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Is SC’s order a nationalistic diktat to curb personal liberties?

Is SC’s order a nationalistic diktat to curb personal liberties?

By Ram Puniyani

For the love of the motherland

The point is: can nationalistic pride be induced by such legal diktats?

A Supreme Court Order promulgated in November 2016 that asked theatres to play the national anthem before film screenings, begins with the phrase “for the love of the motherland”. This has yet again sparked off the personal freedom versus legal obligations debate against the backdrop of growing intolerance. The point is: can nationalistic pride be induced by such legal diktats? Some argue that this compulsion is an undermining of civil liberties. Let’s recall that a few decades ago, the national anthem used to be played after film screenings in many places. The observation was that many people would leave the hall during the anthem. In many states like Maharashtra, the anthem is now played before the film begins. The SC order passed by a two-judge bench not only makes it mandatory for this to be done all over the country but also mandates that doors be closed while the national anthem is sung.

Several landmark cases in the past have revealed the conflict between state norms and individual liberty. In a landmark case from the eighties, students belonging to the Jehovah’s Witnesses denomination had refused to sing the national anthem. Their argument was that it would be tantamount to idolatry, which was not permitted by their faith. The children were expelled by the principal of the school. The matter went up to the Supreme Court which ultimately ruled in favour of the students and had their expulsion revoked.

Dissent and democracy

In a democracy, there is a fine balance between individual rights and duties towards the state.

While a decade ago, the Supreme Court could rule in favour of individual liberty, it appears that the trend is now heading in the opposite direction with ‘love for motherland, nationalism, patriotism’ being brandished at the drop of a hat.

All those disagreeing with the policies of the ruling government are being dubbed ‘anti-national’ and unpatriotic. Even standing in queues to withdraw cash is being glorified as an act of patriotism. The present court order comes in the wake of times when words like patriotism and nationalism are trump cards of the BJP government.


There is a lot of hysteria surrounding nationalism in the country at present. | Source: India Today

Since 2014, the party’s critics and dissenters have had their ‘patriotism’ challenged incessantly. In the Rohith Vemula case, for instance, the Ambedkar Student Association’s activities were dubbed ‘anti-national’. Pressure from the MHRD resulted in Vemula’s expulsion from the university (and a revocation of his fellowship), ultimately leading to his suicide. The government once more resorted to the nationalism ploy in the JNU case. A doctored CD was relayed to the media in an attempt to demonise Kanhaiya Kumar and he was labelled a ‘deshdrohi‘ (anti-national). It is another matter that he did not shout those ‘slogans’ and that the constitutional position is that mere sloganeering does not tantamount to an anti-national activity. The hysteria surrounding patriotism is such that a wheelchair bound person in Goa was beaten up for not standing during the anthem. In Mumbai, a young scriptwriter was heckled out of the cinema hall for not standing during the anthem.

The roots of nationalism

The growing atmosphere of intimidation around ‘nationalism’ is a matter of concern for the emerging political culture in this country. The concept of nationalism has had interesting origins in India.  Monarchs of the historic period demanded absolute loyalty from their subjects and the punishments for any transgressions were severe. During colonial rule, two different kinds of nationalism emerged simultaneously. On one hand, there were the industrialists, workers and educated classes rallying around the anti-colonial movement for a secular democratic India. They opposed British rule. They were not patriots. On the other hand, nationalism in the name of religion began with the coming together of kings and landlords who pledged loyalty to the British. They were patriots for the Queen of England. Their organisation, United India Patriotic Association, was the progenitor of nationalism in the name of religion (Muslim and Hindu nationalism). These formations remained loyal to British rule throughout.

The post-independence nationalism of communal organisations was so feudal that unquestioning loyalty to the state left no scope for having differences.

Anti-colonial nationalism was comprehensive, inclusive and not merely ethnic nationalism. The nationalism of the Muslim League and Hindu Mahasabha-RSS was built around religious identity. The nationalism built around democratic values and secularism, the one led by Mahatma Gandhi, had inherent liberalism in it. The post-independence nationalism of communal organisations was so feudal that unquestioning loyalty to the state left no scope for having differences. This is what historic monarchs demanded from their subjects. This is what dictators demand today. It is not surprising, therefore, that the present atmosphere created by the BJP government has the overbearing influence of the mindset of authoritarian regimes.

Jingoism, while operating in a democratic setup, is simply an attempt to instil the values of a dictatorial state. Here’s to hoping that such a realisation will prompt the Supreme Court to revisit the judgment with a larger bench.

Ram Puniyani is a former professor of biomedical engineering and former senior medical officer affiliated with the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay.
Featured Image Credits: Sangbad Pratadin
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