Reuters

India’s Supreme Court has reversed an earlier order that mandated theatres to play the national anthem before film screenings to instil “a sense of committed patriotism and nationalism” in citizens.

A 12-member government panel will examine and recommend anthem-related protocol within the next six months, the top court said on Tuesday.

Indians had hotly debated the mandatory playing since it was ordered more than a year ago. Under right-wing Prime Minister Narendra Modi, disputes over national identity have taken centre stage.

The anthem controversy evoked a “revealing debate” on nationalism, said Rakesh Sinha of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological parent body of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its affiliates.

“Certain sections in India are not merely opposed to playing of the anthem in the cinemas, but they have contempt for our anthem. There is a certain class in this country who are professing a [divisive] idea of nationalism,” Sinha said. “These people were leading an ugly protest against the anthem. The anthem bears the legacy of our freedom struggle. Why should you not show respect to this?”

Rigid nationalism

In a November 2016 order citing the Prevention of Insults to National Honor Act of 1971, India’s top court ruled that all present in a cinema hall must stand while the anthem is played and that theatre exits should be shut to avoid “disrespect”.

Critics said the 2016 ruling further emboldened right-wing Hindu groups to push ahead with their rigid brand of nationalism.

A dozen people were arrested in the southern state of Kerala in December 2016 for not standing while the national anthem was being played at an international film festival.

Indian media has reported on several incidents of moviegoers, including disabled people, being beaten by right-wing activists for not standing. In 2014, a man in the southern state of Kerala was charged with sedition for refusing to stand, while earlier last year, a man in a wheelchair in the northeastern state of Assam was called a “Pakistani” for sitting while the anthem played.

Such incidents triggered outrage over what many say is the rise of aggressive nationalism in the country.

Sugata Bose, an opposition politician from the Trinamool Congress party, welcomed Tuesday’s ruling.

“Patriotism has to come from within. [It] can’t be imposed,” Bose told Al Jazeera. “Mahatma Gandhi himself, in August 1947, had remained seated while the then-national song Vande Mataram was performed. Gandhi said standing up for a national song is not a requirement of Indian culture; it’s a practice we have imported from the West.”

Assaults and threats

As the BJP government has focused on Hindu nationalism, India’s religious minorities, including millions of Muslims, have faced assaults and threats as members of the ruling party have harped on their “foreignness”.

BJP-ruled states, such as Uttar Pradesh, have made singing the national anthem mandatory in all schools and madrassas – a move criticised by some Muslim groups as a forced show of patriotism.

“No one should have a monopoly on nationalism. The present tendency to brand all critics of the current regime as ‘anti-nationals’ is extremely worrying,” Bose said.

“Nationalism has a liberating aspect, but it can also potentially have an oppressive dimension. We should all subscribe to a nationalism which instils a spirit of service among our people and inspires our creative faculties. We should not accept a nationalism which borders on narrow chauvinism.”

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