SC modifies order

Krishnadas Rajagopal


On November 30, 2016, the court ordered all cinemas to play the anthem before screening a film “for the love of the motherland”.
The Supreme Court on Tuesday modified its November 30, 2016 interim order and made it optional for cinema halls to play the 52-second ntional anthem before every show.

A Bench, led by Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra, clarified that it is not mandatory to play the anthem before screenings in cinemas. It left the choice of whether to play the anthem or not to the discretion of individual cinema hall owners.

However, if the anthem is played, patrons in the hall are bound to show respect by standing up. The court clarified that the exception granted to disabled persons from standing up during the anthem “shall remain in force on all occasions”.

The court, this time, instead of shooting from its own shoulders, banked on a Home Ministry order of 2015, which directs that “whenever the Anthem is sung or played, the audience shall stand to attention”.

“Playing of the anthem is directive, but showing respect is mandatory,” Chief Justice Misra orally observed.

The apex court took umbrage from its judgment in the famed Bijoe Emmanuel versus State of Kerala judgment, which dealt with three children belonging to the Jehovah Witnesses sect who refused to sing the anthem in the school assembly though they stood up in respect, to drive in the point that standing up is indeed a sign of “proper respect” to the anthem.

“Proper respect is shown to the National Anthem by standing up when the National Anthem is sung,” the Bench quoted Justice O. Chinnappa Reddy’s words in the Bijoe Emmanuel verdict.

Report due in six months
The modification would be in place till the Centre takes a final decision on the recommendations of a 12-member high-profile inter-ministerial committee regarding the occasions, circumstances and events for the solemn rendering of the Anthem. The ministerial panel would examine whether any amendments are necessary to the Prevention of Insult to National Honour Act of 1971 to expand or specify the meaning of “respect” to the National Anthem.

The committee, which was set up on December 5, 2017, would submit its report in six months.

The Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act, 1971 states: “Whoever intentionally prevents the singing of the Jana Gana Mana or causes disturbances to any assembly engaged in such singing shall be punished with imprisonment for a term, which may extend to three years, or with fine, or with both.”

Attorney-General K.K. Venugopal, for the Centre, submitted the ministerial committee would conduct a comprehensive study of the issue. The government began the hearing by referring to its latest affidavit, suggesting to the court to modify its November 30 order and give cinema owners discretion till the inter-ministerial panel takes a final call.

Referring to incidents of complaints filed under the 1971 Act against Infosys founder Narayanamurthy and Congress MP Shashi Tharoor for disrespecting the Anthem, Mr. Venugopal submitted “respect or disrespect to the Anthem has to be decided on a case to case basis. Your Lordships cannot think of a 1000 ways of respect to the Anthem”.

Leaving the ball in the government’s court, the Bench finally summed up: “Three things are obvious. The anthem has to be respected as it is the salutation to the motherland. The list of occasions for showing respect to the anthem. Proper decorum has to be maintained during the anthem.”

‘Interpret the 1971 Act’
Advocate Abhinav Shrivastav, for petitioner S.N. Chouksey, argued that guidelines on respect of the anthem by the inter-ministerial panel would hardly accomplish compliance from the public. He said similar executive orders were issued in 2012 and 2016, but to no avail.

Mr. Shrivastav urged the Supreme Court to intervene and interpret the 1971 Act in the light of Article 51A of the Constitution which calls for respecting the ideals of our nation like the Constitution, the National Flag and the National Anthem.

“The Act is totally widely worded. What will constitute disrespect of the National Anthem? The government’s guidelines have no teeth. The court will have to interpret respect to the anthem,” senior advocate Siddharth Luthra, for an intervenor, urged.

“The National Anthem is a tool for national integration. The Preamble uses the word ‘fraternity’ and assures integrity. The court’s order to play the Anthem in cinemas and for all to stand regardless of caste or religion subserves the cause of integrity. Therefore the November 30 order should not be recalled,” Mr. Shrivastav submitted.

Senior advocate Rajeev Dhavan submitted that the anthem has a ceremonial significance, has a “sacred element”, which should not be trivialised by playing it four times a day in cinemas.

Senior advocate Sajan Poovayya submitted that national symbols like the anthem identifies with the term ‘secular’ in the Preamble and unifies diverse communities.

Senior advocate C.U. Singh, for Kodungalloor Film Society, submitted the petitioners were in the wrong forum and should make their arguments for change in law before the Parliament.

Advocate P.V. Dinesh said the court should consider the plight of film festival organisers and lovers who would be forced to play and stand up dozens of times in a day before every screening.

The Supreme Court disposed of the petitions, agreeing with Mr. Venugopal that the petitioners could make their representations before the inter-ministerial committee.