Why The Supreme Court Should Understand That Patriotism Isn’t ‘One-Size-Fits-All’

Posted by Nikhil Kumar in Politics, Society
December 15, 2016

Methinks you are my glass, not my brother
– Shakespeare, The Comedy of Errors

A recent order of the Supreme Court of India mandated playing of the national anthem with the national flag onscreen in cinema halls, with the audience having to stand up. The reasoning behind this was “constitutional patriotism.” In general, the politics of identity has been on the rise in India recently. This judgement fits very well into that narrative.

Any interpretation of the law by the Supreme Court can have a retrospective effect. Does it mean that we were violating the law all along and we were ‘constitutionally unpatriotic’? To many, the very notion will sound repugnant.

Narrower the definition of patriotism, the more we find a locus for what defines that feeling, and more likely is a contour to redefine and reinforce the very feeling it seeks to inculcate. The more we widen the definition of love for the nation, the less likely we are to correlate with just one activity, with one culture, one religion, one idea. There is no fixed criterion for patriotism, no starting or finishing line, that might completely encompass what is, almost always, a very personal emotion – notwithstanding its shared narratives.

The Supreme Court, by passing an order in which it says that everyone has to stand in the cinema halls before movies has tried to draw contours. It might have said that a person with disability need not stand up if they are incapable of standing. But it certainly cannot expect the nationalistic breed of comrades to not to be contemptuous of that harmless individual quietly waiting for a movie to start or to even take part in their harassment.

The implied reasoning of “constitutional patriotism” behind the Supreme Court’s order automatically creates many ‘unpatriotic’ people as outliers. Both in the eyes of the society and more importantly, the individual.

The court did qualify its exemption with a condition that the persons with disability “must show such conduct which is commensurate with respect for the national anthem.” How can it define how to show respect to the national anthem? Exempt a few people who are unable to show respect in a particular fashion and then ask them to show respect in an undefined way? That it had to explicitly mention exemptions betrays the futility of the reasoning, a whimsical judicial hallucination at best.

This order could also open doors for the notorious Central Board of Film Certification to step in, questioning the patriotic intentions behind an intimate scene, because surely, lustful content cannot follow a few minutes after the sacred act of singing the national anthem and seeing the national flag – it would be sacrilege, to say the least.

What the court has also failed to recognise is the generalised ‘one-size-fits-all’ policy of implementation at the lower rungs of the police administration and the incessant moral policing by hypersensitive patriots. The peripheral distortions and misinterpretations of the legal code (recently with regards to Section 124A) are ubiquitous. This is a blind-spot which one can neither repeal nor exempt.

This peculiar insistence on standing, as if patriotism is determined by some specific skeletal posturing, is clearly bizarre. It will subtly set in motion a chain reaction of vigilantism amplified by mobs and a deferential police force. This order, with its pretence of exemptions, casts a sorry judgement on the patriotism of those who fail to stand or do so reluctantly while qualifying the patriotism of those who stand gleefully as the sole bearers of the torch of patriotism, without regard to what the individual does outside the theatre.

What has converged amongst Indians in the last seven decades is not our identity, that is an impossibility, but our tendency (its first derivative) to narrowly identify ourselves, often against a perceived ‘other’. Patriotism cannot be a one-way street where people are constantly asked to superficially prove themselves. It, in fact, becomes a question of identity – how we define and understand ourselves and the narrowness or the breadth of that definition.

Like the veins making our muscles red, humans can be linked in a million different ways. But whether and how to link or to categorise is a choice – a fragile one with far-reaching consequences.  We cannot afford to falter in that.


Image source: Ramesh NG/ Flickr