NEW DELHI — Saleel Chaturvedi, 48, is a disability activist in India. Several years ago, an accident left him paralyzed from the waist down.
That’s why when he went to a movie theater in October he couldn’t stand up like others as a sign of respect when the Indian national flag appeared on the screen and the national anthem began to be played.
What came next was a rude shock for Chaturvedi.
“There was a couple behind me who sang the whole national anthem with great fervor and, in the middle of it, I got whacked at the back of my head. I turned around and the guy asked me to stand up,” recalls Chaturvedi.
“I turned back to the screen and waited for the national anthem to get over,” he says. “Then I turned back and I was so shell-shocked and I told him ‘Just relax, I like the way you sang but why do you have to hit someone? You don’t even know the story here.’”
Chaturvedi hasn’t been to a movie theater since.
“It just isn’t comfortable. Okay, this guy hit me but someone else could hit me harder. I have a spinal problem and the explanation of the fact that I’m disabled will happen much later. So I live in fear, I haven’t gone out,” Chaturvedi says.
Chaturvedi was attacked last year when playing the national anthem in cinemas and standing for it was not even mandatory.
Now it is.
Last month, the Supreme Court ordered all cinema owners to make sure the national anthem is played at the beginning of every movie.
The ruling came in response to a petition filed by social activist Shyam Narain Chowksy.
He says he was mocked in a cinema hall when he stood up in respect as the national anthem was played in one scene in the film.
“I was shocked that instead of joining a person who was respecting the national anthem they were mocking and shouting at me for causing a disturbance. That day I realized how unaware people are about nationalism and I decided to do something about it,” Chowksy says.
Since the order came into force late last month, unruly scenes like this have been reported in several places. People like 35-year-old Rohit Kumar have been arrested and charged for refusing to stand while the anthem was played in cinemas. But Kumar says the ruling is ridiculous. The anthem, he says, can’t make you patriotic. Respect for your nation is something that can't be forced.
The practice of playing the national anthem in cinemas was mandatory in the 1960s following the war between India and China. But it was slowly discontinued in most parts of the country when authorities realized that people were growing indifferent and inadvertently disrespecting it.
Now its reintroduction after decades has raised many eyebrows. Among the critics are legal luminaries such as Soli Sorabjee, who believes the Supreme Court has overstepped its mandate with this order.
“Patriotism cannot be legislated, it cannot be judicially mandated. And I’m sure many people are patriotic even if they don’t stand up. The question is whether this a matter in which the judiciary should intervene,” Sorabjee says. “Judiciary enforces fundamental rights, very good. Judicial activism has done good for the people especially the marginalized and exploited sections. But in this matter, I think the judiciary has gone a little haywire.”
Many say the move is an invitation for right-wing nationalists to harass those they deem less patriotic.
Journalist Shivam Vij argues the ruling goes against the very philosophy of Rabindernath Tagore, who gave India its national anthem: “Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore, the man who wrote the national anthem. He says that nationalism is a menace. He warned the people of India and the people of the world against nationalism saying that there is something even above nationalism and that’s humanity and what we are losing here is our sense of humanity.”
While the government and Hindu nationalist groups have welcomed the Supreme Court ruling, others have challenged it.
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