Amending its order that had been in force for a little over a year, the Supreme Court made it optional on Tuesday for cinema halls to play the national anthem before screening a film and spared moviegoers of a compulsory display of patriotism by having to stand up.
On November 30, 2016, a bench of Justices Dipak Misra and Amitava Roy had passed an interim order that said, “All 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.”
The SC had not expected that its order to judicially instil patriotism and nationalism among movie-goers could lead to vigilantism with instances where even the old and invalid were forced to stand up in cinema halls.
A year later, there was a change of attorney general, with K K Venugopal succeeding Mukul Rohatgi and, importantly, an altered perception at the Centre, which filed an affidavit requesting the court to make playing of the national anthem optional in cinema halls.
Venugopal requested a bench of Chief Justice Dipak Misra and Justices A M Khanwilkar and D Y Chandrachud to modify the 2016 order by replacing “shall” with “may” since the Centre had constituted a 12-member inter-ministerial committee to look into all aspects related to singing and screening of the national anthem.
Following the Centre’s submission, the SC disposed of the petition and said its order making the national anthem optional would remain in operation till the committee came out with recommendations. It is not clear what effect the order making the national anthem optional will have in Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh, the two states which had issued notifications prior to November 30, 2016, making it mandatory for cinema halls to play the anthem before screening a film.
Aware of the widespread criticism of the order, mainly because of the activities of vigilante groups in enforcing it, the three-judge bench readily accepted the AG’s request on Tuesday, which in in sync with the loud hints the SC had dropped during a hearing on October 23 last year on a PIL filed by Shyam Narayan Chouksey.
During the last hearing, the judges were critical of the outcome of its 2016 order. It had said, “Why do we have to wear patriotism on our sleeves? People go to cinema for undiluted entertainment. Tomorrow someone may say people should not come in shorts and T-shirts to cinema halls because the national anthem is played there. Where will this moral policing stop?” The court said the committee could examine laying down a set of rules, like the Flag Code, and set out guidelines for the singing of the national anthem. The SC said the government will take a final decision after receiving the recommendations.
While passing the 2016 order, the SC bench had said, “We have so directed as (then) attorney general Mukul Rohatgi submits with all humility at his command and recommends that the national anthem has to be respected.