In the United States, Colin Kaepernick gets death threats when he refuses to stand for the national anthem. In India, you can get handcuffs for the same thing.
In the past week, Indian police in two cities have arrested at least 20 people who remained seated when the national anthem played in cinemas before film screenings, according to Firstpost.com. The arrests are among the first that authorities have made in the days since a ruling by the country’s high court took effect requiring movie theaters throughout the country to play the “Jana Gana Mana” before every film and ordering audiences to stand to face an image of the Indian flag for the duration of the song.
Hysteria over the national anthem has reached a fever pitch in the world’s most populous democracy. People have been intimidated, assaulted and beaten by mobs for not standing during the playing of the national anthem in recent years, as a wave of nationalism has put pressure on Indians to engage in more overt displays of patriotism.
Demands to rise for the national anthem now carry the force of law. In its ruling last month, India’s Supreme Court said it was “clear as crystal that it is the sacred obligation of every citizen to abide by the ideals engrafted in the Constitution,” including “respect for the National Anthem and the National Flag.”
“People must feel they live in a nation, and this wallowing individually perceived notion of freedom must go,” one justice said.
The ruling took effect last week, with some critics questioning how authorities would enforce it — “by ordering a cop in every show,” one Indian journalist asked, “or simply crowd-sourcing it to self-appointed vigilantes?”
Sunday offered what may be the first example.
According to the Indian news website the Wire, a group of nine men and women in the coastal city of Chennai attended a late-morning showing of a sports comedy and decided on principle not to rise when the song played. The protest drew little attention at first, but during an intermission, some audience members accosted the group.
“Three of them have assaulted a male member of our group and tried to assault us girls also, using very abusive language and grabbing our hands,” one of the victims told the Wire.
As the group scuffled, police arrived and took the theatergoers into custody. The Hindu newspaper reported that the group was taking selfies during the song and that seven people were charged under a 1971 law that bans any behavior that disrupts the singing of the national anthem, with a penalty of up to three years in prison. The BBC later reported that eight people had been charged.
“This was the first time any of us had gone to a cinema since the Supreme Court judgment,” a woman identified as Shreela M. told the Wire. “We were avoiding going alone because we knew our conscience would not allow us to stand during the national anthem. So we decided to go as a group.”
A similar incident occurred Monday, when 12 people were arrested at International Film Festival of Kerala, according to the Indian Express. Indian police were sitting among the audience at the festival, the Express reported, when a half-dozen people declined to rise during the anthem before the screening of an Italian film, apparently concerned that they would lose their seats. Six others were arrested after the show ended. All 12 are facing charges of “failure to obey an order issued by a public servant, thereby causing obstruction or annoyance to others,” the BBC reported.
According to the Express, police showed up at the festival after activists from the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha, the youth wing of the Bharatiya Janata political party, complained that audience members were not standing during the anthem. A film society participating in the festival asked the Indian Supreme Court last week to exempt festival attendees from the new national-anthem ruling, saying it would inconvenience the roughly 1,500 foreign guests attending, the Express reported. The court shot down the request.
Justices Dipak Misra and Amitava Roy reportedly said during the hearing: “Only because certain foreigners are here and they may have some problems, should we recall our order? Why should we recall our orders only to oblige foreigners? If there are 40 movies running in different shows, you will have to, well, stand 40 times.”
In the past two years, Indians have reported intimidation, attacks and criminal charges for not standing during the “Jana Gana Mana.” In 2014, a group of men beat a 31-year-old man when his South African girlfriend did not stand during the national anthem at a movie theater in Mumbai. The same year, a man in Kerala was charged under a provincial sedition law when he refused to stand, the BBC reported. And last year, video surfaced showing a group of people being thrown out of a movie theater for not standing.
In a more recent incident that was widely publicized, a disabled man in Goa state said he was verbally and physically assaulted when he did not rise from his wheelchair during the song. In an essay for the BBC, Salil Chaturvedi said the attacker later apologized, but he still felt shaken.“ I keep thinking of the moment when the man would have taken a decision to reach out and knock me behind the head,” Chaturvedi wrote. “How was he to know that I wouldn’t hit back? Was he thinking anything at all? Was it a reflex action on his part? Was the love for his country (and mine) so overpowering that he felt nothing about physically assaulting someone? What am I supposed to do the next time?”
More from Morning Mix