The Pulse

India’s Supreme Court Has a Nationalist Moment

What was the Indian Supreme Court thinking?

India’s Supreme Court Has a Nationalist Moment
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On November 30 2016, the Indian Supreme Court issued an order to all movie theaters to play the country’s national anthem with an image of the national flag before screening films and to ensure that exits are inaccessible while this happens. This was a norm that several movie theaters in the country adhered to at the end of film screenings decades ago, but the custom soon tapered out. People usually left at the end of the movie and the practice proved futile. The recent order is accompanied by the suggestion that those witnessing this be obliged to show respect to the anthem and the proceedings, with the panel saying that this was an important decision that showed love and respect for the motherland.

Specific states already institute some form of this order — some strictly and others sporadically. But with the country’s apex court making this a directive across the nation, the order becomes mandatory. The court has not clarified the guidelines for violations of this order and a further hearing on this issue is expected in February. One of the more prominent legal cases involving the question of respect for the Indian national anthem is Bijoe Emmanuel vs The State of Kerala, 1986. Students belonging to the Jehovah’s Witness sect of Christianity who did not sing the national anthem at a school gathering, due to religious beliefs that banned them from partaking in this, were expelled. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of them, granting them protection:

There is no provision of law which obliges anyone to sing the national anthem nor is it disrespectful to the national anthem if a person who stands up respectfully when the national anthem is sung does not join the singing. Proper respect is shown to the national anthem by standing up when the national anthem is sung. It will not be right to say that disrespect is shown by not joining in the singing. Standing up respectfully when the national anthem is sung but not singing oneself clearly does not either prevent the singing of the national anthem or cause disturbance to an assembly engaged in such singing so as to constitute the offense mentioned in S. 3 of the Prevention of Insults to National Honor Act.

Patriotism has increasingly become an important buzzword in India in recent years, with this ruling merely adding to the long list of demands of patriotism that have been expected of different stakeholders over even just the last few months. Patriotism and the idea of a united nation have been common forms of rhetoric invoked by members of the government requesting patience in the wake of demonetization. Patriotism was the weapon wielded by groups that stood up against Pakistani artists working in India after the Uri attacks. In July 2016, moreover, the national anthem emerged as a locus of patriotic fervor when disabled activist Salil Choudhary was beaten up at a theater for not standing up when the anthem was played. The couple who attacked Choudhary did not realize that he could not stand up.

While this directive does indicate that differently abled individuals need not rise to show respect when the anthem is played in theaters, it does draw upon the famous buzzword of patriotism quite clearly. The statement goes:

Be it stated, a time has come, the citizens of the country must realize that they live in a nation and are duty bound to show respect to national anthem which is the symbol of the constitutional patriotism and inherent national quality. It does not allow any different notion or the perception of individual rights, that have individually thought of have no space. The idea is constitutionally impermissible.

The idea that individually perceived notions of patriotism or nationhood are impermissible is a particularly problematic stance to take, specifically in a country that is home to the linguistic, caste-based, religious, and cultural diversity of India. The anthem effectively becomes a symbol, as indicated, but a symbol that may well help narrow the thinning perceptions of what really constitutes patriotism, in some sense going against the very spirit of the 1986 verdict. In addition to the accusation that this constitutes a further shrinkage of patriotic expression, the court has also faced the accusation of indulging in judicial overreach by issuing this directive. The fact that this is an interim measure, however, indicates that the expected further hearing may better tackle this charge.