In a bid to "instil committed patriotism and nationalism", the Supreme Court appears to have overlooked the greater perils of its verdict on National Anthem. In its 30 November order, the Supreme Court ruled, "All the cinema halls in India shall play the National Anthem before the feature film starts and all present in the hall are obliged to stand up to show respect to the National Anthem."
While most lines of argument which criticises the Supreme Court order have concentrated around notions of patriotism, free will, freedom of speech and expression, the mandatory bolting of doors has raised a pertinent issue — that of public safety. Part of the Supreme Court's order states:
"Prior to the National Anthem is played or sung in the cinema hall on the screen, the entry and exit doors shall remain closed so that no one can create any kind of disturbance which will amount to disrespect to the National Anthem. After the National Anthem is played or sung, the doors can be opened."
According to experts, not only should this directive be "recalled", it also needs further clarification. Reiterating the same sentiment, Alok Prasanna Kumar, a Bengaluru-based advocate and a senior resident fellow at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, said that if one goes by the Supreme Court's directive, there is a huge disaster, like the Uphaar fire tragedy of 1997, waiting to happen. "I think by 'disturbance', the Supreme Court meant walking in and out of the theatre. But there are two things that need to be kept in mind: Firstly, this order is fraught with potential danger and harm to the public and secondly, the Supreme Court is violating its own earlier order in the Uphaar case where it had ordered that doors should never be bolted," Alok told Firstpost.
Supreme Court's directive on doors being shut raises the question: Is safety getting sacrificed at the altar of pop-patriotism?
While issuing safety guidelines in the aftermath of the 1997 Uphaar fire tragedy, a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court had stated that "under no circumstances, the entry door (which can act as an emergency exit in the event of fire or other emergency) should be bolted from outside". The bench had noted that one of the doors in Uphaar cinema was bolted from outside and it prevented scores of victims from escaping the blaze.
"The factors which constituted the direct and proximate cause of death of 59 persons and injury of 100 persons in Uphaar cinema were the installation of the DVB transformer in violation of law, faulty repair of the DVB transformer, presence of combustible material in the cinema building, parking of cars near the transformer room, alterations in the balcony obstructing egress, structural deviations resulting in closure of escape routes in the building at the time of the incident, bolting of the exit doors from outside and the absence of fire fighting measures and two trained firemen..."
The "close-door" order also clashes with the fire safety guidelines given to the fire department. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a senior official from the Mumbai Fire Department told Firstpost that doors in cinema theatres cannot be bolted and that flouts fire safety norms. "I have not read the Supreme Court order, but doors in a cinema hall cannot be locked. Shutting of doors is against the rule and every theatre in Mumbai abides by it." When told that the Supreme Court says that the doors should be locked and what that means for the safety of the public, the official bypassed the question and said, "Why should anyone move when the National Anthem is playing? You are supposed to stand in attention till the Rashtra Gaan is over."
The Supreme Court not only violated its own earlier order, it also contradicts the Delhi Cinematography Act, which requires at least two exits to be open in the hall at all times. Rule 10 of Delhi Cinematograph Rules lays down that every auditorium must have two or more different thoroughfares or open spaces from which there is at all times free means of rapid dispersal. This rule also says that all doors through which the public have to pass on the way to open air shall be available for exit during the whole time that the public are in the building and during such time shall not be locked or bolted.
According to Alok, the Supreme Court ruling can be altered by submitting an "application of modification or recall of the order." "Modification of this order is one way to ensure public safety otheriwse the tiniest spark or smoke can lead to mass panic and eventual casualties," Alok said. Unfortunately, laws of physics cannot be suspended by a judicial order and if a fire breaks out, patriotism will not save scores from a horrible death in a closed space, Alok added.
Firstpost tried to reach multiplex and single-screen theatre owners to understand how will they ensure public safety with closed doors, but no one was available for a comment.
"There was no party present in the court to give the full picture to the Supreme Court. The fact that its current order violates its earlier one and which ends up exposing the safety issue of the public never entered anyone's mind," Alok further added.
The fact that the Supreme Court mandates upkeep of nationalist pride at the cost of public safety is something worth mulling. Aside from the totalitarian nature of the rule, a cinema hall is no place for the National Anthem to be played. In several citations, one such being the Ministry of Home Affairs in its "Orders related to the National Anthem", it has been mandated that in order not to dilute the dignity of National Anthem, it should be played only on certain occasions.
"However, when in the course of a newsreel or documentary the Anthem is played as a part of the film, it is not expected of the audience to stand as standing is bound to interrupt the exhibition of the film and would create disorder and confusion rather than add to the dignity of the Anthem."
That sentence says more than all the tweets, Facebook posts and article comments in the world combined ever could.