There is honouring the national anthem and then there is using the national anthem as a bully's bludgeon.
The Supreme Court might have only wanted to instil a patriotic spirit in Indians (at least every time they went to the films). But that decision to play the national anthem before all movie screenings has emboldened those who would want to play moral policemen, those who think they hold the copyright on how patriotism should be defined, those who think it's their way or no way at all.
First they came for the national anthem in the movie theatres. Then they came for it on Facebook. It's inevitable. Seven people were booked in Chennai for disrespecting the national anthem. An altercation broke out in the movie theatre between two groups. "They started verbally abusing us, which we tried to ignore. They then came up to us during the interval and began hitting us when we said it was our right to not stand for the anthem should we choose not to," Leenus Roffun tells The Hindustan Times. The two groups accused each other of threats and abuse. The seven accused allegedly took selfies during the anthem. Police apparently took action after a scuffle broke out between the two groups.
This was not the only instance of the fallout from insufficient patriotism at the movies. Several people were booked during the International Film Festival of Kerala in Thiruvanthapuram earlier in December. Reports suggested police personnel were sitting in the theatre after receiving complaints from Bharatiya Yuva Morch activists that delegates were not standing during the anthem at the almost 500 screenings during the festival. According to The Indian Express the secretary of the Kerala State Chalachitra Academy said the reservations of those who did not come into the theatre five minutes before the national anthem would be cancelled.
This is no way about defending selfies during the national anthem. But how exactly is this undignified fracas enhancing the dignity of the national anthem? Who are these people who spend their time not so much respecting the national anthem as opposed to policing a dark theatre to see who is standing and who is not?
Now Malayalam writer Kamal C Chavara has been charged with insulting the national anthem for posting excerpts on Facebook from his book. The BJP youth wing Bharatiya Yuva Morcha activists took umbrage at his post. Chavara says that not a single word is intended to insult the national anthem.
But that's not the point anymore. The court certainly does not green light vigilantes either in movie theatres or on social media, but once it approves, even prescribes, the way we should be patriotic, it certainly emboldens those who want to coerce everyone into their way of thinking.
As social activist Harsh Mander laments in The Hindustan Times "To love your country cannot be reduced to standing for the national anthem. Instead, it means standing up for justice, for truth, for kindness. It means indeed the obligation of public dissent, of standing in solidarity with the oppressed, of speaking truth to power."
That is not inconsistent with the views of the man who wrote the national anthem. Rabindranath Tagore's anathema towards narrow hyper nationalism is well-known. In his most famous essay on nationalism he wrote "Even though from childhood I had been taught that the idolatry of Nation is almost better than reverence for God and humanity, I believe I have outgrown that teaching, and it is my conviction that my countrymen will gain truly their India by fighting against that education which teaches them that a country is greater than the ideals of humanity."
Certainly those who wield the national anthem to clobber dissent also choose to ignore one of Tagore's best known poems – "Where the mind is without fear". They would prefer to instil the fear of God and country in someone who does not stand during the national anthem even if that person is doing nothing to prevent them from standing.
I have no problem standing during the national anthem. But I certainly have a problem with the "patriot" who pushes and shoves someone who is not standing, even someone who might physically have trouble standing. Why is our sense of patriotism so fragile that a person sitting down seems to put the integrity of the country at risk?
What's the problem, the patriot will ask? Can you not stand for 52 seconds to honour your country? The point is not whether we can stand or not. The point is whether we must stand or not. We can also fast on Thursday nights but if the government decides that's good for our health should it compel us to fast?
The larger point is that dissent of any kind is quickly being branded as the stamp of the traitor. Those who support the rights of a Kanhaiya Kumar are accused of betraying the nation. Those who oppose pellet guns in Kashmir are automatically branded supporters of Pakistan. Those who oppose demonetisation are dubbed anti-national. Every time the state prescribes how to be a good patriot, it also makes it easier to define the ways we fall short of that definition.
We sometimes call those who resort to force to impose their view on patriotism as vigilantes. But when that muscular assertion of national pride extends to movie theatre goers in Chennai as well as lawyers in the Patiala courthouse, it means that vigilantism feels social sanction and now state blessing.
The court wanted to create a nation of patriots. They might have inadvertently emboldened a nation of bullies.
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