A man was booked for bursting crackers in New Delhi this week. News reports claimed it was the first police case in the capital following the Supreme Court's recent order that permitted bursting of crackers only for two hours during Diwali. The accused, 35-year-old Damandeep Singh, however, was not arrested and was released on bail on the same day.
The first information report (FIR), a copy of which is with Swarajya, has recorded the statement of the complainant, Deenbandhu Kumar. Kumar, 39, occupies the second floor of a six-storey apartment in Mayur Vihar Phase-3 while Damandeep Singh lives on the third. Kumar's statement says he objected to Singh's children bursting crackers in front of his house but they didn't stop. Around 8.30 pm when Singh returned from office, he too joined his children and insisted that his children will burst crackers outside Kumar's house only. That's when the latter dialled 100.
The FIR further says that the police arrived and inspected the site, and took away samples of the burst crackers lying on the floor in sealed plastic packets. As bursting of crackers was in violation of Supreme Court's October order, an FIR was filed under Section 188 of the IPC (disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servant) against Singh.
The case sparked angry reactions on social media, with users even likening it to the condition of Hindus under Mughal ruler Aurangzeb. Some called it "excessive use of force", some questioned why mosques flouting norms on loudspeaker are being given a free hand. Some others wondered that if parents can be booked for their children bursting crackers, why can't they be slapped with cases when their children pelt stones on army officers or join terrorist groups.
But while outrage was brewing on social media, complainant Deenbandhu Kumar himself was blissfully unaware of the case's "anti-Hindu" undertones and the larger debate on SC's cracker ban ruling when this correspondent called him on the phone on Monday afternoon. In fact, the first question he asked was, "What is the fuss all about? I am getting a lot of calls. It's not that big a case."
At the onset, Kumar, who works for a private courier company, said that the case "is not related to Diwali and not about crackers either".
It is about harassment, he said, and narrated the incident: "I was out all day and returned around 7.30 pm, only to find his [Singh's] son bursting crackers on the stairs. I told him to do it outside his house, but he didn't listen to me. I asked him to call his mother so I could talk to her, but she didn't turn up. We decided to ignore the noise. But when Damandeep returned around 8.30 and started doing the same, I could no longer sit inside. I confronted them and we had a spat. He and his wife continued to behave badly even when other neighbours arrived at the spot. After a while I was tired and could not handle it. So I dialled 100 and called the police."
Kumar says the police arrived about one-and-a-half hours later and that too after making eight calls.
Asked why he says this case is not about crackers or Diwali, Kumar said the background is important. "They are Punjabis and they have a problem with us as we are from Bihar. They derogatorily call my wife Biharan and constantly trouble us," he said. The bursting of crackers outside his house was an extension of this "harassment", he said.
"They can burst crackers anywhere. Even my children will burst them when they grow up. But one shouldn't harass others," he said.
Kumar said he gave his statement to the police, signed it and returned home. It was later that he read in news reports that his neighbour had been booked for illegally buying and using firecrackers. "Mujhe wo sab nahi pata (I don't know about all that)," he simply said, and added that as far as he is concerned, it was a scuffle turned ugly where he was "left with no option but to call the police".
On the other hand, Damandeep Singh's wife Meeta Gupta has a different version of the events that transpired. Gupta told Swarajya that Deenbandhu Kumar and his wife Sangeeta used her son bursting crackers an an excuse to get back at them. Like Kumar, Gupta also insisted that the episode has a "background" to it. "We have a common submersible pump for water. They [Kumar's family] always have issues with the water bill which needs to be split. They always accuse us of wasting water and Sangeeta vents her ire on my eight-year-old son," she said. Gupta also said that Kumar's family has a problem with them "as we are Punjabis".
Gupta said her husband has been wrongly named as the accused as he was not even present at the house when the spat took place. "My husband arrived only later. It was when I complained to him that Sangeeta had damaged our Diwali lights that he went out to confront them. We both said things to each other but we never imagined they would go so far as calling the police," she said.
Gupta said she is aghast they have “been targetted for an activity as harmless as bursting crackers". She said she had read about the ban on crackers sale and use in newspapers but had decided that small crackers would cause no trouble. Gupta sent this correspondent videos of other children in the colony bursting crackers on Monday evening and asked that if doing so was illegal, why her son was being singled out. "Why don't they call the police for all these other children? The truth is, they have a problem with my son only," she said.
These accounts reveal that at the heart of the case is a petty personal dispute, something that is not uncommon in multicultural residential societies in metros. But by making mere bursting of a cracker - an act of joy and celebration - into a criminal act, the judiciary has opened a Pandora's box by facilitating people to settle personal scores using the law.
Advocate J Sai Deepak, who has argued in Supreme Court against a blanket ban on crackers on behalf of civil liberties group Indic Collective, told Swarajya that this case shows why some issues shouldn't see involvement of the judiciary. "The firecracker judgement exposes the problems with and limitations of the judicial intervention into issues which call for community participation and executive decision-making," he said.
"The directions contained in the judgement are ambiguous, which have necessitated clarifications. Also, the directions burden an already burdened police with duties which take away their attention for core and law and order issues,” he said.
The challenge of enforcing such a judgement is evident from the Mayur Vihar case. While Supreme Court has allowed "green crackers" to be sold and burst for two hours on Diwali days, the forensic laboratory that was handed the collected samples, has told the media they do not have a way yet to find out if the accused was bursting green crackers or not in the absense of clear standards for identification.
Sai also expressed concerns over the effect of such "frivolous" police cases. "While the petitioners' prayer for a blanket ban on manufacture and sale of firecrackers has been denied by the Supreme Court, the judgement of the court, the ambiguous restrictions on use of firecrackers are certainly bound to have a chilling effect on the users, which will inevitably facilitate the slow death of the industry," he said.
The IPC section 188 that has been applied in the case has a provision of six-month jail sentence. After Mayur Vihar case, the Delhi police have booked several more people for possessing crackers.
As per reports, the police are also in the process of booking the Ghaziabad supplier who sold crackers to Damandeep Singh. His wife, Meeta Gupta, meanwhile told Swarajya that her son won’t be bursting anymore crackers, “not even a phuljhadi”, on this Diwali even as other children in the colony are continuing to do so.
Swati Goel Sharma is a senior editor at Swarajya. She tweets at @swati_gs.
An appeal from Swarajya
At Swarajya, we rely on our readers' support through subscriptions to sustain our media platform. Unlike larger conglomerates, we are unable to relentlessly chase advertising money — our model is largely built on your patronage.
Your support has never been more crucial. We work tirelessly to deliver 10-15 high-quality articles daily, ensuring you receive insightful content from 7 AM to 10 PM.
If you believe India's story has to be articulated in a way it has never been done before without shrugging it off, become a patron (or) subscribe now for ₹̶2̶4̶0̶0̶ ₹1999 and get 12 print issues, unlimited digital access for 1 year, a special India that is Bharat T-shirt (Offer ends soon).
We are counting on you!