The tug at the heartstrings that one feels while listening to the national anthem is too sublime to be trivialised into a coercive loyalty test. A sense of quiet respect that it instills among citizens should not be reduced to a bickering over nationalism. While the anthem is a great unifier in a multi-religious and multi-ethnic country like India, the question is whether people need to wear patriotism on their sleeves. The debate has assumed significance at a time when the dividing line between patriotism and jingoism is getting blurred. Policing patriotism runs contrary to the liberal values that form the bedrock of any open society. It is heartening that the Supreme Court has modified its earlier order on mandatory playing of the national anthem in cinema halls before screening a film. The court has now ruled that it is not mandatory for theatres to play the anthem. A bench, headed by Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra, modified the November 30, 2016, order that had made the playing of anthem compulsory. Under the modified order, it will now be up to cinema hall owners if they want to play it. However, movie-goers will have to show respect to the anthem in case it is played and stand to attention. The apex court has shown the flexibility and capacity to correct its earlier decision that many felt was over-the-top and open to be misused. Cinema halls are meant for entertainment with a tub of popcorn and it is pointless to convert them into platforms to test people’s patriotism.
Every citizen loves to hear the national anthem being played when an Indian athlete excels at an international event and steps forward to receive the medal. The sense of occasion and sobriety must be kept in mind while framing rules on playing the anthem. On its part, the Central government has set up a 12-member inter-ministerial committee to consider wide-ranging issues relating to the anthem. After extensive discussions, it will give its recommendations within six months. The ministerial panel will examine whether any amendments are necessary to the Prevention of Insult to National Honour Act of 1971 to expand or specify the meaning of ‘respect’ to the national anthem. The committee must take note of several instances of people being beaten up in theatres for failing to stand up when the national anthem was being played.
This lazy labelling of non-conformists as ‘anti-nationals and traitors’ is disquieting. Such divisiveness would, in fact, amount to defiling the spirit of patriotism. The Supreme Court has rightly ordered that differently-abled citizens would be exempt from standing when the anthem is played. The people should not be forced to carry patriotism on their sleeves.