Opinion: The National Anthem case was bound to fail. This is why.

It used to be compulsory for cinema halls to play the national anthem in the 60s -- and people by and large stood for it. But the practice faded away over time. Photograph:( Getty )

New Delhi, Delhi, India Jan 11, 2018, 12.21 PM (IST) Gaurav Gupta

In a complete reversal from its earlier Order, the Supreme Court on Tuesday “modified” its interim order which mandated playing of National Anthem in cinema halls. It declared that, henceforth, it will not be mandatory for cinema halls across the country to play National Anthem before the start of a movie.

 

In a PIL filed in 2016, the Apex Court, making a reference to the ‘Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act, 1971’, had earlier emphasised that it was necessary to show requisite and necessary respect towards the National Anthem. The Petitioner in the PIL, the Government (represented by Attorney General) and also the Supreme Court, were all of the same view that making National Anthem necessary before screening in all movie halls is necessary to promote a spirit of unification, in a country which is as diverse as ours, and also to instill patriotism in the citizens. 

 

Rather than promoting a spirit of unification, the Order, unfortunately, ended up giving a license to overzealous and alleged nationalists to abuse and even physically assault persons who chose not to stand up for the National Anthem in cinema theaters. In fact, several incidents were reported across the country where even disabled persons, who could not stand on their feet were also assaulted and abused (albeit at times under mistaken belief) by people, who stopped at nothing to give vent to their idea of nationalism. 

 

Subsequently, two applications were filed by Kodangular Film Society and its President Anoop Kumaran seeking a recall of the Supreme Court order, mandating playing of the National Anthem in cinema halls. The Court modified its earlier order to the extent that the physically challenged, i.e. persons with disability as under section 2(i) and 2(t) of the Disability Act, 1995 shall not be asked to stand up. The Court asked the Central Government to lay down detailed guidelines in respect of disabled persons. It was clarified that though physically disabled persons need not stand during National Anthem in cinema halls, however, such persons must show such conduct which is commensurate with respect to the National Anthem. I must, respectfully, say that the latter direction was rather unusual and vague and Court chose to defer to the government’s wisdom to frame guidelines on this sensitive issue. 

 

However, displaying shocking apathy towards the disabled, the Home Ministry came up with guidelines in January 2017, which were completely bereft of any wisdom, that the Court had expected the Government to use. The guidelines suggested that wheelchair users and people with locomotor disability should not move and position themselves “maintaining the maximum possible attentiveness and alertness physically.” For other disabilities, it prescribed that “persons with mild intellectual disability can be trained to understand and respect the National Anthem.” 

 

People in the disabled community raised questions about what in the public eye would constitute ‘alert’ enough? Unfortunately, no answers were forthcoming from any quarter. It is at times like these that one does not know whether to feel angry or laugh at the acumen of our policymakers. Surely enough, even such mindless conditions were no guarantee of safety from abuse by fellow citizens and unsavoury incidents at cinema halls did not end there.

 

The Court and the government had initially thought that such measures would unify the country and arouse patriotism amongst the citizens. However, the result was not what everyone had hoped for. Not just instances of violence, many moviegoers even used to make their displeasure known for the National Anthem, as they were forced to give certificates of nationalism before hoping to enjoy a movie with their friends and family. It does not matter how noble the intention is, if symbols are forced upon people, then people may ultimately develop contempt for those very symbols, thereby, having the completely opposite effect than what was intended.

 

The PIL in question again came up on 23.10.2017, where the various issues faced by common people and disabled persons were highlighted. The Supreme Court was, thus, constrained to ask the Central Government to take a call and in its discretion, form certain guidelines or rules which regulate the present issue. One of the judges on Bench, Justice Chandrachud even asked the Attorney General – “why should we insist on showing patriotism, when people go to cinema halls for undiluted entertainment.... Tomorrow, there may be a demand to stop people from wearing shorts and T-shirts while going to cinema halls, because national anthem is being played. Where is the end for such moral policing?”...”

 

Pursuant to this, the Centre represented by Attorney General submitted an Affidavit in Supreme Court stating that a 12-member inter-ministerial committee, set up by the Centre, would take a final call on the playing of the National Anthem in the cinemas. The Government stated that the Committee shall lay down guidelines in six months.

 

Eventually, the Apex Court decided that the matter be best left to the government and passed an order restoring status quo ante and removing the mandate of playing of National Anthem in cinema halls before starting of a movie.

 

A few disconcerting aspects emerge from the above facts. First, it begs the question whether the Supreme Court should have passed such sweeping directions without hearing all stakeholders concerned and on the mere asking of the Petitioner, not realising the repercussions thereof. 

 

Not too long ago, then Chief Justice T.S. Thakur had cried openly in a public function that the Judges of the Supreme Court were not being able to dispense justice properly as they were getting crushed under a load of pendency. The situation in the present case is a complete contrast to the sentiment reflected by Justice Thakur. The Court heard the present case for several days and ultimately had to withdraw the very directions that it had initially given. 

 

In my respectful opinion, the precious judicial time could have been put to better use than hearing a PIL which did not seek to address any real public interest or purpose. Second, rather than addressing real issues ailing our country like a fledgling economy, lack of growth, manufacturing sector being in a comatose situation, an inter-Ministerial Committee will now spend 6 months to deliberate how best to compel people to show patriotism before they can be allowed to enjoy movies. Clearly, the priorities seem to be skewed. Third, the arguments of the government in the Court of wanting to force nationalism and patriotism suggests the mindset of a military regime.

 

People will love their country and develop a sense of pride for it if the governments make us feel that the country is headed in the correct direction and benefit of the citizenry is at the heart of every step that the government is taking. If a man who does not have a job despite qualification, is compelled every Friday to show love for his country, chances are that it may not yield the desired results that the government expects. 

 

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL).