Going overboard with the National Anthem- - By Patricia Mukhim

On November 30, 2016 the Supreme Court of India said all cinema halls across the country should play the national anthem and that those present “must stand up in respect” to “instill a feeling within one a sense of committed patriotism and nationalism.” Patriotism and nationalism are both emotions that spring from the heart and cannot be imposed on any person. While Article 51(A) of the Constitution says it is the constitutional duty of every citizen to respect its ideals and institutions the National Flag and the National Anthem it does not make impositions on where the national anthem should or should not be sung. Sadly the ruling of Justice Dipak Mishra in the PIL filed by Shyam Narayan Chouksey, directing cinema hall owners to play the national anthem at the start of every movie, appears to lack reason and does not rely on any constitutional clause.

Meanwhile the Supreme Court has left it to the Government  of the day to frame appropriate rules on how people with various disabilities (PWDs) such as wheelchair bound persons, the hearing impaired, blind and mentally retarded persons are to comply with the directive. Accordingly, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has come out with the most absurd list to define how PWDs should respond while the national anthem is played. This makes one wonder how the national anthem has become so sacrosanct simply because someone with a hyper-ventilated sense of patriotism has filed a petition seeking that it be played in cinema halls.

Now, why cinema halls when other important institutions such as the judiciary and legislatures are exempt from playing the anthem before the start of the day’s proceedings? Isn’t this a case of judicial overreach? And while on the point of people with disabilities the guidelines for them is so bizarre that if a case were to be filed by any such person, the Government directive is sure to be struck down for its sheer inability to understand the plight of a disabled person.

One of the many guidelines says, “The persons with locomotor disabilities are other wheelchair users having affected lower limbs shall position himself/herself to the extent of maximum attentiveness and alertness with or without the help of appropriate aids and appliances. For example the wheelchair bound person with disability shall make the wheel chair static, position himself/herself maintaining the maximum possible alertness physically.” Just trying to imagine the pain of someone having to adjust his/her wheelchair and then trying to stand up with help from the person sitting on the next chair or by a relative, itself suggests so much difficulty to the PWD and also to others watching him/her. The person might finally decide never to step into a cinema hall again. So is this ruling, not in fact being discriminatory to PWDs? Does it not discourage them from trying to be as normal as is possible and watching a movie in a cinema hall instead of being closeted at home?

What the rule says for persons with hearing and vision impairment is even more absurd. It says a person with hearing disability should stand with attentiveness provided there is appropriate indication on the screen that the national anthem is playing. The vision impaired are also expected to stand to attention when the anthem is played. The escorts are also told to stand up and to make their wards also stand to attention. While such diktat is acceptable when applied to people with no disabilities who can get on their feet once the national anthem is played, it is almost cruel to people with disabilities.

The rule is relaxed only for people with mental retardation. But how often do people with mental/intellectual disabilities come to watch a movie? And what happens if while the national anthem is being played they suddenly begin shouting or shrieking or moving and flapping their hands etc? Will that be considered disrespect and will they be subject to a three year imprisonment?

Clearly, the recent SC directive on the national anthem seems to encroach on our fundamental rights to freedom of expression, more so because this is targeted at a place of entertainment where people want to relax and enjoy complete freedom for a few hours. As it is there are so many restrictions in our day to day lives and people look for free spaces where they can just be themselves but now even cinema halls are being policed. Are we therefore becoming a police state and the judiciary the biggest bogeyman?

-The Writer, Patricia Mukhim is a Padmashree Awardee and the Editor of The Shillong Times. She can be contacted at patricia.mukhim@gmail.com

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