A few years ago, I had read an article about the peculiar social and cultural differences between Japan and the west. It was written by an American man who had married a Japanese woman and settled down in Tokyo. He wrote of an incident when his parents-in-law had come to eat dinner. As they entered, the writer, as a matter of habit, proceeded to help his mother-in-law take her coat off and put it on the coat rack. He then realised that his father-in-law had not taken too kindly to that rather innocent act. The writer’s wife told him later that while taking your guest’s coat was a gesture of polite hospitality in the west, in Japan it was an act of deep intimacy – one only husbands can do for their wives. When it comes to love, the Japanese are culturally not as flamboyant, effusive and demonstrative as the Americans or Europeans (the Japanese millennial might be more westernised, but this seemingly still holds true for most of Japan). They don’t hug and kiss each other all the time. They don’t say “I love you” at the end of every conversation. Instead, the Japanese show their affection for their spouses and even their children through a hundred small acts that demonstrate caring and intimacy. This restrained, understated form of love might seem strange and even silly to westerners, but that doesn’t make it any less valid. In fact, it has its own charm and beauty.
This is also true of Indians. I am sure only a minority of the Indian readers of this blog will have actually heard their parents or grandparents openly profess their love for each other. And your mother or father might not actually say the words, but they show you they love you in other ways (making your favourite food, feeding you before they eat, giving you extra portions), and perhaps you do the same. Now, imagine if some people found this unspoken love ridiculous and made it a rule that every morning before you take a bath you must step outside your house and shout “I love my mother/father/spouse” loudly, for everyone to hear. Isn’t that strangely intrusive and oddly obtrusive at the same time? What does bathing have to do with loving your family? Why do you have to demonstrate to everyone regularly that you love your mother? Do you really need to remind yourself that you love your father? Will this make you love them more?
The Supreme Court’s interim order pursuant to the writ petition filed by Shyam Narayan Chouksey seems to suggest that your love for your country should be demonstrated openly and publicly every time you go to a theatre to watch Shah Rukh Khan romance an actress in the Swiss Alps or Salman Khan single-handedly beat up the entire Indian mafia. Many people have asked a very pertinent question: why movie theatres? On the face of it, playing the national anthem before a film might seem like quite an arbitrary way to instil patriotism in people. It’s like making people sing ‘Vande Mataram’ every time they open a book. But film as a medium is optimal for eliciting an affective reaction. When people go to watch a film, you have a large group of people in a single enclosed space completely focused on whatever is happening on the screen. It is the perfect setting to make you feel whatever the person in control wants you to feel. As author China Mieville has said, “You know how easy it is to emotionally manipulate you. Hollywood is a factory to manipulate you. That is what it does. That is what it is for. Emotion is very easy to manipulate. You’re in a darkened room, there are loud noises, there’s light shining in the darkness. It is an overwhelming experience in certain ways. I think quite a lot of the time when people say ‘I liked it’, what they mean is something along the lines of ‘I was temporarily stupefied by noises and lights for which my limbic system has no adaptive evolutionary mechanisms to respond with.’” The movie theatre’s unique ability to sweep you off your feet is why it has historically been the preferred venue for propaganda. Of course, it was in a movie theatre where this all began.
In 2001, Shyam Narayan Chouksey was in Jyoti Talkies, a movie theatre in Bhopal, watching Karan Johar’s Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham. In one scene clearly designed to pull at the heartstrings of the patriotic NRI, an Indian-origin child born in the UK surprises his parents by singing the Indian national anthem at an event in his preppy private school. Mr. Chouksey immediately stood up for the anthem, but was inconsolably dismayed to see that everyone else hadn’t done the same. In fact, some even booed at him (probably because he was blocking the screen). He was also angered by the movie’s treatment of the national anthem. He filed a writ at the Madhya Pradesh High Court and it went to a double bench. Coincidentally, one of the judges was Dipak Misra J, the same judge who delivered the interim order on November 30, 2016. The 2003 judgment delivered by Misra J is quite a read, with several paragraphs dedicated to flowery, grandiose, baroque (to the point of incoherence) praise of the national anthem. “The national anthem is pivotal and centripodal to the basic conception of sovereignty and integrity of India,” it declares. “It is the marrow of nationalism, hypostasis of patriotism, nucleus of national heritage, substratum of culture and epitome of national honour.” Denouncing the scene in the film in which a young boy falters while singing the national anthem, Misra J writes: “They have not kept in mind ‘vox populi, vox dei’. The producer and the director have allowed the National Anthem of Bharat, the alpha and omega of the country to the backseat. On a first flush it may look like a magnum opus of patriotism but on a deeper probe and greater scrutiny it is a simulacrum having the semblance but sans real substance. There cannot be like Caesar’s thrasonical brags of ‘veni, vidi, vici.’ The boy cannot be allowed to make his innocence a parents rodomontrade, at the cost of national honour. In our view it is contrary to national ethos and an anathema to the sanguinity of the national feeling. It is an exposition of ad libitum.” The High Court’s decision was to ban Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham until the scene in question was deleted.
