Per supreme court orders, cinema halls across India will soon be required to play the national anthem before every screening, accompanied by an image of the Indian flag. Moviegoers must stand for the anthem, and theater exits should be shut for its duration so as to avoid “disrespectful milling.”
The ruling by the two-judge bench echoes recent sentiment in Delhi's halls of government that citizens should engage in a more performative nationalism. For instance, after 86 percent of India's currency notes were taken out of circulation earlier this month, aiming to eliminate “black money” but leading to long lines at ATMs and banks, numerous officials praised those in the queues for their sacrifice on the country's behalf. Media outlets also trumpeted Prime Minister Narendra Modi's retaliation against allegedly Pakistani-backed militants. The “surgical strikes,” as they were called, would usually have gone unannounced, but round-the-clock coverage of this latest action has bolstered Modi's image as a purveyor of Indian might.
Theaters have 10 days to comply with the supreme court's order, although the ruling may be appealed. The judge who read out the order minced no words in promoting nationalism as the motive for the ruling.
“People must feel they live in a nation, and this wallowing individually perceived notion of freedom must go,” said Justice Dipak Misra, according to the Indian Express. The order itself was even less ambiguous:
“From the aforesaid, it is clear as crystal that it is the sacred obligation of every citizen to abide by the ideals engrafted in the Constitution. And one such ideal is to show respect for the National Anthem and the National Flag. Be it stated, a time has come, the citizens of the country must realize that they live in a nation and are duty bound to show respect to National Anthem which is the symbol of the Constitutional Patriotism and inherent national quality. It does not allow any different notion or the perception of individual rights, that have individually thought of have no space. The idea is constitutionally impermissible.”
Indian constitutional scholars have roundly criticized the decision as impinging on the right to freedom of speech. Some have even questioned the ruling's legality. Each of India's 29 states has different laws around the anthem. One of the country's biggest, Maharashtra, which contains the metropolis of Mumbai, already mandates the anthem be played in cinema halls.
Free speech, in this case, could be defined as simply sitting through the national anthem. Over the past few years, some Indians who have done so have been assaulted by their fellow moviegoers. In one highly publicized incident, a Bollywood celebrity herself hounded a boy out of a theater for not standing. More recently, a handicapped man in a wheelchair was beaten and ejected for doing the same.
Others have questioned how exactly the ruling would be enforced. Would there be police officers stationed in movie halls to keep doors closed during the anthem? Would they make sure everyone inside stood? If an assault on a dissenter began, whose side would the police be on?
Or if there were a fire in the hall during the anthem, but doors had been shut or, worse, locked, might moviegoers end up making a far greater sacrifice in the name of nationalism?
That the ruling will even engender nationalistic feelings is even up for debate. When one is forced to perform nationalism, how can anyone else be certain that the feeling is genuine?