Of edicts then and now

In a democracy, it is not national pride but freedom of speech that is non-negotiable

My parents in their twenties were part of the ‘ladhat’, as the non-violent Independence movement was called in Gujarati. Non-violence did not always mean proffering yourself to be beaten up by the police, though my parents were involved in that as well. By the early 1940s, the ‘ladhat’ also meant running clandestine networks, manning safe houses, working secret printing presses, and broadcasting from illegal radio transmitters. In 1942, when Gandhi gave his ‘Quit India’ call, my mother joined the thousands courting arrest in demonstrations. My father, a little older, had been given some responsibilities in the organisation. As the police crackdown widened after the arrest of the top leadership of the Congress, my father was informed that his name was on the list of arrest warrants. He was ordered to go underground, proceed to a safe house in Mount Abu, and stay there until further orders.

In those days Mount Abu was favoured as a somewhat cool R&R station by British army officers stationed in Gujarat and Rajasthan. In town, a Parsi gentleman ran a solitary cinema showing English films. The evenings hanging heavy, my father took to going to the movies. In terms of spy craft, an anti-Raj activist with an alias watching films surrounded by angrez officers might not have been a very good idea. But, while my father believed in the general principle of non-violence, he was not a physical coward, and while none of his contemporaries would have called him a hothead, he did have a temperament that wasn’t exactly designed for lying low, and trouble ensued after a few screenings. In those days, every film show was followed by a clip of the fluttering Union Jack accompanied by the British Empire’s national anthem, ‘God Save the King’. The audience was supposed to stand respectfully as the clip played. My father always refused to stand up for this, and on one occasion a British officer noticed. As my father was leaving, the officer snapped his cane across the path, demanding to know why he hadn’t stood up for the anthem. My father kicked the cane out of the way. A ruckus began, only for the Parsi owner to intervene and quickly hustle my father away. “Please!” he said. “Come and see any film you want, for free! I’ll put you in a box by yourself and you don’t have to stand up for the anthem. I just don’t want any trouble in my hall.”

Right to free speech

Arguing in favour of the edict that all Indians must stand for the national anthem in cinema halls, the Additional Solicitor General, Tushar Mehta, told the court this month that “national pride is non-negotiable”. He is wrong. The government of Maharashtra that brought in the adjunct to the already absurd Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act, 1971, is also wrong, and the Supreme Court that upheld this law for the whole country will no doubt soon change its wise mind. For, what is actually non-negotiable under the Constitution and in India’s democracy is the fundamental right to free speech and, should I want, that right allows me to express an absence of pride in my country. I don’t have the right to stop others from standing up as the national anthem plays, but in a civilian, non-official sphere, neither does anyone else have the right to make me stand for the national anthem.

My parents, and millions of others, did not fight for a country where a person can be beaten up by vigilantes, jailed, or even fined for not standing up for the national anthem. That was the kind of Empire from which they were trying to break free. If I feel the flag is currently being misused by the army or the government, I have a right to not salute it; if I perceive it as such, I have a right to sit out the static anthem dance of pseudo-patriotism. If I don’t want to say “ Bharat Mata Ki Jai ”, or “ Jai Hind ”, or even “Long Live the Secular Republic of India”, I’m within my rights to refuse and the law is obliged to protect me. Or it should be.

Given the current atmosphere in parts of the country where all sorts of self-important bullies have nothing better to do than create a fuss if they see someone not standing up for the anthem in a cinema hall, people have been discussing ways to counter the Anthem Edict: enter the hall only after the anthem, walk out for a call of nature just as it starts, stand up but facing away from the screen (the law doesn’t specify which direction you have to face), or sing the anthem loudly while saluting, pushing the boundaries of absurdity. Others have simply just stayed seated, ready to take on the consequences. Had my father been alive, I know this is what he would have done. Leave him aside, I’m sure that Gandhi would not have stood up under such draconian psuedo-nationalist orders and neither would have Tagore.

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