Will SC ruling on National Anthem in theaters give rise to vigilantes?
A Supreme Court judgment on a PIL recently stated that cinema halls across the country must play the National Anthem before the cinema starts and during that time the audience must stand and pay due respect. A two bench judiciary of Justice Dipak Misra and Amitava Roy stated that it was time that people of this nation were reminded of their duty to show due love to the nation and one way of doing it would be singing the National Anthem every time one goes to cinema halls and hence remember the legacy of our nation’s struggles.
The apex court of India has in many instances intervened in a progressive way. The judiciary, through judicial activism, has time and again tried to fill the lacunae left by the other two organs of the government – the executive and the legislature. However, such activism has often been critiqued as judicial overreach and interference in the sphere of other organs. Nonetheless the Supreme Court has played a proactive role and responded through PILs and SALs to deliver in favour of the common people.
In simple understanding, loyalty and allegiance to one’s nation is expected of one and all. Fundamental duties also cite that citizens should respect the national symbols and inculcate amongst themselves feelings of unity and integrity. But a closer look at this entire episode of Supreme Court’s ruling will bring forth some problematic areas. To start with nationalism or patriotism in common sense are feelings of belongingness that people feel towards their country. It loosely comprises of love and respect for the nation’s legacy and an allegiance to its sovereignty. Nonetheless giving an exhaustive definition of patriotism is difficult.
And more difficult is imposing such an emotion. Rulings of the apex court come with a certain weight. Can somebody be forced to be respectful towards any particular idea? Can emotions be quantified? National Anthem is played during international sports events, diplomatic events, national days etc where there is a question of showing respect to the nation. It is played in assembly lines in schools because schools are grounds of inculcating civic values amongst students. For many, playing it in cinema halls where people go to relax and be entertained, will be degrading the anthem. It might even trivialize the issue, make it a banal exercise and even dilute the emotions attached to it.
Another problem is how this entire imposition will be implemented. National Anthem must be finished within 52 seconds. Will there be police force in the cinema halls to ensure that people stand when it is played, sing along correctly and finish it within stipulated time? Doors are supposed to be closed so that nobody walks in or go out when the anthem is being played. This brought to the minds of many the tragic Uphaar incident when during the screening of the film Border, a fire broke out and almost 58 people were burned to death because doors were closed. Many were left injured because of inhaling too much smoke.
This practice of playing the National Anthem was in place earlier as well. Post 1962 Indo-China war, this process was started. But slowly, as more and more people started avoiding it and stay out till the anthem was over, it was later discontinued. However, two decades later in response to a PIL, it was restarted in Maharashtra. Even in Goa, the National Anthem is played before cinema starts. However in October, the nation watched with utter disgust as Salil Chaturvedi, a disability activist was physically assaulted by a couple for being unable to stand up during the National Anthem. One is left wondering if the judgment would give respite to those who are physically incapable of standing up and showing due respect to the anthem.
From the problems of implementing, let us move to discuss the rationale provided behind such a decision. The judgment categorically states that individual rights cannot be cited in the context of respecting national symbols. According to many, this is tantamount to putting forth a rigid narrow manifestation of love for one’s nation. Forcing someone to take part in it is denying him the right to not publicly make a show of his patriotic feelings and hence violating his fundamental rights. This is also being seen as a case of judicial overreach. While our judiciary continues to be burdened by a large number of pending cases, this proactive judgment for many is indulging in competitive patriotism with the government. This in turn puts in place some absurd bench of patriotism where one has to wear one’s loyalty on their sleeves.
The feeling of patriotism should not be merely expressed in solidarity but also enjoyed in solitude. Anything that is coerced has a diminishing marginal utility. One is left wondering if nationalism coerced will also lose its importance. The irony remains that the Maharashtra ex CM who imposed the playing of national anthem is in jail on corruption charges. How do we ensure that people who immediately stand up for the anthem will be compassionate towards the poor and will not indulge in corruption? Explicit show of patriotism is being traded as a panacea for all ils plaguing the country. Emotional appeals are made which diverts attention from important issues.
The greatest danger of such a judgment is the free hand that it will give to self appointed vigilantes. It will strengthen cultural conservatives who do not take to different opinions well. They will take it upon themselves to impose this act of standing up. In Mumbai a South African woman denied to stand up when the national anthem was played. As a result she and her Indian boyfriend were harassed. What is dangerous is that violent acts of many will stand justified as they were committed ‘for the love of nation’.
Michael Billig in his book Banal Nationalism published in 1995 stated that most liberal democratic countries use national symbols in subtle ways in the daily lives of their citizens to reproduce a sense of allegiance to the nation. He gave an example of France’s national flag’s picture on loaves of bread. But why would a working democracy whip up a frenzy in the name of patriotism? One is left wondering if it is just a diversion from the internal crisis that the country is going through which has been aggravated by the latest policy of demonetization.
As a democracy matures, patriotism must metamorphose into hopes and aspirations for policies that would lead to the betterment of the nation. Holding every citizen a potential anti-national, until proven otherwise by a superficial is taking two steps back. While the danger of conflating the government of the day into the nation is lurking large, narrow nationalist chauvinism from the land of Tagore is unsettling at the least.