The Supreme Court on Wednesday asked all cinemas to play the national anthem before a film is screened “for the love of the motherland”, reigniting a debate over whether an increasingly assertive brand of nationalistic pride is stifling civil liberties.
The court banned dramatising, abridging or making money from the 52-second-long Jana Gana Mana and said the national flag, the Tricolour, must be displayed on the movie screen when the anthem is played. Moviegoers must stand up and all doors of cinema halls be closed at such times to stop people moving around. Theatre owners have 10 days to implement the order.
“These days, people read things that have nothing to do with nationalism but don’t study material related to nationalism,” said a bench headed by justice Dipak Misra.
“Universalism is alright but still Bharat is the epitome of culture, knowledge… Gyaan and Vigyaan… people should feel that they live in a nation and show respect to the national anthem and the national flag.”
The order will likely embolden Hindu groups which are pushing a strident brand of nationalism that many oppose as just a means to curb dissent. It is also likely to stoke the debate over a resurgent wave of nationalistic activism which has sometimes seen fights break out over cricket matches and film stars.
It wasn’t immediately clear how the order will be enforced by the country’s overstretched police, which will also have to worry about self-appointed vigilante groups trying to bring to bear the court directive.
The national anthem is already played before movies in some states – such as Maharashtra – but the measure is often controversial, with instances of people beaten up for not standing up for the anthem. In October, a couple assaulted a man at a cinema in Goa for not rising during the national anthem only to discover he was paralytic and on a wheelchair.
Wednesday’s interim order — which came in response to a petition from a former soldier seeking to stop the national anthem being routinely “dishonoured” – was described as worrisome by several activists.
“It is bad enough for the Supreme Court to scorn individual freedom. To do so on an issue as unserious and arbitrary as what should be done at cinema halls is terrible,” wrote Nitin Pai, founder of the Takshashila Institution think tank, in a blog post.
Many moviegoers said the directive was intrusive and hardly useful in promoting patriotism.
But the court said people were bound by law to show respect when the national anthem is played or recited or sung.
“A time has come the citizens of the country must realise 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 said.
The court directed the Centre to give wide publicity to its order and send it to the chief secretaries of states and union territories.
“People wake up to see the order in its letter and spirit,” it said.
The national anthem was penned by India’s first Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore in 1911 and the first of five stanzas adopted as the country’s national anthem in 1950.
The song was last ordered to be played in cinemas in India after the country’s 1962 war with China but the practice was discontinued in 1975 after most moviegoers ignored it.