Why enforced patriotism doesn’t sit well with some in India

Amrit Dhillon says the Supreme Court ruling to make people stand for the national anthem in cinemas is absurd and won’t achieve its aims of fostering greater national pride

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 December, 2016, 10:45am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 December, 2016, 5:53pm

I am not good with authority. Some perverse streak in me bristles instinctively on being faced with edicts. People like me are now in serious trouble as, every time we go to the cinema in India, we will have to stand when the national anthem is played before the movie, as decreed last month by the country’s Supreme Court.

“The citizens of the country must realise that they live in a nation and are duty bound to show respect to the national anthem, which is the symbol of constitutional patriotism“, the judges intoned in their ruling.

My first reaction to the news was that it is absurd to enforce patriotism. Now that feeling has been reinforced, on learning that about 20 people were arrested for not standing for the anthem, during a film festival in Kerala and elsewhere. Even more alarming was an incident in Chennai, where eight young men were beaten up at a cinema for not standing.

India’s Supreme Court orders cinemas to play national anthem before each screening

It’s a pity the judges didn’t realise that, the moment you rule on something as personal and individual as patriotism, you encourage vigilantes. Apart from being a licence for thuggery, the order is flawed on many counts. What about the disabled? Those in wheelchairs or the elderly? What about someone whose personal ideology – communism, anarchism, Maoism – dictates that they remain seated? What about instances such as the recent one where an exhausted labourer flopped into his seat and instantly fell asleep? Would he be manhandled and ordered to stand?

The moment you rule on something as personal and individual as patriotism, you encourage vigilantes

All virtues are more authentic when they are voluntary. Once a virtue is imposed, it becomes either a meaningless reflex action or something done out of fear of social censure or violence. Some virtues, such as civic virtues, have to be enforced because the failure to display them affects other citizens, but failing to stand for the anthem causes no harm to others.

What’s puzzling is why cinemas have been singled out. Standing for the national anthem makes sense in schools, say, or during the first session of parliament, but cinemas? By the same logic, other places of entertainment such as restaurants and drama theatres should also have been included.

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As to the police, one can only wonder how they will cope with this trivial offence when they are already overstretched and should be focusing their energies on dealing with real crimes.

The pity is that the natural, emotional reaction to hearing the national anthem will be ruined. Most of my friends are hardened cynics who don’t take kindly to displays of emotion. Yet they get a lump in their throat on formal occasions when they hear the first strains of the anthem. When that lump is made-to-order, the charm is lost.

Amrit Dhillon is a freelance journalist in New Delhi