun for his family of six, including children Farzana (6) and Sahil (2). So the 33-year-old brought the flag home and hung it upside down. It was the perfect length. Hung from a wire used to hang clothes, it reached right down to the ground.
Twenty-one days later, on September 5, police, accompanied by Shiv Sena men, landed at Shahrukh’s door and arrested him for violation of The Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act, 1971.
Shahrukh’s aged parents and his wife Nagma say none of them, including the porter, knew hanging the flag like that was a crime. All the four are illiterate, while Shahrukh’s two children don’t go to school. Shahrukh is the only earning member.
“Mera beta agar jaanta ki usne desh ka apman kiya hai to woh aisa kabhi nahin karta (If my son knew his would was an insult to the country, he would have never done it),” says father Sattar, 57, who has been ailing for long and is bedridden.
Worried for her children, Nagma, 28, says, “My husband is a daily wage earner who earned a little bit of money working as a porter. After his arrest, we were left with no money to meet our daily requirements. Our neighbours arranged food for us.”
The family had moved into the Rampuri house last year, paying a rent of Rs 1,200 per month, which formed a substantial chunk of the Rs 4,000-5,000 Shahrukh earned monthly. The front portion of the room, which got the sun, was open.
Iqbal, a neighbour, accuses the Shiv Sena of blowing up matters. “Whatever Shahrukh did, it was out of ignorance. Police could have given him a stern warning, it would have all been forgotten.”
The office-bearer of the Sena’s Muzaffarnagar unit, Lokesh Saini, lives barely 400 metres from Shahrukh’s house. He is a signatory witness to the FIR filed in the case on behalf of the local Shiv Sena unit, at the Kotwali Police Station. Rejecting the family’s claims, Saini says, “We cannot believe Shahrukh was so illiterate that he could not recognise our national flag. Bodies of our soldiers, who lay down their lives for the honour of the country, are wrapped in this Tricolour, but for Shahrukh, it was just a piece of cloth to protect his family from the sun.”
The Sena is “committed to teach a lesson to people who have no respect for our country”, Saini says.
Adds Jitendra Goswami, the chief of the Sena’s Muzzafarnagar unit, “We had burnt an effigy of Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh for a statement on Kashmir. We had staged a demonstration in protest against the policies of the BJP government at the Centre. We cannot tolerate disrespect to our country and our people.”
The day of Shahrukh’s arrest, the Sena led the way with slogans of “Tirange ka apman, nahin sahega Hindustan (The country will not tolerate disrespect to the national flag)” and “Deshdrohi logon ko, jute maro salon ko (Beat up these traitors with shoes)”. Apart from police, Sena men were accompanied by the local media.
The flag taken off Shahrukh’s home now lies at the Kotwali Police Station. Anil Kaparwan, the in-charge of the station, was part of the police team that went to Shahrukh’s house and brought it down with the help of a colleague. “Shahrukh has disrespected our national honour and has thus been arrested,” Kaparwan says. Adding that the flag would be preserved as it is “material evidence to be produced in court on dates of hearing”, he adds, “We have kept the flag neatly, wrapped with full honour, in the locker of our police station.”
Meanwhile, the house where Shahrukh lived now lies empty, the tin shade sparkling in the sun. Shahrukh came out of bail on September 11. The next day, the family moved out. No one knows where.
But Kaparwan believes it can’t be far. “Though Shahrukh is out on bail, the case will linger on as the Act says that disrespect to the national flag can invite punishment up to three years plus fine.”