At first glance, Wednesday’s Supreme Court ruling making it mandatory for cinema halls across the country to play the national anthem before screening movies, and requiring cinema-goers to stand up while it is being played, can be seen as yet another decision that appears more whimsical than grounded in Constitutional principle. Instead of refusing to waste its precious time hearing unimportant petitions from self-righteous busybodies who seek to impose their norms on the whole country, the Supreme Court has entertained many such, and created incentives for people to waste the court’s time and the citizens’ peace.
But a comment made by the bench – perhaps revealing the rationale for the decision – should make us sit up and take notice:
When the national anthem is played it is imperative for everyone to show honour and respect. It would instill a sense of committed patriotism and nationalism…Time has come for people to realise that the national anthem is a symbol of constitutional patriotism…people must feel they live in a nation and this wallowing individually perceived notion of freedom must go…people must feel this is my country, my motherland. [emphasis added]
The Supreme Court just dissed individual liberty.
The bench sneered at one of the pillars of the Indian Constitution. Troubling as it is, more than the ruling itself we should be concerned that India’s highest judges think this way, and think nothing of expressing it this way. The Supreme Court is, after all, the ultimate guardian of individual liberty. It gets this responsibility from no less an authority than the Constitution of India. Citizens will be justified in wondering if the Supreme Court can discharge this assigned responsibility if it harbours such cynicism or disdain for individual liberty.
Legal scholars will no doubt cite scores of High Court and Supreme Court judgements that are unambiguous on the matter. Except when “individual liberty comes into conflict with an interest of the security of the State or public order”, individual liberty is supreme. It would be stretch to argue that people not standing up for the national anthem presents a scintilla of risk to the national interest. Indeed, India’s security or social order has suffered little damage from people not standing up for the national anthem in cinemas from January 26, 1950, till date. The judge’s words do not have a force of law, but to the extent they reveal thought processes, we have to worry.
It is bad enough for the Supreme Court to scorn individual freedom. To do so on an issue as unserious and arbitrary as what should be done at cinema halls is terrible.
Our emergency at the moment has perhaps led us to forget that if we do not give that scope to individual liberty, and give it the protection of the courts, we will create a tradition which will ultimately destroy even whatever little of personal liberty which exists in this country. [K M Munshi, Constituent Assembly, December 6, 1948]
This article first appeared on The Acorn.