SC order on national anthem in cinema halls mirrors aggressive hyper-nationalism
In a stinging blow against individual liberty, India’s Supreme Court made it mandatory for all cinema theatres to play the national anthem before the start of every film. ‘A time has come’, the learned judges declared, when ‘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…’.
This obligation, India’s highest court held, is imperative for advancing ‘the love of the motherland’. I recall an article I wrote in great anguish days after witnessing the brutal communal massacre that was unfolding across Gujarat in 2002. I declared at that time, ‘There is much that the murdering mobs in Gujarat have robbed from me. One of them is a song I often sang with pride and conviction. The words of the song are: Sare jahan se achha, Hindustan hamara…It is a song I will never be able to sing again’. I titled my lament ‘Cry My Beloved Country’.
I believed then, as I do now, that there are many ways of loving my country. One of these was to refuse to sing my country’s praises. I chose that way in a moment of profound collective moral and political failure, as the blood of innocent children and women flowed on the streets.
This ruling of India’s highest court, carrying the weight of law, troublingly mirrors the aggressive hyper-nationalism that is sweeping the country today. In this discourse, the nation, its leader, the government and the country’s religious majority all converge. Opposition to majoritarian politics and vigilantism, as much as dissent with central government policy and criticism of the Prime Minister, are all painted alike as impermissible disloyalty to the nation.
This applies equally if you oppose military action against young stone-throwing teenagers in Kashmir that fells and blinds them, as if you contest the official adventurism of declaring overnight 85 percent of the country’s currency worthless, uncaring of the pain to India’s impoverished millions and the inability of this measure to actually erase the bulk of the country’s black money. This dissent, or any other, is depicted as disagreement not with a political ideology or government but rebellion against the nation. In one fell swoop, leftists, liberals and the country’s many minorities are all coloured as anti-national. They merit therefore an unending volley of trolls, abuse, expulsion from official public and cultural spaces, and sometimes, as with left-leaning university students, jailing and punishment for the high crime of sedition against the nation.
If you complain about people forced to spend hours in line to draw their money, you are reminded about the sacrifice of soldiers in the country’s borders, as though railing against what you may see as a poorly conceived and ill-prepared drastic government measure with unacceptably high human costs is unpatriotic. On the other side of this same spectacle of faux nationalism, the body of a man who dies in prison — after being jailed and tried for participating in a lynch mob which cruelly killed a man on the rumour that he had killed a cow — is wrapped in the country’s national flag in the presence of a Union minister.
This is the intolerant majoritarian ideological architecture to which the country’s highest judges have gratuitously contributed the legitimacy of law. Their ruling breaches individual freedoms.
Love for one’s country cannot be reduced to a ritual adherence to symbols, more so when these are coerced by law and vigilantism. No court or law can prescribe conditions that I must adhere to in order to belong to the nation, no obligation to publicly demonstrate love for the nation. To love your country cannot be reduced to standing for the national anthem. Instead, it means standing up for justice, for truth, for kindness. It means indeed the obligation of public dissent, of standing in solidarity with the oppressed, of speaking truth to power.
(Harsh Mander is author, Looking Away: Inequality, Prejudice and Indifference in New India)