Home >Opinion >Columns >Opinion | It’s high time cinema halls stop playing the national anthem

When I was a child, the national anthem used to be played in cinema halls after the feature film ended. But the moment the flag began fluttering on the screen, many in the audience would make a dash for the exits. By the time the anthem ended, most of the seats would be empty, with people jostling at the doors. At some point, maybe the late 1970s, the government saw sense, and stopped the practice.

Last week, a video went viral about a group of people shouting at a family which refused to stand up when Jana Gana Mana was played before a film in a Bengaluru multiplex. A man can be heard saying: “I think they should be ashamed as they are standing on Indian soil. Are you a Pakistani terrorist?" Another says: “Not able to spare 52 seconds for the country and you can watch a movie for three hours. Our soldiers are fighting for us in Kashmir and you can’t even stand for the national anthem. Get out of here!" As expected, Twitter exploded, with the usual arguments for and against what constitutes patriotism, nationalism, anti-national behaviour, and the inevitable abusive exchanges.

In November 2016, a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court comprising Justices Dipak Misra and Amitava Roy made it compulsory to play the national anthem before a film—before, so people couldn’t escape—in all cinemas, to instil a sense of “committed patriotism and nationalism". All present in the hall would have to stand up (the order was later modified to exclude those with disabilities). However, the SC soon started having doubts, perhaps after accusations of “pop nationalism", and asked the government for its opinion. The government requested the court to restore the status quo ante (that is, no anthem) and said it had set up an inter-ministerial committee to study the issue. Last heard, this committee, which was supposed to submit its recommendations by July 2018, was still deliberating the matter.

In January 2018, a three-judge bench of the SC, which again included Justice Dipak Misra, now the Chief Justice of India, made the anthem optional, but maintained that it was mandatory to stand at attention while it played (one of the judges, Justice D.Y. Chandrachud, orally objected to this). But the statute governing the subject—Prevention of Insult to National Honour Act, 1971—does not cover sitting during the anthem as an offence. Thus, legally, those not standing up are guilty of contempt of court, since they are violating a Supreme Court order. That’s a prison term of up to six months and/or a fine of 2,000.

So, not standing up is not simply a right to dissent; it is actually a punishable offence. But there are matters beyond legality. Why should someone not stand up when the anthem is played? One may bitterly hate the government in power, but the national anthem has nothing to do with that. It stands for India and a shared nationhood, a shared hope. In fact, if you feel that the government is destroying your idea of India, it means you do have some concept of your ideal nation; ergo, you do care for your homeland, so you should respect the anthem. In fact, unlike many national anthems, Jana Gana Mana is not jingoistic-nationalist; it is luminous in its humility. Why would you want to insult it?

Yes, in recent years, all sorts of government criticism has been branded “anti-national", so it’s a natural reaction to engage in public acts to deliberately provoke an “anti-national" outcry, but sitting through the national anthem is stupid, both intellectually and politically. This gets you nowhere. Most people will consider you anti-national if you’re sitting. Among the few symbols the vast majority of Indians hold sacred is Jana Gana Mana. Millions of us still get goosebumps when we hear it for the thousandth time.

A stock argument is: Why should I have to prove my patriotism? Does sitting through the anthem make me less of a patriot? No, we certainly don’t need periodic tests of patriotism. I see no value in the pre-film national anthem; for the people pushing their way to the exits in the 1960s and 70s while the anthem played, the ritual had lost all meaning but it definitely did not mean that they were not patriotic. But even if we agree that it is a rather pointless exercise, what is it in the end—a minor bother, at worst? Maybe it won’t make you less of a patriot if you sit through the anthem, but it certainly makes you a jerk, utterly insensitive to the feelings of everyone around you, if you refuse to stand up for a minute just to prove some silly point to yourself. When the crowd gets up to ask for an encore at the end of a musical performance, even if you don’t agree, wouldn’t you get up too?

Should the keep-sitters be bullied and forced to leave the hall, as they were in the Bengaluru video? I think they should be ignored, and during the intermission, a lot of people, separately, should go up to them, and tell them that it is a punishable offence, but because India still believes in some liberal values, they’re not being reported to the police; however, others may not be so kind.

Meanwhile, I hope that, since it is entirely their call now, cinema halls stop playing Jana Gana Mana. It is totally unnecessary.

Sandipan Deb is former editor of ‘Financial Express’ and founder-editor of‘Open’ and ‘Swarajya’ magazines

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