In today’s India, even the writer of its national anthem would be labeled a seditious anti-national

Stand up, young man.
Stand up, young man.
Image: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui
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The Indian constitution has a section on fundamental duties that was added in 1976. There are 11 of these duties.

They call upon citizens of India to do many noble tasks: uphold the country’s sovereignty, protect and improve the natural environment, including forests, lakes, rivers, and wildlife, renounce practices derogatory to women, develop scientific temper, humanism, and the spirit of inquiry and reform.

One of those duties is to abide by the constitution and respect its ideals and institutions, the national flag, and the national anthem.

India’s supreme court just reiterated that fundamental duty but it chose to lay down exactly how Indians should show that respect. Movie theatres, it decreed, must play the national anthem while displaying the flag before screening a film. Everyone must stand while the anthem is played (with exceptions perhaps for the differently- abled). And to ensure that no one walks in and out during the anthem, the doors of theatre should be closed during the song.

The judges ruled: “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. The idea is constitutionally impermissible.”

The great irony is that the first person who would have fallen afoul of this straightjacket of prescriptive patriotism is probably the author of the national anthem himself: Rabindranath Tagore.

Tagore is unique in that his name is associated with national anthems of three different countries (India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka). But his own view of nationalism would have found little favour with jingoistic politicians in any of them.

He had great misgivings about India blindly imitating a western model of nationalism because European countries were far less diverse than India.

He argued in a famous essay that “my countrymen will gain truly their India by fighting against that education which teaches them that a country is greater than the ideals of humanity.” He clarified: “I am not against one nation in particular, but against the general idea of all nations.” For him all national histories were but chapters in the larger history of man. He thought India’s diversity made it particularly suited to understanding this idea of acknowledging real differences and yet seeking some basis for unity without “political and commercial aggressiveness.”

In today’s India, with increasingly less appetite for dissent, Tagore would have probably been branded a seditious anti-national.

Tagore was too free-spirited to even submit to the discipline and routine of formal school life which he found stifling and boring. The only degrees he ever received were honorary ones. One can imagine the horror with which he would have regarded cinema halls virtually under lockdown administering one of his songs to hapless people who just wanted a couple of hours of escapism with Shah Rukh Khan or Superman. The court might have just given an incentive to those downloading films illegally anyway.

Patriotism is a sacred cow and politicians across party lines are embracing this ruling with a unanimity rarely seen in Indian politics. But the question remains: Why a movie theatre? People go to these venues for many reasons: a couple of hours worth of amorous darkness for a courting couple, a family outing to the mall, a few hours of air-conditioned comfort on a hot summer’s day. But a drill display of patriotism is never the motivation.

In the early days of cinema, movie theatres were seen as fora for nation-building, and not just in India. Eisenstein’s October celebrates the 10th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. But the role of cinema as a tool for nation-building was even more attractive in a country like India with high illiteracy rates. Mahatma Gandhi, though, thought of cinema as a “sinful technology” and proudly claimed that he had never been to one. Others thought cinema could be useful. In her book Producing Bollywood, Tejaswini Ganti notes that politician and poet Sarojini Naidu wrote in Filmindia, “Cinema can do to a whole people what a loving and devoted wife (can) do to an erring husband: to root out superstition; to make people rational and make them better informed; and to give them useful entertainment.”

Post-independence Hindi films bought into the Nehruvian agenda of nation-building and tried to build a sense of a secular socialist Mother India, avoiding too much local idiom and creating idealised “Indian” stereotypes. Filmmaker Shyam Benegal has pointed out that in Hindi films, characters often had only first names, so as to avoid caste markers, communal harmony was a kind of signature and national awards were given to films that promoted national integrity.

In a country as diverse as India, the theatre was a place where people came together across class, caste, and religion. It was also a captive audience. Benedict Anderson in his famous book Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism defined the nation as an “imagined political community” where individuals share “a deep horizontal comradeship” with others who they think are part of a greater collective.

Now, the supreme court has decided that the collective that sings together, stays together.

But does it?  The court and the government are banking on the fact that a regular dose of the national anthem, much like fibre in a diet, will eliminate some kind of national patriotic constipation. The sheer social pressure of being around people who stand and sing will seep into the rest of the cinema-going population as well. Of course, it will almost certainly also embolden moral policemen who take it upon themselves to manhandle those they think insufficiently patriotic, as happened to a disabled person in Panaji recently.

Lately, national flags and national anthems have been not as much about instilling unity as about identifying the dissident. Donald Trump stirred up a controversy by tweeting that burning the American flag should have consequences—“perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail.” In the US, the supreme court twice protected the right to burn the flag, but in India, protection for freedom of expression has never been that robust.

The latest idea, despite its good intentions, risks damaging the national anthem itself. As a student in America, I remember every time I would hear the Indian national anthem it would give me goosebumps and make my chest tighten. That was because it had not been worn into background noise by overuse. The first familiar bars actually stirred emotion. How tragic it would be if that same anthem becomes just a chore, something we need to impatiently stand through before getting to the Bollywood blockbuster or 3D superhero film we paid for.

The court hopes to piggyback on movies to educate Indians in patriotism with a booster dose of Civics 101. But it would do well to remember something the man who wrote the national anthem said about education: “We rob the child of his earth to teach him geography, of language to teach him grammar. His hunger is for the Epic, but he is supplied with chronicles of facts and dates. Child nature protests against such calamity with all its power of suffering, subdued at last into silence by punishment.”

Or in this case, we might learn the words while the anthem loses its meaning.

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