At the local Intelligence Unit (LIU) office in Kotwali Police Station in Mathura’s Kotwali Road area, three policemen who don’t want to be identified sit mulling over a packet of 99 balloons, that is currently at the centre of an investigation that began with a ‘Bharat Milap’ mela in the town’s Kosi Kalan area and has now gone up to Delhi and Mumbai — and, maybe, “China”.
What set them off on this search was a post that started doing the rounds of social media on October 21 about a balloon, with ‘I Love Pakistan’ and a moon and stars imprinted on it, being sold at the mela. The Kotwali police set off for the gathering, that routinely draws a lakh people, immediately, “removed” a man called Sattar from the spot, questioned him and let him go. What is left behind is the 100-balloon packet, minus apparently the one offending balloon.
One policeman among the three claims they have checked each balloon in the packet, pulling one out to show that all they have found written on a handful so far is ‘Happy Birthday’. Another, the seniormost, sees a ‘foreign hand’. He tells the group to turn around the packet and note the sticker. As the first one does so, his eyes widen and he says loudly that the sticker says ‘Made in China’. The third policeman offers reluctantly, “Sir, China toh bohot deshon ke liye aise products banata hai. China mein toh Pakistan ke liye bhi balloons bante honge. Shaayad mix ho gaya hoga (Sir, China makes ballons for so many countries. Even for Pakistan. Maybe the balloons meant for Pakistan got mixed in this packet).”
But the senior, who is convinced about a ‘conspiracy’, is unmoved. “I feel this is China’s doing. These kind of balloons have also been found in the past in other places. This is not a mistake or hasn’t happened by chance. I feel China is doing this to offend us and create trouble in our country… Wherever the balloons are being manufactured is where these slogans are being printed.”
Confirming they are investigating the case of the balloon and will continue to do so, Babloo Kumar, SSP, Mathura, says police are looking at “all possible angles”. “We were informed over the phone by someone who was at the mela that such a balloon was being sold. We recovered the balloon from the spot and questioned one person. We are following the supply chain of the balloon and are probing accordingly… We will continue probing the case.”
As for the China angle, Kumar says, “I don’t know if the packet of balloons had such a sticker which said ‘Made in China’.”
A senior LIU officer is not very clear why they zeroed in on Sattar at the mela that day, adding they questioned him, confiscated his balloons and let him go. “Sattar told us he had bought the balloons from Bhagwan Das’s shop in the Kotwali Road market. We went to the shop and questioned the owner and checked the shop. We did not find a single balloon with anything objectionable written on it.”
Eating lunch at his small shop, Bhagwan Das insists, “The balloon that was being sold at the mela was not from our shop. Sattar does buy balloons from us, but that batch of balloons was not from here. We don’t sell printed balloons. We only sell plain balloons with no prints. The police team did not find a single balloon like that at my shop.”
Since Das told them he buys his stock from a shop in Delhi’s Sadar Bazaar, police placed a call to it. An officer says the Delhi shopkeeper in turn told them he buys his balloon stock from a shop at Dahanu Road near Mumbai. “We have asked LIU teams to check with the shopkeeper in Mumbai, and it will be done.”
The shopkeeper in Delhi, Sachin, who says he has been selling balloons and toys for 40 years, told The Sunday Express, “We don’t make the balloons. All the items with ‘Made in China’ written on them come sealed from Mumbai. That mela balloon could not have come from my shop.”
Sattar lives with his wife Sana and eight-month-old son in a two-room rented house in Mathura’s Jaisinghpura area, sharing it with his brother-in-law, his family and children.
Sana asks how Sattar, who is out selling balloons at another gathering, a Valmiki Jayanti mela, could be the man police want, adding that he can’t read and write. “He has never gone to school. So, how could he read what is written on balloons? He just fills air and sells them at markets and melas,” says the 22-year-old. Sattar, 24, and she got married in 2016.
Pointing out that Sattar barely makes Rs 200-Rs 300 a day, and a little more during melas, Sana adds, “We are scared now. Our landlady has asked us to vacate the house by the end of this month after the incident.”
Sattar’s brother-in-law Anish, who works as a daily wage labourer, says they fear backlash from the neighbourhood. “Most of the families living in this lane are Hindus. We don’t want trouble and will vacate soon and find a new place.”
Salim, 51, another balloon seller, who lives in the same area, says he was at the mela when the controversy broke. “I don’t know how police got to know about some balloon being sold with pro-Pakistan slogans and flag. I did not see the balloon. I don’t think anybody did.”
Salim goes on to wonder if there ever was such a balloon. “It was someone’s mischief. Photos can be edited these days. Maybe someone uploaded a fake picture on social media to create trouble. I don’t know.”
While SSP Kumar insists they are “sure that it was not a case of fake news and the picture was not photoshopped because we recovered the balloon”, police are tightlipped on where the balloon is now. Both Sana and Salim claim to have heard that, while being taken away by police, “the balloon apparently burst”.