One lasting image from the Independence Day celebrations in India was of the Naskara Lower Primary School in lower Assam's Dhubri district, where school teachers and young students, submerged up to their waists, were seen saluting the national flag, as dirty flood waters rippled around the crumbling campus.
The photo opened up an emotional floodgate of nationalistic pride that endures in the face of extreme adversities. The teachers and the students were held up as heroes who put patriotism ahead of comfort to turn up at the submerged school at day break to continue a 15 August tradition that marks the beginning of the day's celebrations — the hoisting of the tri-colour.
Two days later, it seems there's more to the story than meets the eye. Tragedy struck teacher Mizanur Rahman, who was praised for the remarkable gesture, along with his other colleagues, soon after the event.
The Telegraph reported that Rahman's 18-year-old cousin, Rashidul Islam, drowned in Fakirganj, a few hours after the flag-hoisting ceremony. It is unclear whether Islam was present at the school for the ceremony. Four teachers and two students of third grade took part in the event inside the primary school, while others watched from a distance. The kids even sang the national anthem, standing in water that was chest-high for some of them.
It was Rahman who posted the photos on Facebook identifying himself as an assistant teacher of the 1185 No. Naskara LP school under Fakirganj police station in Dhubri. However, it now seems that one of the reasons why the photos — that sparked such nationalistic fervour on social media — were taken, because they had to be sent to Amir Hamza, the cluster resource centre co-ordinator, who would then send it to the block officer, to be forwarded to the education department in Guwahati, according to the paper.
While the motivation takes little away from the effort, serious questions need to be asked of the government that reportedly made it mandatory for schools to record proceedings of the Independence Day functions and send it as proof of participation in a state reeling under devastating floods. The children were not only put at grave risk of drowning, they were left vulnerable to water-borne diseases that inevitably follow flooding.
Incidentally, Dhubri, bordering Bangladesh, is one of the worst-hit districts, with more than 8.3 lakh people affected. The second wave of flood, which began on August 10, has affected 33 lakh people and killed 39 people. Altogether 3000 villages are still submerged, reported the Assam Tribune.
The ministry of human resource development had reportedly issued a circular on 7 August to all states, instructing schools to "organise a set of programmes revolving around Independence Day." The circular, that asked schools to arrange an oath-taking ceremony in which teachers and students would have to promise to rid India of poverty, corruption, terrorism, communalism and casteism by 2022, may have been one of the reasons why the Naskara Lower Primary School teachers were documenting the event. West Bengal had flatly refused to interfere in I-Day programmes set by schools.
The UP government had asked madrasas affiliated to the Uttar Pradesh Madarsa Shiksha Parishad to send photographs and videos of Independence Day event to district minority welfare officers, triggering anger and resentment among the Muslim community, that saw it as a "patriotism test."
By headmaster Tazem Sikdar's own admission, two children, who could not have been more than seven or eight years old and knew how to swim, were picked to wade through the dirty water that came up to their chests, and made to stand in attention, saluting the flag, as their classmates stood at a safe distance about 10 metres away singing the anthem.
"We hoisted the flag, sang Jana Gana Mana and Vande Mataram while the rest of the students followed us from the road. In my 22 years of service, this is the first time we faced flood on Independence Day," Sikdar told the paper.
Rahman's family hoped that the virality of the photo will help bring the focus back on the 484 villages in Dhubri deeply affected by the floods, a yearly phenomenon.
In an emotional Facebook post, Rahman thanked the media for the coverage of the photo.
"I would like to take this oppurtunity to thank all print and electronic media houses for your role in showing our little effort to the whole world. I am extremely overwhelmed by the kind of support you showed on us. I would like to thank all the people of our region, despite of heavy flood, you have not failed to show your true patriotism and love for our great country. This phenomenal success is the reflection of the ever increasing dedication and love for this country. Thank you all once again (sic)," he said.