It appears that the chief beneficiary of the Supreme Court’s order requiring the national anthem to be played in cinema theatres is not the nation but the vigilante. On Sunday, students at a theatre in Chennai were assaulted and threatened by fellow film-goers for not formally respecting the anthem, and worse followed in Kerala on Monday. There was already a provincial tradition of viewers being assaulted for failing to rise to the occasion when the anthem was struck up, in states which required it. Now, the apex court’s ruling has given universal legitimacy to demands for the public display of patriotism, and the phenomenon has pushed its way into a film festival, which concerns itself with the art of cinema rather than commercial entertainment. Twelve persons, including two women, were detained for remaining seated when the anthem was played prior to a show at the International Film Festival of Kerala in Thiruvananthapuram. This was done on the basis of a complaint to the director general of police by the Bharatiya Yuva Morcha, not by the organisers.
On the contrary, citing the large number of screenings and the presence of foreign delegates, the organisers had sought to know whether the court’s standing order could be waived for the festival. A film group had also petitioned the Supreme Court to that end, and was turned down. All would have to rise for the 490 screenings scheduled for the festival. This will no doubt enhance the cardiovascular health of cineastes, but with all due respect, it is hard to think of a more efficient way of killing an international festival.
The court’s order may be in good faith, but it has brought impossible choices before the people. Quite obviously, it is a deterrent to cinema-goers, who are in theatres as consumers of entertainment and culture, not as producers of nationalism. A display of patriotism coercively elicited by fiat is worthless coin in the nationalism market. Besides, since policemen cannot be — and should not be, since they have more important duties — stationed in every theatre to see who fails to stand up, in effect the order encourages citizens to rat on fellow citizens, which cannot be very good for the moral fibre. The only recourse open to the morally alert citizen is frankly impossible. Either she sits in contempt of the court order, or stands in contempt of fundamental beliefs on which the Constitution is founded, such as the conviction that coercion is undemocratic. The choice is troubling.
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