Readers of this newspaper of a particular vintage — say in their 50s — will remember their movie-going experience during their own younger days. On screen, first came the slides, showing ads usually for local businesses, followed by ad films and then the Films Division newsreel, which provided a roundup of what was happening around the nation. These were dull and boring, with a voice overintoning on a foreign leader’s visit, the Prime Minister with dancers in some remote part of the country, stories of drought or a scientific success and ending with the sports section. The FD review was the occasion for viewers to step out for a smoke and then rush back before the film began. At the end of the film, the national anthem was played, at which point some in the audience began shuffling out.
At some stage, three decades ago or so, the government decided that there was no point in playing the national anthem and quietly dropped it. But in recent years, some states such as Maharashtra and Goa have brought it back and it is played at the beginning of the film. And now the Supreme Court, no less, has made this a compulsory rule all over the country. The national anthem will have to played in all cinemas at the beginning of the film and what is more, the doors will be locked during those few minutes. This could turn into a serious safety hazard, but the court seems to have ignored it. What should have been an executive decision has now got the stamp of a judicial order. Soli Sorabjee, a former attorney-general in the NDA government, has called it “judicial activism gone haywire.” “Is it the court’s function to go into such issues? People must stand up… is this the only way to show patriotism?” he asks.
Well, their lordships certainly think so. Not only did the two-judge bench pass this order, they went a step forward and gave a mini-sermon on patriotism, saying too much had been indulged in the name of “individually perceived notions of freedom”. Read it any which way, it sounds like the judges telling citizens not to think for themselves, specially on the idea of freedom (of expression), but think collectively. It is an extraordinary comment, considering that these freedoms are what make a democracy vibrant, but apparently that won’t do any more. Justice Deepak Misra had heard a similar case about the national anthem 13 years ago from the same petitioner Shyam Narayan Chouksey. Chouksey was upset that the audience did not stand up when the national anthem was sung in the movie Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham. Justice Misra ordered the movie to be withdrawn from the theatres until that scene was cut; the order was set aside by the Supreme Court in 2004. Now the same two, Chouksey and Misra, have played a role in this current order, the former as petitioner, the latter as the judge. It is difficult to read what is in a judge’s mind, but there is little doubt that this order coincides with the rising and very vocal mood of hypernationalism in the country.
The government and the ruling party, the BJP, have played no small role in drumming up nationalistic fervour, linking everything — including, bizarrely, demonetisation — with patriotism. And this has found a readymade audience of newly-minted ultra-patriots who are ready to defend the nation in every way possible — not by joining the Army and fighting, but by trolling everyone else and now, even by hitting people who cannot stand for the national anthem, as happened in Goa with a handicapped person. So will the honourable judges’ order be carried out by police forces who will stand inside the halls and check for dissenting citizens who may not stand? Or will it be left to the cinemas to ensure enforcement? Or, best of all, will there be vigilante groups made up of enthusiastic citizens who will be tasked with monitoring anti-national elements? And once the public has been trained to stand up in cinemas, what comes next? Compulsory playing in schools, colleges, even government offices before the day begins?
The irony is that no one really would mind standing up when the much-loved song plays — it still has the capacity to evoke emotion. But by making it compulsory, the Supreme Court has taken away choice from the average citizen. Instead of raising patriotic feelings, it will breed resentment or worse, indifference. It will become another chore, to be done with zero conviction. Patriotism cannot be imposed by fiat — it emerges from within. The nanny state has been imposing a lot of restrictions in recent times. It tells us what not to eat (beef ban), what not to watch (overactive censor board) and now, how much money we can withdraw from our own accounts. It has even set strict limits on the amount of gold married women and unmarried women can keep with them, even if it was bought with “white” money. Now we are being told to compulsorily sing the national anthem in cinema halls. All these have come by way of diktats, not by consensus, but as orders that brook no challenge. The Indian Supreme Court has largely leaned on the side of more freedom, stepping in whenever there has been executive overreach which impinges on the rights of the citizen. The wind seems to be blowing the other way. And that is not a comforting thing to know.