New Delhi, Nov 30: The Supreme Court on Wednesday made playing the national anthem in cinema theatres before the commencement of a film mandatory. The judgement, delivered by a bench led by Justice Dipak Misra underlined that the measure would ‘instil a sense of committed patriotism and nationalism’ in citizens.  The root of the new compulsion is instilling a sense of national identity, integrity and constitutional patriotism.

The top court has, however, made it very clear that the national anthem could not be commercially exploited and that no entity could either dramatise it or use it in abridged form. The national anthem is to be played along with the image of the tricolour and people must stand up in respect. A clarification was inserted here providing an exception for the disabled.

Delivering the judgement, the Supreme Court said,  “Time has come for people to realise that the national anthem is a symbol of constitutional patriotism…people must feel they live in a nation and this wallowing individually perceived notion of freedom must go…people must feel this is my country, my motherland.”All states and union territories, along with the national capital have one week to enforce the directive.

The issue was initially brought up before the Supreme Court after a PIL was filed by Shyam Narayan Chouksey, a retired engineer in Bhopal. Chouksey’s intention was to bring to light the numerous times that the Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act, 1971, was being breached. Accordingly, Abhinav Shrivastava, his counsel, demanded that the Supreme Court make clear the norms on the playing of the  national anthem in cinema halls, entertainment programmes and in official functions. Though the Supreme Court has indeed, obliged the plaintiff, here are some reasons why it may have just hammered down an unnecessary directive:

  1. The directive has already been in place in the states of Maharashtra and Goa. An executive order was issued in 2003 by the Maharashtra government, asking exhibitors to play the national anthem before the screening of a film. Other than the problem that exhibitors have produced their own versions of the anthem, the law has led to in-hall fights on more than one occasion. Just recently, a man with a spinal injury was accused of being anti-national and had to face and physical verbal abuse on not being able to stand up during the anthem. Numerous charges of sedition and anti-nationalism can, therefore, be expected throughout the country.
  2.  The rule was already in force in the country during the 1960’s India-China war. The reason then was to infuse a sense of patriotism and respect for the jawans during troubled times. However, the law had to be taken down shortly afterwards on account of rampant, inadvertent disrespect towards the national anthem. As the anthem was played at the end of a movie, people would begin leaving while it was being played. Though, the new measure directs the anthem to be played at the beginning, the same might happen with cinema-goers entering the hall to watch a movie.
  3. The landmark 1986 Supreme Court judgment in Bijoe Emmanuel vs. the State of Kerala gives us something to think about.  The case that dealt with the expulsion of three children who belonged to the Jehovah’s Witnesses sect, for refusing to sing the national anthem in school, was the only instance in which such a case has been adjudicated. The court said that the children were allowed to not stand in view of their fundamental rights of free speech and freedom to practise their religion. In a religiously diverse country as India, how can you expect members with certain beliefs to explain to all their fellow cinema-goers their inability to follow directives? Would they not be at the risk of being termed anti-national or worse, being physically harmed every time they wanted to enjoy a movie?
  4. Whether or not to make the showcasing of the national anthem a compulsion should have been individual state’s prerogative. This is because the exhibition of films is a state subject. Most states have their own Cinematograph Act and Rules, which takes support from the Cinematograph Act, 1952 which is in turn governed by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. Further, cinema halls have not even been listed as one of the places to play the National Anthem, according to the orders relating to it. In such a case, did the Supreme Court just side-step into matters of legislative jurisdiction?
  5. There are few other countries around the world that have debated a similar measure. A powerful argument made against playing the national anthem in cinemas was made in the country of Ireland that might apply perfectly in India’s case. The argument put forth, highlighted that something as honourable as the national anthem did not deserve to be associated with every 2-hour long piece of flimsy entertainment.

Though the Supreme Court of India definitely took the decision with utmost goodwill, one is left to wonder whether it forgot to give us the freedom of choice. After all, when one pays Rs 300 for relaxing and enjoying a movie, exhibiting patriotism might not be at the forefront of anybody’s thoughts. In such a case, we are let pondering whether hyper-nationalism is being forced down our necks.

(Disclaimer- The views expressed belong to the author alone and should not be treated as opinion of the organisation)