In an unfortunate development, twelve people were arrested at an international film festival in Kerala for refusing to comply with a Supreme Court order to stand for the national anthem at cinemas. On Sunday, police in Chennai registered a case against seven people for not standing up during the playback of the national anthem in a theatre. In both cases, those under arrest have been booked under the Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act, 1971.
“Whoever intentionally prevents the singing of the Indian National Anthem or causes disturbance to any assembly engaged in such singing shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years, or with fine, or with both,” according to the Act. Suffice it to say, the apex court’s decision is being viewed by some as an attempt to induce compulsive patriotism. On the same subject, in 1986, the court took the side of three school children from Kerala who had refused to sing the national anthem during school assemblies. Forcing the children, who were faithful Jehovah’s witnesses, to sing the anthem was an infringement on their freedom of religion, the court argued.
In other words, it gave precedence to individual rights over collective responsibility. But in this era of uber-nationalism, a few of our judges seem to have changed their tone. Not long ago, a politician argued that those who did not chant, “Bharat Mata ki Jai”, had no right to live in the country. In a democracy, such an imposition of patriotism seems like a total waste of time. The idea here is that a person must wear patriotism on his/her sleeve to avoid being labelled disloyal. It demeans the individual by designating the person as a suspect. Besides, it is evident that this directive will not be easy to implement. Our chronically under-staffed police clearly have more urgent matters to resolve. It also opens the gateway to vigilantism under which self-appointed xenophobes take it upon themselves to impose what they regard as the law on hapless targets.
The ridiculousness of such misguided "nationalist" public discourse reached its zenith recently when a wheelchair-bound man who couldn't rise during the national anthem was attacked at a multiplex in Goa. What’s worse, the recent apex court order states that the doors of cinema halls must remain shut while the national anthem is being played. What if there is a fire? Unfortunately, some people will continue to shout about how much they “love” their country at the expense of freedom and decency.