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National Anthem Guidelines Only Rub Salt Into The Wounds Of The Disabled

Proof of the government's skewed priorities.

30/01/2017 11:47 AM IST | Updated 31/01/2017 3:51 PM IST
CHANDAN KHANNA via Getty Images

In a bizarre development, the Government has framed guidelines for how persons with disabilities should display their respect towards the national anthem in movie theatres.

On 30 November, an apex court bench headed by Justice Dipak Misra had made it mandatory for movie goers to stand up when the national anthem is played and to show respect towards the national flag.

Subsequently, on 9 December, 2016, the Court modified its order to clarify that persons with disabilities are not mandated to stand for the national anthem if their disability prevents them from doing so.

The only policy statement that the government has issued on [disability] is one that is aimed at ensuring coerced conformity to what is considered appropriate patriotic behaviour.

While making this modification, however, the court made it clear that the disabled are bound to conduct themselves in a manner commensurate with the dignity of the anthem. Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi had assured the Court that the government would frame guidelines delineating the precise way in which the disabled can show respect for the anthem.

Consistent with this commitment, the Government framed these guidelines late last month and released them into the public domain soon after.

As per the guidelines, wheelchair users and other persons with locomotor disabilities are mandated to position themselves in a state of maximum feasible alertness and attentiveness. Similarly, persons using crutches should become non-mobile to the extent possible when the anthem is being played.

Persons with hearing and visual impairment should stand during the anthem.

While those with severe intellectual disabilities are not mandated to engage in any specific conduct to respect the national anthem, those with mild intellectual disabilities are to be trained to respect the anthem.

Escorts of the disabled have also been obligated to stand when the anthem is being played.

In addition to affixing the government's imprimatur to an order that lacks any legal basis, the guidelines are emblematic of the apathy and insensitivity of the government towards the disabled.

More specifically, in a country in which recreational facilities remain inaccessible to a major chunk of the disabled population, instead of designing policy interventions that can help address this problem, the only policy statement that the government has issued on this subject is one that is aimed at pandering to populist impulses and ensuring coerced conformity to what is considered appropriate patriotic behaviour. It speaks volumes about the government's commitment to creating an accessible India.

Indeed, as Anna MM Vetticad notes, at a time when reaching movie halls remains a distant dream for most persons with disabilities in India—due to such accessibility barriers as absence of ramps, subtitles for the hearing impaired or audio description for the blind—these guidelines achieve nothing more than rubbing salt into the wounds of the disabled.

Further, the government dragged its feet on bringing India's new disability law into force for over a month, but took only 12 days to frame these guidelines. This is a key indicator of the manner in which it is using its limited policy bandwidth reserved for disability issues on projects that reinforce stereotypes and compel the disabled to act in ways that are considered "normal."

In a country in which the disabled die by a thousand cuts every single day, these guidelines have made the movie theatre yet another site of coerced normalisation and invisibilisation...

As Manash Bhattacharjee argues, the guidelines are founded upon the belief that no disability should be considered so significant as to impede public displays of patriotism. This order, as Bhattacharjee notes, can be seen as a uniform civil code of public behaviour, in that the government is telling its disabled citizens that even if they cannot stand in the same way as their able-bodied counterparts, they are duty-bound to undergo whatever temporary discomfort their disability permits as a mark of solidarity.

To be sure, the guidelines do contain some redeeming features, such as imposing an obligation on owners of movie theatres to display a visual message that the national anthem is going to be played for the benefit of the hearing impaired and the explicit prohibition of undue harassment of those with intellectual disabilities if they cannot show appropriate respect towards the anthem. The latter is a much-needed direction which could not have come a moment too soon, in light of the fact that Salil Chatturvedi, a disabled activist and writer was thrashed last October in Goa for failing to stand for the national anthem because of his spinal injury.

All in all, however, in a country in which the disabled die by a thousand cuts every single day, these guidelines have made the movie theatre yet another site of coerced normalisation and invisibilisation of the disabled.

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