On Tuesday, two days after Pakistan defeated India in the Champions League final, residents of Kumbadaje, a sleepy village in Kerala’s Kasargod district woke up to the news that the police had filed cases against 23 young men for allegedly celebrating Pakistan’s win.

The men were charged with unlawful assembly, rioting, intent to cause riot and under the section relating to “negligent conduct with respect to explosive substance”.

But unlike in Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka – where 21 people were arrested for sedition for allegedly shouting “pro-Pakistan” and “anti-India” slogans and bursting crackers after match – the Kerala police have not yet made any arrests.

Sub Inspector Ambadi of Badiyadka police station said cases have been registered against Razak Chakkula, Mashood and Siraj and 20 other “unknown persons” based on the complaint filed by a local Bharatiya Janata Party official named Rajesh Shetty.

He said the police are now trying to ascertain the veracity of the complaint. “There is no eyewitness to the incident,” Ambadi said. “It is not clear whether the crackers were burst to celebrate Pakistan’s victory or for some other purpose. Moreover, no one heard slogan shouting.”

However, Shetty claimed he had witnessed the celebrations. “I was returning home when I saw a group of people bursting crackers,” he said. “I do not follow cricket, so I didn’t know the reason for their celebration. After reaching home, I realised that they were celebrating Pakistan’s cricket victory. They were shouted anti-India slogans.”

Asked why he did not inform the police then, he claimed he did not know what was going on. “That is why I filed the complaint on Monday,” he explained.

Kumbadaje gram panchayat is home to 12,545 people, mostly Hindus and Muslims. The panchayat is ruled by the United Democratic Front, a multi-party coalition led by the Congress and the Indian Union Muslim League that won seven of the 13 wards in the last election in 2015. The BJP won the other six wards. Fathimath Suhara of the Indian Union Muslim League
is president of the grama panchayat.

At least 15 people have been arrested in Madhya Pradesh for allegedly cheering Pakistan's victory. Photo credit: HT

Under a cloud

Kumbadaje has no history of communal violence but the BJP is determined to change that, alleged Suhara, and Shetty’s complaint is proof of that. “I enquired about the incident in my personal capacity,” she said. “It is true that a group of youngsters burst crackers that night. But it was not to celebrate Pakistan’s victory. Youngsters in Kasargod get together on Ramzan nights and start bursting firecrackers a few days before Eid.”

Suhara added, “It is a lie they raised anti-India slogans. The BJP is trying to vitiate the atmosphere and polarise the society communally.”

She also claimed that one of the accused men, Razak Chakkula, “was not even present” in the village when the incident supposedly took place. “He is working in the Gulf,” she said.

However, Shetty insisted he saw Razak on Sunday night. “I am sure Razak was present in the crowd,” he said. “That is why I mentioned his name in my complaint.”

A police official familiar with the investigation said on the condition of anonymity, because he was not authorised to speak publicly, that they could not verify Razak’s presence in the locality at the time of the incident.

Independent observers say that the police should have acted quickly to clear the air. Abdul Mujeeb, chief editor of Kasargod Vartha, a popular Malayalam online news portal in Kasargod, found fault with the police for complicating matters. “The police should have acted quickly to establish whether the incident actually happened,” he said. “I think they have erred in discharging their duties.”

Suhara hoped the accused youngsters would not be victimised anymore. “All of them are in their early 20s, and they have to look after their families,” she said. “I have told the police officials to conduct a counselling sessions on law for all youngsters in the panchayat.”

But Shetty said his party will intensify the agitation if the police fails to slap sedition charges on the accused. “They are anti-nationals and they should be punished,” he said.

Arrests draw condemnation

Meanwhile, Amnesty International India has condemned the arrest of 19 people in Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka for allegedly celebrating Pakistan’s victory. “These arrests are patently absurd, and the 19 men should be released immediately,” said Asmita Basu, Programmes Director, Amnesty International India. “Even if the arrested men had supported Pakistan, as the police claim, that is not a crime. Supporting a sporting team is a matter of individual choice, and arresting someone for cheering a rival team clearly violates their right to freedom of expression.”

The statement noted that Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code defines sedition as any act or attempt “to bring into hatred or contempt, or…excite disaffection towards the government”. Moreover, the Supreme Court of India has ruled that speech would amount to sedition only if it incites violence or leads to public disorder.

“In a 2015 case, the Court ruled: ‘Mere discussion or even advocacy of a particular cause howsoever unpopular is at the heart of [the right to freedom of expression],’” the statement added.