This week, images of school children braving neck-deep water in Assam to hoist the tricolour on Independence Day went viral. Two days later, workers in a tea garden in the state were booked for disrespecting the national flag. Their offence, reportedly, was to unfurl the tricolour while they chanted slogans and their torsos were bare.

The workers, on the rolls of Bargaon tea garden in Biswanath district, have been charged under the Prevention of Insults to National Honour (Amendment) Act, said Biswanath police chief Diganta Kumar Chaudhury.

The police acted on the complaint of the officer in charge of the Borgang police outpost. Bargaon tea garden falls under the jurisdiction of the Borgang police outpost. “The officer lodged a complaint and we have lodged an FIR [first information report] under section 2 of the Act,” said Chaudhury.

What the law says

Section 2 of the Prevention of Insults to National Honour (Amendment) Act says:

“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.”

Disrespect is defined as:

(a) a gross affront or indignity offered to the Indian National Flag; or

(b) dipping the Indian National Flag in salute to any person or thing; or

(c) flying the Indian National Flag at half-mast except on occasions on which the Flag is flown at half-mast on public buildings in accordance with the instructions issued by the Government; or

(d) using the Indian National Flag as a drapery in any form whatsoever except in state funerals or armed forces or other paramilitary forces funerals; or

(e) #using the Indian National Flag:-

(i) as a portion of costume, uniform or accessory of any description which is worn below the waist of any person; or

(ii) by embroidering or printing it on cushions, handkerchiefs, napkins, undergarments or any dress material; or

(f) putting any kind of inscription upon the Indian National Flag; or

(g) using the Indian National Flag as a receptacle for receiving, delivering or carrying anything except flower petals before the Indian National Flag is unfurled as part of celebrations on special occasions including the Republic Day or the Independence Day; or

(h) using the Indian National Flag as covering for a statue or a monument or a speaker’s desk or a speaker’s platform; or

(i) allowing the Indian National Flag to touch the ground or the floor or trail in water intentionally; or

(j) draping the Indian National Flag over the hood, top, and sides or back or on a vehicle, train, boat or an aircraft or any other similar object; or

(k) using the Indian National Flag as a covering for a building; or

(l) intentionally displaying the Indian National Flag with the “saffron” down.

“They were half-clad, their upper body was naked, and they were shouting slogans,” Chaudhury told about the tea garden workers. However, no arrests have been made yet, the police officer added. “There were almost 300 people involved, including children, so we are ascertaining the facts of the complaints,” he said. “We are investigating the matter.”

‘How is that a crime?’

The workers claimed they were protesting the management’s decision to lock the garden on July 20 after disagreements regarding worker benefits. They had assembled under the umbrella of the Asom Sangrami Cha Shramik Union, a Left-leaning tea workers’ union affiliated to the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation.

Ananta Hazarika, a leader of the party, alleged that the management had failed to honour an agreement signed in August last year under which it was meant to disburse a range of monetary and other benefits to the workers within six months. “When the workers protested, the management locked the garden on July 20,” he said. “Since there is a tradition of celebrating Independence Day in the garden, the workers hoisted the flag outside the garden. How is that a crime?”

According to J Pokhrel, the zonal assistant commissioner of labour, his office tried to intervene by arranging a series of meetings between the management and the workers, but they ended in a stalemate. He said the management insisted on an unconditional apology in writing from the protestors, but the workers refused, saying they had done nothing to apologise for. “The last meeting was on August 4,” Pokhrel said. “After that, we compiled a report and sent it to the government. We can’t force the management to open the garden.”

The management of Bargaon tea garden could not be reached for comment.