Today, 9 January 2018, the Supreme Court accepted the Centre’s suggestion to restore the conditions prior to the November 2016 Order of the Supreme Court. As a result, it is no longer mandatory for cinema halls in the country to play the national anthem before movie screenings.
On 30 November, 2016, the Supreme Court had passed an Order which made it mandatory for cinema halls to play the national anthem before every screening of a feature film. The Court also made it mandatory for people to stand, while the anthem was being played, to show their respect to the nation. The two-judge bench, comprising of Justice Amitava Roy and Justice Dipak Misra—the latter of the two went on to become the Chief Justice of India—had ordered that “…all cinema halls in India shall play the National Anthem before the feature film starts and all present in the hall are obliged to stand up to show respect to the National Anthem.” This would, according to the Court, instil a “sense of committed patriotism and nationalism.” However, in December 2016, the Court made an amendment to the order, exempting handicapped persons from standing up during the national anthem. The Order came in response to a petition filed by Shyam Narayan Chouksey in September 2016. Barely a month prior to this, in a shocking incident, Salil Chaturvedi, a poet residing in Goa, was attacked by a “nationalist” couple for not standing up during the national anthem. Chaturvedi was wheelchair bound.
The Order led to widespread debates in the media on patriotism, and whether the Court had the right to “enforce patriotism”. Soon after, an appeal was filed in the apex court to recall the Order. During a hearing of this appeal, in October 2017, 11 months after it passed the Order, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court observed that the Order may impinge on people people’s liberty to make their own choices. Justice D Y Chandrachud, one of the judges on the bench, was especially vocal in his criticism of the Order, saying that people need not wear their patriotism “on their sleeves.” He questioned the need for such an Order, “People go to cinema halls for undiluted entertainment. Why should we make choices for them? Why should we assume that if someone doesn't stand up for anthem in the cinema hall, he is not patriotic?” At the time, the Attorney General, K K Venugopal, representing the Centre, had said “Ours is a country with vast diversity of religion, region, race and caste. It becomes necessary to have a unifying force. By playing the national anthem, people can come out believing we are all Indians."
Interesting, Justice Dipak Misra was also part of this bench.
The Court decided to turn over the matter to the government, directing the Centre to take a call and decide what occasions merited the playing of the national anthem, including the decision regarding it being played before movies in cinema halls.
The Central Government finally responded to this yesterday, on 8 January 2018. The Home Ministry filed an affidavit informing the Court that an inter-ministerial committee would be set up to look into the matter. The Indian Express quoted the affidavit, “…the framing of guidelines describing circumstances and occasions on which the National Anthem is to be played or sung, and observance of proper decorum on such occasions, require extensive consultations with various ministries. It is submitted that the government has decided to constitute an inter-ministerial committee headed by Additional Secretary (Border Management), Ministry of Home Affairs, with representatives from the Ministry of Defence, Ministry of External Affairs, Ministry of Culture, Ministry of Women and Child Development, Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Ministry of Minority Affairs, Department of Legal Affairs, Department of School Education and Literacy and the Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disability.” Saying that the committee would reach a decision six months after its constitution, they asked the Court to, in the meantime, consider restoring the conditions prior to the November 2016 Order i.e. not make it mandatory for cinema halls to play the national anthem before movie screenings. This came as surprise to many, especially considering the Centre’s earlier stance on the matter.
A day after the Home Ministry filed the affidavit, the Supreme Court accepted its suggestion and ruled that playing the national anthem in cinema halls is no longer mandatory.
Time for some cheer amidst belligerent nationalism in 2018?
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