WHEN I was in Sialkot City, now a part of Pakistan, I used to visit cinema halls in the cantonment regularly. What I resented then was that I had to stand up for the British national anthem, “God save the king…” The cinema halls did not bolt the doors and left it to an individual how he or she behaved. There was no compulsion, but you were expected to stand up when the British national anthem was played. The British rulers were sensitive to the people’s rights and did not make it compulsory or impose any penal action against the public that did not stand up. Significantly, the practice of playing the British national anthem at the end of Indian films was gradually avoided, lest the viewers dishonour the king and later the queen. Even otherwise, they wanted to avoid the spectacle.
There have been legal interventions on playing the national anthem in theatres in the past. In 2003, the Maharashtra Assembly passed an order mandating the playing of the national anthem before the start of a movie. In the 1960s, the national anthem would be played at the end of the film. But as people simply filed out after the movie, this practice was stopped. Existing laws don’t penalise or force any person to stand up or sing the national anthem. The Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act, 1971 states: “Whoever intentionally prevents singing of the Jana Gana Mana or causes disturbances to any assembly engaged in such singing shall be punished with imprisonment for a term, which may extend to three years, or with fine, or with both.”
The official duration of the anthem is 52 seconds, though what is usually played in cinema halls exceeds that length. A Home Ministry order in 2015 stated, “Whenever the Anthem is sung or played, the audience shall stand to attention. However, when in the course of a newsreel or documentary the anthem is played as a part of the film, it is not expected of the audience to stand as standing is bound to interrupt the exhibition of the film and would create disorder and confusion rather than add to the dignity of the anthem.”
And the law until now, specifically says that it has been left “to the good sense of the people” not to indulge in indiscriminate singing or playing of the national anthem. There are even specific rules as to whom the national anthem should be played for (the President and not the Prime Minister), and when people can indulge in mass singing of the anthem. While the application of the Supreme Court order and the penalties for its violation are not clear, there are definitely precedents for individually perceived notions of freedom, which the court order says are overindulged, being upheld over nationalistic causes.
As things stand now, there is no judgment by the apex court, or a legal provision, or an administrative direction that makes it mandatory for people to stand during the national anthem. That they do so is essentially an expression of personal respect. But the Supreme Court had ruled that the national anthem should be played before the screening of films in cinema halls, and that all should “stand up in respect.” “…people should feel that they live in a nation and show respect to the national anthem and the national flag.” During the October 2017 hearing by the Supreme Court Justice Chandrachud had hinted at modifying the 2016 order, observing “why do people have to wear their patriotism on their sleeve?… People go to a movie theatre for undiluted entertainment. Society needs that entertainment”.
But the government has told the court it may consider restoring the position that existed prior to the November 2016 order when it was not mandatory for movie halls to play the national anthem. “This Hon’ble Court may consider the restoration of status quo ante till then, i.e. restoration of the position as it stood before the order passed by this Hon’ble Court on November 30, 2016 with regard to direction ‘d’ in the said order to the extent that it mandates the playing of the national anthem in all cinemas before the feature film starts,” it said. Some years ago, a two-judge bench of the apex court had ordered a school in Kerala to take back three children who had been expelled for not singing the national anthem, although they stood during the anthem. The children desisted from singing because of their conviction that their religion did not permit them to join any rituals except in their prayers to Jehovah, their god.
The Supreme Court ruled that there is no legal provision that obliges anyone to sing the national anthem, and it is not disrespectful to the anthem if a person who stands up respectfully when it is being sung does not join in the singing. The court, however, did not deal with the issue of whether it would be disrespectful if a person chose not to stand during the national anthem. The judgment ended with the message: “Our tradition teaches tolerance; our philosophy preaches tolerance; our Constitution practises tolerance; let us not dilute it.”
Unfortunately, in the absence of a clear-cut decision, several high courts have dealt with such cases differently. For instance, in August 2014, police in Kerala slapped IPC Section 124A (sedition) on seven people, including two women, after they failed to stand when the national Anthem was played in a Thiruvananthapuram theatre. One of them, M Salman, 25, was arrested for allegedly “sitting and hooting” as the anthem was played. He was also charged under Section 66A of the IT Act for allegedly posting a derogatory comment about the national flag on Facebook. I personally think that there only should be a clear-cut order that all will have to stand when the anthem is sung or played because some part of the provision seem to make it mandatory to stand whenever the national anthem is played, while the other part creates an exception. But the rules nowhere prescribe a penalty for not adhering to it and, therefore, it has to work in accordance with the Act.
—The writer is a veteran Indian journalist, syndicated columnist, human rights activist and author.