When the Supreme Court, in its infinite wisdom, decreed that the national anthem must be played before every movie screened in a theatre, it divided opinion. Many saw the decree as forced nationalism, while the rest thought those who disagreed with the SC were paid Pakistani agents who hate India. Or at least that was the impression given by Twitter.
What's worse, not only has the Supreme Court order raised the possibility of more such incidents, but, if Chennai's events are any indication, the police will condone the actions of ruffians as well.
However, once the surprise and outrage, and outrage at outrage, had worn off, people started to wonder a wholly different question - who would enforce this rule? Already, there have been reports of adult theatre owners distraught at a lack of compliance from patrons and without the staff to enforce it.
So what are theatre owners to do? Hire patriotism bouncers to rough up 'anti-nationals'? Turns out that isn't necessary, because, as an incident in Chennai just showed us, the more patriotic elements in the audience are perfectly willing to do that job for free.
The incident in Chennai
On 11 November, a group of 9 friends decided to catch the 11:30 AM show of Chennai 600028: II Innings, a movie described as a sports-comedy. However, when they decided not to stand for the preceding national anthem, things went in a decidedly unfunny direction. Not immediately, mind you. Nothing was done to get the group to stand or otherwise respect the national anthem. Instead, they were assaulted during the interval.
As one of the victims told The Wire, "Three of them have assaulted a male member of our group and tried to assault us girls also, using very abusive language and grabbing our hands." Their assaulters alleged that the group had not only stayed seated during the anthem, but that they'd taken selfies, a charge denied by the group.
When the police did arrive to break things up, the victims may have been forgiven for thinking that the ordeal was at an end. However, they were on the receiving end of police action with the police detaining six of the 9-member group.
These six were charged at the behest of the alleged assaulters who claimed they were the ones who had been physically assaulted. However, after they were released on bail, the six who had been detained originally, now found themselves on the receiving end of a case under the provisions of Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act, 1971. In fact, a seventh member of the group, a woman, was also now named in the case.
Whether or not you agree with the SC order, it is now law. Therefore, in this situation, it is irrefutable that the nine friends' refusal to stand means they were in violation of the law. However, they weren't the only ones in violation of the law. Their attackers were also guilty of multiple different breaches of law - from assault to outraging the modesty of a woman. Yet one group has been charged with a crime and the other hasn't.
Never mind that one group merely broke a law while the other undermined the entire judicial process by taking matters into their own hands.After all, the existence of law is meant to avoid vigilante justice, not foster it. The Chennai police's actions thus far seem to indicate that they don't see things this way. Apparently, violence ceases to be a crime should the perpetrators have nationalist motives.
It sets a worrying precedent, encouraging similarly misguided 'nationalists' to start taking matters into their own hands, trampling all over the rights of others. Where does this stop, anyway? Today it's violence over the national anthem, tomorrow, emboldened by incidents like these, nationalism could become a shield for criminal elements indulging in violence.
While one would hope that this sort of vigilante behaviour is a one-off, a previous incident in Goa makes it seem like this attack will only be the first of many.
Trusting in the sanity of our fellow Indians also doesn't seem like the most sensible course of action - after all, the victim in the Goa incident was beaten up despite being medically unable to stand. The SC may argue that its order was made with the assumption that people are rational, however, their explicit instruction that differently abled people need not stand, shows just how much faith they have in the Indian public's common sense.
More arrests in Kerala
Some trying to brush this whole issue aside would ask that everyone complies with the SC ruling unquestioningly. Now, with the added threat of violence, you'd imagine everyone would fall in like, but that just isn't the case.
Earlier today, 6 youths were arrested for not standing for the anthem before the screening of an Italian movie at an International Film Festival in Kerala. The fact that this has happened so soon after the Chennai fracas just goes to show how strong opinions are when it comes to this issue.
It isn't hard to understand why there is so much dissent either. After all, the incident in Chennai took place during a sports-comedy, while the Kerala incident too place before the screening of an Italian film. What connection either film has with patriotism is beyond the comprehension of most. The ruling seems even more ludicrous when you consider that it applies to adult movie theatres as well.
With the logic behind the order unclear to most, one expects to hear of more such arrests and assaults. And all this for what? Because we think the 'honour' of our country is at stake? How little do we think of our country's honour when nine nobodies sitting through the national anthem is enough to undermine this unimpeachable honour?