New Delhi: “Are you Pakistani terrorists?”
“Can’t spare 52 seconds for the country, but you have the audacity to sit here and watch a three-hour movie?”
A bunch of movie-goers were heckled with several such questions in a Bengaluru theatre last week. The reason: They chose not to stand up while the national anthem was being played.
The video divided opinion — a few supported those who did not stand up; others called them ‘anti-nationals’. However, this wasn’t the first time that people were abused for not standing up for the anthem.
A similar incident occurred in Chennai in December 2016, when nine audience members, who chose not to stand up for the national anthem, were assaulted during the interval.
Several such incidents came to light after that, with even a wheelchair-bound man being abused at a multiplex in Guwahati by people who took offence to him not standing up when the national anthem was being played.
ThePrint explains the legal position: Is it legally compulsory to stand up for the national anthem or not?
What does the law say?
Section 3 of the Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act, 1971, provides for a three-year imprisonment or fine for “whoever intentionally prevents the singing of the Indian national anthem or causes disturbances to any assembly engaged in such singing”.
Also, Article 51-A(a) of the Constitution makes it every citizen’s duty to “abide by the Constitution and respect its ideals and institutions, the national flag and the national anthem”.
But neither of these provisions expressly spell out the proper way to show such respect, nor do they talk about sitting or standing while the national anthem plays.
Does the Supreme Court mandate it?
The Supreme Court had stoked a controversy in November 2016, when it made it mandatory to play the national anthem in cinema halls before movie screenings.
The order was issued by a bench comprising Justices Dipak Misra and Amitava Roy, to instil “a sense of committed patriotism and nationalism”.
“All the cinema halls in India shall play the national anthem before the feature film starts and all present in the hall are obliged to stand up to show respect to the national anthem,” it ordered.
The court had also ordered the entry and exit doors of the cinema hall to be closed while the national anthem is played, “so that no one can create any kind of disturbance which will amount to disrespect to the national anthem”.
However, in January 2018, a three-judge bench withdrew this order, clarifying that the direction to play the national anthem in theatres was optional. This was after the court was informed that the central government had formed a committee to “frame guidelines describing circumstances and occasion when the national anthem is to be played or sung”.
The court also exempted wheelchair users, and those with autism, cerebral palsy, multiple disabilities, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, leprosy, muscular dystrophy or hearing and visual disabilities from its directives.
What constitutes ‘respect’?
The Supreme Court, while making the playing of the national anthem optional, had added that the “citizens or persons are bound to show respect as required under executive orders relating to the national anthem of India and the prevailing law, whenever it is played or sung on specified occasions”.
As for what constitutes respect, it had referred to its 1986 judgment in Bijoe Emmanuel v State of Kerala, which had asserted that “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,” the bench in Bijoe Emmanuel had added.
Referring to this decision, the Supreme Court in 2018 stressed on the need to show respect during the playing of the anthem.
It observed: “This court in Bijoe Emmanuel and Others vs. State of Kerala and Others (in paragraphs 9 and 10) has also emphasised on respect to the national anthem. We may hasten to add that it sustained the right of the petitioner therein, but yet observed that a person who stands up respectfully when the national anthem is sung, is showing proper respect. Thus, the stress is on respect when the national anthem is sung or played.”
Hence, while the law does not speak about standing up during the national anthem, the apex court order does seem to imply that it is mandatory to show “respect” when the anthem is played — with “proper respect” including standing up while it is played.
What has the government’s stand been?
In an order issued in October last year, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) had stated that “whenever the anthem is played, the audience shall stand to attention”.
“However, when in the course of a newsreel or documentary the anthem is played as a part of the film, it is not expected of the audience to stand as standing is bound to interrupt the exhibition of the film and would create disorder and confusion rather than add to the dignity of the anthem,” the ministry added.
As for the playing of the national anthem in cinema halls, the MHA had set up a 12-member inter-ministerial committee in December 2017, in view of the submissions made by the government in the apex court.
The committee, headed by an MHA special secretary, was supposed “to frame guidelines describing circumstances and occasion when the national anthem is to be played or sung”.
The Economic Times reported in June this year that the MHA was likely to keep it optional, owing to the fact that as many as 22 states were not ready to take a clear stand on the issue. These states included the BJP-led Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Maharashtra and Jharkhand, as well as Congress-ruled Madhya Pradesh.
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.