Prove your patriotism or be disciplined.

Udhagamandalam/Ooty: On April 13, a journalist who refused to stand up for the national anthem at an event held at a defence establishment in Tamil Nadu, arguing that doing so was his choice and prerogative, was booked for disrespecting the anthem.

The journalist who works for a leading English daily, had gone to cover the convocation of the 72nd Staff Course of the Defence Services Staff College (DSSC) in Wellington, Nilgiris district. Uttarakhand Governor Kishan Kant Paul was also present at the event.

According to a copy of the First Information Report (FIR), the journalist did not stand up when the national anthem was played at the event. When he was requested to stand, he flatly refused. He also refused to get up from his chair when the national anthem was played during the closing ceremony.

According to the FIR, the journalist allegedly stated that he did not respect the national flag and did not believe in the national anthem and contended that standing up was his choice and prerogative. Also, the FIR (of which we have a copy) says the young journalist was abrasive, aggressive and “non-repentant of his anti-national action”.

Rajneesh Singh Gaur, a DSSC faculty member, filed the complaint against the journalist with the Wellington police four days after the event was held. Gaur reportedly confronted the journalist after the event ended, called him a joker and threatened to have him thrown behind bars. The case has been booked under Section 3 of the Prevention of Insults to National Honour (Amendment) Act, 1971. The section says whoever intentionally prevents the singing of the national anthem or disturbs any assembly that’s singing the anthem is liable for punishment. The punishment can be a jail term extending to three years or a fine or both.

While the journalist in question did not wish to make a comment, sources close to him confirmed that he had indeed refused to stand for the national anthem at the event. “He doesn’t believe in enforced patriotism and it is his personal prerogative whether he chooses to stand or not”, the source said, contending that he did not commit any crime and therefore cannot be booked for doing nothing.  The sources also claimed that the accusations of him being aggressive are incorrect, and that the journalist was called a “joker” and a “Yahoo” for calmly registering his protest against what he considers forced patriotism.

“Absurd provision”

According to advocate Deeptha Rao, one of the core members of Bangalore-based Alternative Law Forum – a lawyers’ collective that works for social and economic justice, “It’s an absurd provision to slap the accused with. It’s unfortunate that the right to dissent has been completely criminalised”. Rao said that whether or not the accused is guilty, he’ll have to now deal with the burden of criminal charges against him, which is a punishment in itself. She noted that if he’s not present for every single court hearing, an arrest warrant could be issued against him.

Commenting on how matters related to nationalism were being scrutinised of late, she said: “It is symptomatic of the politics of our time and how views surrounding nationalism are wildly exaggerated.”

DSSC’s Public Relations Officer refused to comment on this case, saying his superiors would not want to speak to the media about it. Mails sent to the editor of the newspaper the journalist works for, seeking their take on the issue and asking if there was any pressure on them to act against him, have also elicited no response.

The website of a local news service that carried this story has three comments, all of them condemning the journalist’s antic. One comment reads: “There are loads of humanists, atheists against the national anthem and the national flag. I wish they all are booked too.”

On November 30, 2016, the Supreme Court made it mandatory for cinema halls to play the national anthem before a movie is screened. The five-page order stated that citizens are “duty bound to show respect to the national anthem, which is a symbol of the constitutional patriotism”. The order also stated there was no space for “perception of individual rights” and this would “instil a feeling of committed patriotism and nationalism”.

Less than two weeks after the order, seven movie-goers in Chennai were booked under the same section as the journalist in Wellington. A day later, six people were taken into custody on the same charges in Kerala and charged with contempt of the Supreme Court’s directive.

The Aamir Khan-starrer, Dangal featured a segment where the national anthem is played in the film. Not sure if they had to stand up, some who did not do so got harassed by fellow moviegoers. Standing up for the anthem or not has become such a bone of contention that six weeks later, the apex court clarified that one need not get up if it is played as a part of a movie.

What has ensued in the past year, since the SC order was passed, is general confusion on whether or not it is a criminal act to not stand for the national anthem. And a total lack of understanding of individual choice. The journalist concerned is yet another casualty in this urge to prove and assess patriotism – simply by standing for the national anthem.