The worry is that the Supreme Court is only too aware that mandating we stand for the national anthem in movie theatres has nothing, as they have loftily claimed, to do with instilling “committed patriotism and nationalism”. 

Anyone who has actually performed this little ritual knows this. Being instructed to stand – as if you’re back at school, in morning assembly – in a dark, dingy movie theatre with a sticky floor and wafts of unidentifiable aroma hardly makes for a moment of seam-bursting patriotism. It isn’t pride you feel at that moment. It’s annoyance.

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Instead, this seems to be an exercise in determining who is not patriotic. I’ve lived in Mumbai for some years now, where the practice was instituted in 2002, courtesy a helpful legislator of Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party, and each time it seems to be the same thing. Everyone rises to their feet, some slower and grumpier than others. Most are unbothered. But there are always one or two wags, self-righteous eyes roving around the theatre, desperate to feel aggrieved, to feel insulted. So circumscribed by their own lives that they need to inflict punishment on strangers. Strangers who might have any reason to not stand. In the years that I’ve lived here, hyper-nationalists once attacked a cripple. On another occasion, a different set of patriots attacked a foreign national.

It’s hard to imagine that the heavyweights on the Supreme Court bench did not think of this. These two Justices would also know that the suspicion of disloyalty centres on India’s Muslim population. But it is another indication of where we’re headed as a nation. We are becoming the kind of country that demands obeisance. It’s all the more worrying because we don’t have a culture that protects freedom of expression. 

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Colin Kaepernick, the National Football League player, has knelt silently every time the American national anthem is played, protesting the targeting of minority communities by police in the United States. He does this at the fraught, macho, emotionally charged atmosphere of a football game. He is abused and reviled by many white Americans, but he is allowed to continue registering his protest. Across the country, sports stars and teams – whites included – have followed his lead, recognising the serious problem that exists in American policing.

Now it is mandatory that we all publicly demonstrate how much we love the national anthem every time we want to watch Shah Rukh Khan woo a 20-year-old. Can anyone conceive of a protest like Kapaernick’s in India? 

Imagine a young Muslim man protesting encounter killings, which are so common they seem to teach it at our police academies. Actually, don’t imagine it. The vigilante streak runs deep in our populace, and especially deep in the hyper-nationalists. It would end in blood and flame.

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In any case, tests of nationalism are notoriously unreliable. The most famous, to my knowledge, is the Tebbit test set up by cranky white British Conservative politician Norman Tebbit. (Note also that tests of loyalty always seem to emanate from people whose communities have controlled the levers of power for generations. Their upbringing has been so privileged, their opportunities so wide, their punishments so mild, that they cannot conceive anyone could have any kind of legitimate grievance against state or society.) Tebbit was angry that the South Asian population of England was supporting India or Pakistan during cricket matches, that the Afro-Caribbean population was supporting the West Indies. 

In 1990, he proposed that non-white citizens should be made to answer whether they supported their country of origin or England—this would be the litmus test of their loyalty, their citizenship. To their credit, England did not institute the scheme, and even second and third-generation South Asians continue to support the Indian and Pakistani cricket teams. Yet, the vast majority of these South Asians are integrated into English society, contributing in any number of ways, and would never consider reversing their migration. Nationalism is a strange beast.

Source: b'Norman Tebbit | Source: Reuters'

It’s hard to understand why some people become so angry at one or two sitting during the national anthem—angry enough to threaten to maim and kill, for instance. Benedict Anderson, the great scholar of nationalism, has an answer: Simultaneity. Inside each person, an idea of the nation he belongs to has to be constructed. And singing a song extolling the virtues of the nation, in perfect unison, allows for individuals to see themselves as one in a community, a country. Here is the imagined community.

But the ritual only has power if everyone believes it has power. Even a single refusal robs the ritual of significance. It reminds us that we are standing in a movie theatre. Not defending a border. Launching a satellite. Winning the World Cup. We’re standing in a movie theatre, taking ourselves way too seriously.

(Feature image source: Reuters)