The judgment referred extensively to the landmark case of Bijoe Emmanuel & Ors. vs. State of Kerala & Ors. AIR 1987 SC 748. On July 8, 1985, the Emmanuel siblings – 15-year-old Bijoe, 13-year-old Binu and 10-year-old Bindu – were attending school when the headmistress announced that the national anthem would be sung in the classroom. The siblings stood up but did not sing, as they were Jehovah’s Witnesses, a specific Christian sect that prohibits its followers from singing in praise of anything or anyone apart from their god. Their father, V.J. Emmanuel asked for a special concession for his children on religious grounds and the headmistress and senior teachers agreed. However, word reached a member of the legislative assembly who raised the matter in the house and soon a senior school inspector ordered the headmistress to expel the children. Mr. Emmanuel filed a writ petition in the Kerala High Court, but when the decision went against him, he appealed to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court upheld the students’ right not to sing the national anthem, stating that their fundamental rights under Articles 19(1)(a) and 25(1) had been infringed. In its 2003 judgment, the Madhya Pradesh High Court seems to have relied specifically on the following paragraph from the Bijoe Emmanuel judgment: “We may at once say that there is no provisions of law which obliges anyone to sing the National Anthem nor do we think that it is disrespectful to the National Anthem if a person who stands up respectfully when the National Anthem is sung does not join the singing. It is true Art. 51-A(a) of the Constitution enjoins a duty on every citizen of India ‘to abide by the Constitution and respect its ideals and institutions, the National Flag and the National Anthem.’ Proper respect is shown to the National Anthem by standing up when the National Anthem is sung. It will not be right to say that disrespect is shown by not joining in the singing.”
Misra J seems to have relied on a literal reading of this paragraph when he, in the interim order dated November 30, 2016, made it compulsory for all moviegoers to stand up when the national anthem plays in a movie theatre. He writes in the order, “Be it stated, a time has come, the citizens of the country must realise 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. [sic] The idea is constitutionally impermissible.” And showing respect means standing because that has been mentioned in the Bijoe Emmanuel judgment. One wonders, if there had been no Bijoe Emmanuel judgment, would the order have made it compulsory for people to sing it as well? Just like there is no provision of law that obliges anyone to sing the national anthem, there is also no provision that obliges anyone to stand for the national anthem. The Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act, 1971, a tiny act with just four sections, states in Section 3: “Whoever intentionally prevents the singing of the Indian National Anthem or causes disturbances to any assembly engaged in such singing shall be punished with imprisonment for a term, which may extend to three years, or with fine, or with both.” Would sitting quietly during the singing of the national anthem constitute prevention of singing the national anthem?
Earlier this year, American football player Colin Kaepernick caused a huge controversy in the US when he sat or kneeled during the American national anthem in a series of matches to protest the killing of several black US citizens by the police. Was he being unpatriotic? Many of his fellow athletes didn’t think so and joined him. When asked about it in an interview, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, “I think it’s really dumb of them. Would I arrest them for doing it? No. I think it’s dumb and disrespectful. I would have the same answer if you asked me about flag-burning. I think it’s a terrible thing to do. But I wouldn’t lock a person up for doing it. I would point out how ridiculous it seems to me to do such an act. It’s dangerous to arrest people for conduct that doesn’t jeopardise the health or well-being of other people. It is a symbol they are engaged in.” This is the point. Forcing people to demonstrate faux patriotism under the threat of arrest is dangerously close to totalitarianism. Playing the national anthem in movie theatres serves no reasonable purpose and has, in fact, been the cause for violence in the recent past, including the case of Salil Chaturvedi, who was assaulted in a movie theatre in Goa for not standing up for the national anthem. Why did he not stand up? He is a paraplegic. In the 90s, he had represented India in two wheelchair tennis tournaments. “Irrespective of my contribution to the country, I still need to prove my patriotism,” he said. People have varied relationships with their nation and have varied ways of expressing them. Forcing everyone to conform to one arbitrary way of engaging with their country will not make them more patriotic. As Justice Chinnappa Reddy said at the very end of the Bijoe Emmanuel judgment, underlining, in my opinion, the true spirit of the decision: “our tradition teaches tolerance; our philosophy preaches tolerance; our constitution practices tolerance; let us not dilute it.”
One last thing. The author of our national anthem, Rabindranath Tagore, was often very vocally critical of the very concept of a “Nation”. In 1916, he visited Japan and was alarmed by what was being done in the name of nationalism there. I started this piece with Japan and it seems natural that I should end with Tagore’s observations about it: “I have seen in Japan the voluntary submission of the whole people to the trimming of their minds and clipping of their freedom by their government, which through various educational agencies regulates their thoughts, manufactures their feelings, becomes suspiciously watchful when they show signs of inclining toward the spiritual, leading them through a narrow path not toward what is true but what is necessary for the complete welding of them into one uniform mass according to its own recipe. The people accept this all-pervading mental slavery with cheerfulness and pride because of their nervous desire to turn themselves into a machine of power, called the Nation, and emulate other machines in their collective worldliness.”
(Sayak Dasgupta wanders around myLaw.net looking for things to do.)