On Tuesday night, all Neeraj Pandey wanted to do was to watch the new release Wazir at a multiplex theatre in Goregaon. Instead, he ended the night at the police station.
Pandey, who shares a name with the director of A Wednesday, had gone with two friends for the film at 8.15 pm. When the notice to stand for the national anthem flashed on the screen, his friends stood up. Pandey, however, did not.
“The anthem had not even started and I heard a woman ask from behind, ‘Kaun khada nahi hua, be? [Who hasn’t stood up?] Excuse me, excuse me, why you’re not standing?’” she said.
The woman was in the row behind him with four men. One of those tried to physically lift Pandey to force him to stand. As people began to turn around to watch the scene, another person from a few rows behind called out, “Let the national anthem get over and then we’ll take care of him.”
That night was not the first time Pandey had not stood for the anthem, as he believes standing is a matter of choice. Sometimes he stands, sometimes he does not and sometimes he waits outside the theatre.
He chose to remain seated that night as the anthem played.
That night was, however, the first time that anyone had objected to his actions.
A man in his 50s marched down from his seat and started shouting at Pandey for daring to not stand. Others immediately stood up to defend his choice to sit. People said the movie would not play until Pandey left. The manager came in to attempt to calm people down.
This is when the drama became surreal.
At the height of the tension, more than 40 people crowded around his seat, some ranged against and others for him. There were wild yells of how only a Pakistani would do such a thing and that if he was a Hindustani he would have to stand. When Pandey moved to leave, people shouted at him and told him he was wrong to leave and that he must stay in the theatre because he had done nothing that was wrong.
“I almost felt like laughing,” said Pandey, describing the confusion. “Everybody was shouting at each other in small groups but nobody was listening to each other. I was like, yaar, decide karo, jaana hai ki nahi. [Decide whether I am supposed to go or not].”
The situation intensified when someone Pandey described as a
“deshbhakt” grandly announced that he had called the police.
A social problem
The incident, Pandey felt, did not show any lapses on the police’s part or of the system at all.
“The problem here is a social problem,” Pandey said. “I did not break any laws. These people who wanted me to leave probably went home and were happy for a few hours thinking I had gotten into trouble.”
The larger issue, he felt, is how people express their patriotism.
“Friends have been asking me why do I provoke people like this,” Pandey said. “But this is like asking girls why they go to gullies [streets] where boys will harass them. At the time people litter, there is no deshbhakti [patriotism]. These people did not know who I am, what I do or what I think. But this is how people’s gundagardi [hooliganism] comes out.”
Yet Pandey said that too much should not be made out of this.
“Unlike the incident in Kurla which involved a Muslim family, a writer friend of mine pointed out that I am an upper middle-class Hindu Brahmin,” he said. “So this is not a situation of victimisation here, nor is it a hero case. This is just an incident that has happened.”
On Wednesday, all five went for the film. This time, Pandey waited outside the hall until the national anthem was over.