By Sandeep Sahu
My mind was flooded with a deluge of questions yesterday after the Supreme Court decreed the mandatory playing of the national anthem at the beginning of a film and asked everyone to stand up in ‘sacred obligation’ to the nation. How exactly will this new rule be enforced? Who will be held accountable for any violations, the theatre owner or the individual? In case it is the latter, will s/he he arrested then and there (though the apex court, in its ‘interim order’, hasn’t specified the punishment, it is obvious that the violator will not go unpunished, presumably under the Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act, 1971)? Who will monitor adherence to the decree? Will there be policemen stationed inside the theatres to keep an eye on transgressions? What if dozens of people refuse to stand up? And finally, what about differently able people like Salil Chaturvedi, a person paralysed waist downwards, who was beaten up by some people for not standing up when Jana Gana Mana was played in a theatre in Goa recently? What about children who may spoil the sanctity of the occasion by crying out loud? Will they – or their parents – be booked too? And last but not the least, why on earth limit the performance of this ‘sacred obligation’ to cinemas alone? Why not in all offices (both government and private), business establishments, Parliament, state Assembles and may be even the courts? It is surely not the Supreme Court’s case that only movie-goers need a crash course in nationalism, or is it?
I am not even questioning the SC judgment on intellectual, legal or constitutional grounds as many eminent jurists like Soli Sorabjee and Rajiv Dhawan have done. But readers of this column would perhaps agree that each of the questions posed above is a valid and legitimate question that needs to be answered before we go ahead with this forced display of loyalty to the nation.
The Lordships would perhaps have done well to remember the reason the singing of the national anthem in theatres was discontinued in the mid 1970s (though it continues to be played in theatres across Maharashtra and Goa). People of my generation would remember watching in dismay as people would start leaving the theatre even as the national anthem was being played. May be that is what the apex court had in mind when it ruled that Jana Gana Mana be played before the start of the film rather than at the end. But in reversing the order, the court created another imponderable by ordering that the doors of the theatre be closed before the playing of the national anthem starts to ensure that people don’t keep trickling in while it is being played. What if there is an emergency situation like a terrorist attack or an Uphaar-like situation?
It is obvious to anyone who knows how we Indians behave in public places that the new rule would be observed more in its breach than its adherence. So, why have such an unenforceable rule in the first place? If strict adherence to the rule is sought to be ensured through the force of legal action, will we not move a step closer to being a totalitarian state? It is hardly surprising that liberals see in the Supreme Court ruling a decisive tilt towards the right – with noted political commentator Pratap Bhanu Mehta warning us about ‘dark times’ ahead – quite forgetting the fact that the government of the day had nothing to do with the Supreme Court ruling, which came in response to a PIL filed by a person named Shyam Narayan Chouksey. [It cannot be a mere coincidence that it was Justice Dipak Mishra, one of the two judges who delivered the Supreme Court ruling on Wednesday, was the head of a bench of Madhya Pradesh High Court that had banned the screening of the 2002 Karan Johar flick Kabhie Khushi Kabhie Gam (K3G, as the younger generation remembers it) on the ground that people refused to get up when the screen son of Shahrukh Khan and Kajol starts singing the national anthem at a school function in the film. It is another matter that the Supreme Court, of which he is now an illustrious member, later threw out the judgment.]
It is naïve to believe that patriotism and nationalism can be inculcated in the citizen by judicial or administrative decree. In acting in accordance with this belief, therefore, the learned judges have not done justice to the glorious tradition of upholding liberalism, constitutionalism and individual liberty that the Supreme Court has displayed over the years.