Supreme Court has clarified that the audience need not stand when the national anthem is played as a part of the storyline of a film, newsreel or documentary. Photograph:( AFP )
If anything can be concluded from the verdict today on the subject of the national anthem, it is that the debate around the duty to stand up for the national anthem versus the right to freedom of speech and expression, particularly the right to dissent, must be answered effectively by the executive by introducing clarity in the Insult to National Honour Act, 1971 as well as the Flag Code.
The debate has now moved away from the judicial platform to that of an executive or legislative platform and one hopes that the culture of freedom of speech and expression, that makes this debate possible will make room for a respectful right to dissent while deciding on the national anthem and its significance.
In what is an enlightened move, the Union Government appears to have walked the path of reason and understood the challenges to the compulsory playing of national anthems before cinema is played. Every time the anthem is played, my instinct causes me to stand up in the “attention” position and mouth its lyrics. It is precisely because I respect the anthem so much that I question the utility of playing something as venerable just before the start of a film that often comes with questionable scripts and even more questionable music, dialogues and lyrics.
The greater threat of dilution of the importance of the national anthem is that of its usage in vain and for trivial contexts. Nationalist sentiment carries the same risk that any other sentiment carries, which is that with widespread usage especially in more trivial settings, any sentiment no matter how serious will find its significance diluted. As much of an atheist I am, I recognise the utility of the Christian caution against taking the Lord's name in vain and that logic, applies equally to the national anthem.
The Inter-Ministerial Committee is expected to comprehensively review the Insult to National Honour Act, 1971 and the Flag Code to lay down specific guidelines for preserving and enhancing respect for the national anthem. This in effect, relegates the law to the position it was in before the 2016 verdict made it compulsory.
Prior to 2016, particularly in view of the judgement of Bijoe Emannuel v. State of Kerala, the law of the land made room for not standing up for the national anthem if such an act of dissent was an exercise of the right to freedom of speech and expression and the right to freedom of religion.
The Court further held that regardless of its personal views, a conscientious and genuine belief justifying the act of not standing up for the national anthem is not only permitted but protected within our constitutional culture. The emphasis remained on asserting the minority’s right to find an identity within India’s pluralistic polity. The question of minority belief then was premised on the debate around minority religious rights.
Today, however, the debate is on the ideological minority, the dissenters. Clarence Darrow, arguably one of the greatest trial lawyers in American jurisprudence, said that when a new truth comes upon the earth, or a great idea necessary for mankind is born, it does not come from attorneys, judges, lawyers or doctors, but it comes from the despised, the outcasts and from men who have dared to be rebels and who believe that their faith is the faith of rebels. The Inter-Ministerial Committee which now takes over where the Supreme Court left off, have now to ask themselves whether they want to make room for such rebels, for newer truths to emerge, which though offensive now may prove to shape and define the culture of Indian democracy.
One could fairly ask what good it is to listen to the dissenters?
To that, I refer to the verdict on the right to privacy. A good part of that wonderful verdict was born out of the principles enunciated by Justice H.R. Khanna in his minority dissenting note in ADM Jabalpur v. Shukla. Not standing up for the national anthem may be just that, i.e., not standing up for the national anthem.
The limits on our imagination, cast by the conditioning we have been subjected to, may prohibit us from seeing the larger message in that act of not standing up. For my part, I don’t agree with the rebels not standing up, but I also remain humble enough to admit that I may not know or understand what they stand for. The Committee too must acknowledge this limitation and make room for its correction tomorrow.
Instead of formulating regulations, maybe, the answer to one person not standing up for the national anthem is simply another person standing up. I promise myself that every time the anthem plays, even if I am the only soul standing up in the hall, I will do just that: stand up with respect and pride.
I won’t judge the ones not standing up nor will I fight them, but I will stand up and demonstrate my idea with pride. To my mind enhancing the respect for the national anthem is about fostering healthy debate and making the anthem synonymous with that culture of debate. I don’t find the solution to rest in regulation or, worse, an imposition by the mob. The national anthem celebrates the idea of India itself and I hope we respect that in the days ahead.
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL).