National anthem in cinema halls: Case of judicial overreach– By Patricia Mukhim


The Supreme Court ruling on Tuesday directing all cinema halls to play the national anthem at the start of a movie and to close all exits while the anthem is sung reeks of judicial arbitrariness. The ruling comes in the wake of a PIL filed by an NGO from Bhopal. This is the era of hyper-nationalism and while the present NDA Government is blamed for pushing nationalism to a point where free choice is no longer an option, that the Supreme Court should join this competition to push the limits of patriotism, is a clear case of judicial overreach. There are, as it is, so many restrictions today in our day to day lives. We cannot withdraw our own money because of the cash embargo. We cannot make an opinion for fear of being trolled if it goes counter to what is today popular opinion as decided by certain right wing groups or left liberals. Our freedoms are already curtailed. Here comes one more imposition from the apex court compelling us to express our patriotism inside a place where we pay to relax and enjoy ourselves away from the constant gaze of the state.

There are 61436 pending cases before the Supreme Court as of October 2016, out of which 17,141 are up to a year old. About 44,295 cases are more than a year old.  There are about three crore cases pending across the country. Cases come up before the Supreme Court because litigants have failed to get justice in the High Court. It is evident that cases which come before the apex court are important to the lives of those who appeal to it for justice. There are several cases related to non-fulfillment of basic duties by Governments towards the citizens. There are cases where suspects have been kept under judicial custody for years, pending a court ruling for or against them. In a country as vast as ours and with a diversity of race, religion and caste there are bound to be frivolous public interest litigations (PILs) on a host of issues that affect one or the other group or individual. The PIL route was given to citizens to address issues that affect a large number of people. Hence the name public interest litigation. It is not meant to serve an arbitrary purpose of pacifying the sentiments and emotions of an individual or NGO.

Clearly the case of the NGO filing a PIL to demand that cinema halls play the national anthem before a movie, needs to be examined within the larger context of our fundamental rights to freedom of expression. As a citizen I am not bound to express my patriotism in a certain kind of way. I am ready to stand up in deference to the national anthem at an official function particularly on national days such as January 26 (Republic Day) and August 15 (Independence Day), or on occasions when the Governor of the state addresses a gathering where it is imperative to sing or play the national anthem before and after the function. Singing of the national anthem demands a certain kind of solemnity which a movie- goer is not expected to have. It's a liberal space which I have paid to enter because I want to relax and leave all my problems behind. Having to stand in solemnity while the national anthem is played takes away half of the joy of coming for a movie!  But how would judges know? They probably have not entered a movie hall in decades.

The problem is that cantankerous, moralistic citizens might tomorrow file a PIL seeking to make some of our erstwhile freedoms no longer free. Rock concerts and other public venues might be asked to begin their performances with the national anthem. Hotels and discotheques might be next and there is really no end to the demands by hyper-nationalists. Several views have now appeared asking the Courts themselves to begin their sessions with the national anthem and the Parliament and state assemblies also to do the same. And I think those suggestions are most appropriate since these are sanctum sanctorum of democracy.

We look up to the Courts to interpret the Constitution for us so that law and order as it is believed to function in a civilized society is upheld. But when the Courts themselves begin to curtail our rights by imposing certain behaviour on us then it is time for citizens to questions such judgments. Judges after all are not infallible.

By Patricia Mukhim