The Supreme Court revisiting its own judgement within a short time is not something one looks forward to, but if it corrects a wrong, it is welcome. Last November, the court ordered that cinema halls had to play the national anthem, and everyone had to stand up when it played or face punishment, including arrest. At that time, the apex court order seemed to become part of a rising clamour that sought to label and divide citizens into "nationalists" and "anti-nationals". The directive, instead of inculcating patriotism, opened the door to lumpen vigilantism. A wheelchair-bound disability rights activist was heckled and called a 'Pakistani' at a multiplex in Guwahati; six people were taken into custody in Kerala for not standing up when the national anthem played at the International Film Festival in Thiruvanthapuram; seven people were booked after a fight broke out over the issue at a cinema in Chennai.
The Supreme Court's latest interim order - the next hearing has been posted for January 9, 2018 - has left it to the Union government to take a call on whether the national anthem should be played mandatorily in cinema halls, even as it said that the choice of whether to stand or not for the anthem is that of the citizen. Justice D Y Chandrachud, who spoke on behalf of the current bench, put it very well when he asked whether we are supposed to "wear our patriotism on our sleeves". He observed that people go to cinemas for entertainment. If they were to be then banned from wearing certain clothes to the cinema halls because they could be tantamount to insulting the national anthem, where would such moral policing stop, he asked rhetorically.
In a country where moral policing has been taken to extremes by the overbearing supporters of the current political executive, with its sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit backing, the apex court's rethink on its original ruling is welcome. In a Westphalian system of nations, nationalist feelings are legitimate. Most nations do value the symbols of their nationhood, such as the national anthem, and follow a code of conduct when it is played to show respect to a national symbol. But to enforce this conduct, at the threat of punishment, is a lot less common and a practice shunned by most liberal, self-confident democracies. Like the national flag, celebrating the national anthem should be confined to ceremonial occasions and government functions. People go to the cinema to relax and have fun, not to be tested for nationalism and patriotism. The apex court should rescind the order on national anthem in cinemas.