The Supreme Court of India has decreed that the national anthem be played in all cinema theatres and that cinegoers stand to attention during such a recital, with all exits closed. The objective of the order is to ensure that the spirit of patriotism rises within each cinegoer, a desirable process that hopefully gets created when the anthem gets played on screen. The significance of this order on the rights of the citizen is immense. Hence many may regard it helpful for the court to define precisely what “patriotism” means, apart of course from standing to attention whenever the national anthem gets sung. What are the other requisites of this noble and necessary quality in the citizen, and would it not be best were the Supreme Court to order that the observance of each of these conditions be made mandatory for the citizen? Perhaps the country will soon get the benefit of a fuller order, in which each of the essential components of patriotism gets listed and made compulsory for citizens of India. Also, some may argue that patriotism needs to be constantly refreshed in each individual, not only in a cinema theatre, but also in other locations frequented by the public.
The national anthem is indeed a magnificent composition. It is impossible not to feel a surge of emotion when listening to its language. However, some believe that the anthem should not be used in a medley of locations, but rather be played on occasions that are of greater import than the screening of a film of less than stellar quality. Also, that a decision on whether the occasion be solemn enough, significant enough, to merit the privilege of having the anthem played be left to the discretion of individual citizens, rather than to the police or other agencies of the state. If a school or a college is holding a function that is regarded as important, it may be fitting to begin or end the proceedings by the playing of the national anthem. If a factory has broken global records in quality, at the celebratory function held on the occasion, it may be appropriate to play the anthem so as to highlight that the citizens of India, who are almost without exception reverential to the national anthem, are among the finest in the world. However, we need to be reminded of the reality that the difference between a democracy and an authoritarian system is the fact that in the former, the overwhelming majority of decisions get taken by private individuals and not by command of the state.
Incoming US President Donald J. Trump would be delighted at the Supreme Court’s anthem verdict, although it is unlikely that the Court in his own country would go along with their brothers in the Apex Court in Delhi. Even Antonin Scalia, regarded as the most conservative of judges, was clear that only a monarch could decree that the US flag be kept inviolate. Scalia said that US citizens were immune from penalty even if they were to publicly burn the flag, while of course, soon-to-be President Trump would like such individuals to even be deprived of their citizenship. India does not any more have a monarch on a throne, in Delhi or in London, but an elected government. Seeking to enhance patriotism through the anthem being shown in cinema theatres may not always work, as it would be difficult to determine if exposure to the national anthem before watching a movie actually increases the patriotism in the mind of the citizen. In jurisprudence it is, after all, the “mens rea” and not the “actus reus” that determines if a crime has been committed, i.e., the thought must precede the act and not be disengaged from the latter. What if a citizen has fulfilled the “actus reus” of standing up in respect to the national anthem, but his mind, his “mens rea”, is less than respectful? After all, the emotion, indeed the instinct, of patriotism is a quality that needs to get rooted in the mind, and as yet, thoughts are much more difficult to fathom than actions. Not forgetting of course that the mind in the Knowledge Era thrives in a culture of freedom.
Why do students in US universities do better in life than those in many universities in India? Perhaps because students in India are spoon-fed, force-fed in fact. They are drained of initiative and individualism and are subjected to the constant hammer blow of enforced conformity, while students in the US are encouraged to think and act for themselves and indeed, to challenge what their professors seek to drill into them. The Indian mind is at least as versatile as any other, if it were not constantly constricted by a web of regulations that takes away huge tranches of the freedoms available to citizens in all other major democracies. Even without this latest fiat by the Supreme Court, an institution that merits the admiration of every citizen, this columnist has risen to his feet whenever the national anthem gets played. Not because he has to, but because he wants to. And not every individual who remains seated may be unpatriotic. Some of the sitting may, indeed, have done greater service to this country than those standing up. Each citizen has, or ought to have, the right to express his or her patriotism in the manner he or she deems proper, without being made to follow a particular menu of actions regarded as being the attributes of patriotism. The citizen looks to the Supreme Court to expand the boundaries of freedom in a country still in the straitjacket of a colonial mode of governance, and the way to do this may be to leave manifestations of patriotism to the sensibilities of the individual rather than enforced by command.