Written by Budhaditya Bhattacharya.
On December 12th, 2016 three people were harassed and beaten up for not standing while the national anthem was being played before the screening of the movie ‘Chennai 600028-II’ at the Kasi theatre in Chennai, India. The moviegoers were charged and subsequently released on personal bail.
Occurrences at similar events rose following an order by the Supreme Court of India on the 30th of November, 2016, when all cinema halls in India were ordered to play the national anthem before the screening of films. Among the six other directions in the order that was to be ‘scrupulously’ followed, the Supreme Court made it compulsory for all present in the hall to stand in respect of the national anthem with the entry and exit doors shut.
Taking steps to create a common bond among all Indians is more than welcome. However, that common bond should not be superficial and animated exercises of nationalism.
This order created a ruckus in the media, intelligentsia and public, massively polarising opinion. While some welcomed the move by the court, others felt they were being coerced to wear nationalism on their sleeves. Things changed course on the 23rd of October, 2017 when the bench comprising Chief Justice Dipak Misra, Justice A.M Khanwilkar and Justice D.Y Chandrachud placed the onus on the government to take a stand on this issue. On the 9th of January, 2018 the Supreme Court reversed its previous order for cinema halls to mandatorily play the national anthem, in response to a government request to reconsider its controversial order. Until the inter-ministerial committee formed by the government comes up with its recommendations, the reversed order will remain for at least six months.
Such a move from a government run by the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party has come as a surprise, albeit not necessarily a pleasant one for everybody. While a section of the population has hailed this move, many have expressed their disappointment with the government’s turnaround. However, for all the criticism the government faced for backing the court’s 2016 order, the recent move needs to be seen as a positive move.
Despite the government’s decision to take things back to status quo for the interim, chances are high that it will again make the playing of the national anthem in cinema halls mandatory, by amending the Flag Code – the set of laws that govern the usage of the national flag including the national anthem. Recognising the symbolic importance of the national anthem to a nation, it needs to be understood there is always a time and place for it. There is no doubt that it is difficult to establish the identity of a nation without the support of some nationalistic symbols. However, it becomes a matter of concern when jingoism replaces nationalism. It should not be the aim of the government to infuse an overtly nationalist agenda into the daily lives of its citizens. Standing up for 52 seconds for the national anthem might not even seem to be an issue worth debating. But it is the symbolic significance of the whole exercise that matters. Forcing people to stand up for the national anthem before watching a movie might do more harm than good in strengthening the fabric of the country.
Love for one’s country finds myriad expression for different people. The farmer who toils all day, the doctor who serves patients, the banker who diligently does his/her job all serve the nation. It is not necessary to conform to notions of nationalism cooked up by melodramatic television anchors, who love creating a cacophony in the studio, as to who is ‘more’ nationalist. As Justice Chandrachud observed on the 23rd of October, 2017 there is no need for a person to stand up at a cinema hall to be a patriotic person. People need not have their nationalistic feelings aroused before a dose of entertainment in the cinema hall.
The national anthem Jana Gana Mana is the first stanza of a five-stanza poem written by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, first sung at the annual conference of the Indian National Congress in Calcutta on 27th December 1911, before India gained independence. The poem reflects Tagore’s idea of a nation as ‘a live entity, a psychological substance’ that breaks down the barriers of race, religion, territory and political leadership. The imagery of areas like Punjab, Bengal, Gujarat, Maratha, Sindh, the mountain ranges of Himachal and Vindhyas, rivers like Ganga and Yamuna and the oceans with foaming waves waking up to listen to the Auspicious name and seeking blessings from the Divine creates a sense of remarkable synergy and harmony of different elements.
Taking steps to create a common bond among all Indians is more than welcome. However, that common bond should not be superficial and animated exercises of nationalism. The inter-ministerial committee set up to review the rules for playing the national anthem will succeed if it is able to establish rules that will help to instil among all Indians the ideals the national anthem stands for. India can bloom to its brightest of colours if we endeavour to develop humanism, scientific temper, the spirit of inquiry and the mental faculty of the nation. Only then, the sweeping tune of Jana Gana Mana will truly realise its goal.
Budhaditya Bhattacharya is an upcoming Indian classical vocalist, studying for an MA in Music in Development at SOAS, University of London. His research interests lie at the crossroads of music, religion, gender studies and international relations. He tweets at @Budhaditya95. Image Credit: CC by Free Stock Photos/Pexels.