New Delhi: Balvinder Singh, a farmer from Uttar Pradesh’s Pilibhit, was among the thousands of protesters at Delhi’s Ghazipur border. The 32-year-old went “missing” from the protest site, and was later found dead at a Delhi hospital. According to the police, he died in a road accident on January 25. He was cremated on February 3.
Days after his cremation, Balvinder’s wife and brother were charged with “insulting the national flag”. Why? Because during his funeral in his village, Bhopatpur, those attending had wrapped Balvinder’s body in the tricolour, as a sign of respect.
Jasveer Kaur and Gurvinder Singh have been charged under Section 2 of the Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act, which states, “Whoever in any public place or in any other place within public view burns, mutilates, defaces, defiles, disfigures, destroys, tramples upon or otherwise shows disrespect to or brings into contempt (whether by words, either spoken or written, or by acts) the Indian National Flag or the Constitution of India or any part thereof, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years, or with fine, or with both.”
According to Gurvinder, the tricolour was used because the villagers believed Balvinder to be a martyr, like all the nearly 200 farmers and others who have lost their lives during the recent protests. He told The Wire that since the family was distraught, all the preparations for the funeral were done by other villagers. “Humein toh khud ko sambhalna hi mushkil ho raha tha. Gaun walon ne antim sanskar ka intazam kia tha (We could barely hold ourselves together. The villagers organised the last rites),” Gurvinder said.
Ashutosh Raghuvanshi, SHO of Seramau Uttari/North police station, confirmed to The Wire that an FIR has been filed. “We told the family that the boy died in an accident, even shared the local FIR, but they still went ahead with treating his funeral as if it were that of a martyr by placing a flag on the body,” Raghuvanshi said. “But there are rules and regulations on how to use the flag.”
According to him, police took cognisance of the incident after seeing a video of the funeral in a news report. Raghuvanshi also told The Wire that arrests were not made under such charges, though the legal section does allow for both arrests and fines.
Under a 2003 amendment to the Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act, it has been clarified that using the flag at funerals that are not state or military funerals counts as an “insult”. Section 2(d) includes “using the Indian National Flag as a drapery in any form whatsoever except in State Funerals or armed forces or other para- military forces funerals” as “disrespect” to the Indian national flag.
That doesn’t mean, though, that we haven’t seen the flag being used in other funerals that don’t come under the legitimate list provided by the Act – but police action hasn’t always as forthcoming.
In October 2016, when Ravin Sisodia, one of the accused in the Dadri lynching case, died of Chikungnya, residents of Bisada, Uttar Pradesh wrapped his body in the national flag. Not only that, but Bharatiya Janata Party ministers and other right-wing leaders were present at the funeral, and pictures of the body draped in the tricolour were widely available on social media. Sisodia was one of several men charged with the 2015 murder of Mohammed Akhlaq over false accusations of cow slaughter.
At the time, several legal and constitutional experts had pointed out that this constituted a violation of the Flag Code of India, 2002. However, no action appears to have been taken by the police – even though reports at the time mentioned that the police were aware of the issue, and mulled whether an FIR should be filed.
The law is clear on who can – and can’t – use the tricolour at a funeral. The Uttar Pradesh police, though, seems to have different ideas.
Note: An earlier version of this article erroneously stated that the police said Balvinder Singh passed away on February 1.