In order to instill patriotism and nationalism in citizens, the Supreme Court has made playing of national anthem mandatory before movie screenings in cinema halls across the country. The apex court has also said that when the national anthem is played in theatres, it should be accompanied by images of the national flag on screen and people must stand up. Physically handicapped persons have been exempted from this order. Nevertheless, it reeks of judicial activism. As hardly anyone will disagree that national anthem or national symbols like our flag should not be respected, but it should also be kept in mind that patriotism comes from the heart and can never be forced.
Now that playing the national anthem in cinema halls has been made obligatory, there is no guarantee that it will not lead to an increase in vigilantism. It is feared that the order may encourage some hardcore, fundamentalist groups to further their agenda of nationalism. In fact, to curb dissent, these groups have been clamouring from the beginning for the imposition of the strident brand of nationalism in the country. In that way, the Supreme Court order has disappointed those who have looked up to it as a custodian of constitutional propriety and freedom in the country.
What is constitutional stand on national symbols?
Under Article 51-A of the Constitution, respecting national anthem, national flag, ideals and institution is part of fundamental duties. That means respect to the nation and its symbols is not enforceable through legal means. While delivering a judgment in Bijoe Emmanuel & Others vs State of Kerala & Others in August 1986, the Supreme Court bench headed by Justice O Chinappa Reddy and Justice M M Dutt had adjudged the expulsion of three children of Jehovah sect by a school in Kerala — on the grounds of their refusal to sing the national anthem during the morning assembly — null and void. The apex court had called the expulsion a “violation of the fundamental right to freedom of conscience and freely to profess, practice and propagate religion.” Before concluding the verdict, the court had clearly maintained that “there is no provision of law which obliges anyone to sing the national anthem.”
Is the implementation of the apex court’s order a challenging task?
Indeed, it is very challenging to implement the Supreme Court order. It is not possible for cinema hall guards to ensure that everybody follows the apex court order and stands up when the national anthem is played. The police forces are already overstretched. In that case, there is no guarantee that movie hall owners protect the judiciary imposed law on the showing respect to the national anthem during its singing. Critics say it would have been better had the apex court recommended the matter to the Parliament to frame a law with regard to showing respect to national icons and the national anthem. Their stand is that only after proper debate and discussion, a law is passed in Parliament. But when judiciary itself has come forward with the order on a subject of high debatable value, it is hard to expect that it would be implemented well, because there are people who profess a religion that bars them from standing up or bowing down when the national anthem is sung.
Given that across the country, there are people who look like Indians, but they are not Indians, rather those who belong to either Nepal or Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. In that situation, there is a possibility a fight may breakout when other countries’ nationals are forced to stand in attention during the play of the national anthem. But the Supreme Court in its order has made it clear that “a time has come when citizens of the country must realize that they live in a nation and are duty-bound to show respect to the national anthem which is the symbol of constitutional patriotism and inherent national quality.”
The court has also said that entry and exit doors would remain closed when the anthem is played to avoid any disturbance. It has also forbidden any dramatization or commercial exploitation of the national anthem.
Is it first time cinema halls are witnessing apex court order?
No, it is not the first time movie halls across the country have been subjected to the Supreme Court order. In 1999, the top court had upheld the government’s order for the compulsory screening of scientific, educational or documentary films on current events, stating that it promoted free speech.
Whether movie theatres played the national anthem earlier too?
Yes, many cinema halls across the country play the national anthem before screening of films. In the 1960s and the 1970s, during India-China War and India-Pakistan War, theatres across the country played the national anthem at the end of movies, but since people often walked out, the practice was discontinued. In January 2003, the Maharashtra government made the playing of the national anthem in cinema halls of the state compulsory on the plea that the 52-second anthem will unite people together when played in halls since millions of people watch movie every day.
Are there stricter laws in the US on national symbols?
In America, there is no penalty if national symbols like national flag are disrespected or displayed wrongly. However, the flag code prohibits the display of a US flag of less than 50 states. In fact, the US flag code is simply a guideline for proper flag etiquette. It doesn’t recommend any punishment upon violation of any provisions of the flag code. Rather in a bold manner, the US Supreme Court in its landmark ruling of 1989 held the burning of the American flag as an act of free expression.
The Supreme Court directive has come at a time when people are being targeted for not wearing their patriotism on their sleeve. That the top court of the land could join the chorus of some vigilant groups on the issue of patriotism is a dreadful prospect. Therefore, the order needs review. Will the apex court do it, recognizing that a cinema hall can’t be a sole place to test citizens’ patriotism.