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The Supreme Court's Latest View On National Anthem In Cinemas Misses A Crucial Point

Here's the real issue.

24/10/2017 12:51 PM IST | Updated 24/10/2017 1:00 PM IST
CHANDAN KHANNA via Getty Images

The Supreme Court has weighed in on the national anthem. Again.

In 2016 the court had ordered all cinemas to play the national anthem before a film "for the love of the motherland".

Now the esteemed court says "You don't have to stand up at a cinema hall to be patriotic."

But really that misses the larger point.

Why do we insist on playing the national anthem before a film in the first place? Why is a movie theatre suddenly the crucible for instilling patriotism? Not the school, for instance? That's the real issue here.

Some have said it's because in a country as vast as India the movie theatre is the place where people of all classes and communities converge. Everyone goes to the movies whatever their religion, caste or level of education. It's our common glue.

But what that argument misses is that there are movies and there are movies. Is the audience flocking to a theatre to watch Sunny Leone in Mastizaade really in the mood for a booster dose of Vitamin Jana Gana? Can screening Kya Kool Hain Hum 3, a self-professed "porn com", be construed as being in the spirit of Article 51A and fostering respect for the national flag and the national anthem?

The court pointed out that there is no bar to play the national anthem on other occasions too.

There should really be two debates here.

Is it mandatory to stand during the national anthem? (And that's irrespective of whether it's being played in a movie theatre or a cricket stadium.)

Is it mandatory to play the national anthem before a movie?

Thanks to the rulings, we have mixed up the two when, in fact, there are probably many Indians who have no problems standing for the national anthem but do not think a movie theatre, a venue whose purpose is entertainment rather than education, is the best place for it. Their voices get drowned in the shrillness of the debate in an atmosphere where we are quick to label dissent as unpatriotic.

Justice DY Chandrachud smacked the government on performance patriotism. It asked the attorney general why every one of us "should wear our patriotism on our sleeves". And in a statement that seemed to go well beyond the movie theatres, he asked "Tomorrow, if someone says don't wear shorts and T-shirts to cinema halls because national anthem is being played because it will amount to disrespect to the national anthem. Where do we draw a line? Where do we stop this moral policing?"

That's really the larger question that the government has to answer. To be fair, the national anthem in movie theatres was something the court handed it on a platter. The government, always happy to enforce its singular version of patriotism, merely chose to enforce it. The court says the government could change the law if it wanted to force people to stand for the national anthem. It's quite possible the government will propose doing exactly that just because it's a low-hanging deshbhakti fruit.

But the directive, instead of filling everyone with patriotic pride, just opened the door to lumpen vigilantism in the name of desh bhakti.

A wheelchair-bound disability rights activist was heckled and called a Pakistani at a multiplex in Guwahati.

Six people were taken into custody in Kerala for not standing during the national anthem at the International Film Festival in Thiruvanthapuram. Bharatiya Yuve Morcha activists complained to the police.

Seven people were booked in Chennai after a fight broke out over not standing and also taking selfies during the national anthem.

Just as we have gau-vigilantism in the name of gau seva, we got desh-bullying in the name of desh-bhakti. It became yet another opportunity to beat someone up for not following another's version of patriotism.

I personally always stand for the national anthem, no matter which country it belongs to. I believe that shows respect. But I also believe with equal fervour that I have no right to beat up the person who does not stand for the anthem but in no way does it disrupt my standing up. That is the idea of tolerance, of living and letting live, that feels increasingly endangered in India. And this is not limited to the anthem at all.

We have heard over and over again about fights breaking out on railway trains because someone was upset that a passenger was eating non-vegetarian food in the same compartment. They wanted them to move. Once we had mobs break into an art gallery because they found someone's art work objectionable. Then we had mobs drag women out of a pub by their hair because they found women drinking un-sanskari. Now we are now a country where in the name of gau-bhakti a mob can break into someone's home and ransack their refrigerator. This is moral policing run amock and the Jana Gana Mana in a movie theatre provided yet another opportunity to flex that muscle.

One suspects that's what worried the court when it asked about where we stop this moral policing.

As for those who say can't we stand for 52 seconds to show our love for the country, perhaps they could put their patriotism into other, more productive, areas to show love for the country?

What about not littering the streets for instance? Why not make that a litmus test of patriotism?

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