On 30 November, the Supreme Court released an order making it mandatory for cinema halls to play the national anthem before the screening of each film, and for the audience to stand for the duration of the song. While most debates that lead from the order have centered around patriotism and free will with which it can be expressed or even reserved, the mandatory closing of doors of the hall during the anthem (part of the order by the Court) has issued a new line of questioning – that of safety.
Closest to that line are the victims of the 1997 Uphaar cinema fire tragedy in which 59 lives were lost. To the families and victims embroiled in an 18-year fight for justice, the latest Supreme Court order is a contradiction of its own previous stance and also something that undermines the importance of safety.
Talking to Firstpost, Neelam Krishnamurthy, who lost both her children in the tragedy and is the president of the Association of the Victims of Uphaar Tragedy (AVUT), said that there needs to be clarity on how the Court treats safety in the judgement. “We are not against the anthem being played. We are only concerned with the safety measures. If the doors to the hall are closed during the national anthem, and a fire breaks out then, what would then be the options left to the people on the inside. No clear exits, is the reason we have been fighting this battle for so long,” she said.
Krishnamurthy also said that the Supreme Court not only contradicted its own directives set in response to the Uphaar tragedy but also ruled against the Delhi Cinematography Act, which requires at least two exits to be open in the hall at all times. “The latest order against the DCA rules. In that case the Court either needs to change the rule or make it clear whether the doors will be manned etc,” she said. Krishnamurthy, who along with husband Shekhar only as late as October last month, released their personal story of struggle in the form of a book Trial by Fire. She also believes that safety cannot be ignored, and such orders have to take into account the possibility of human error and accountability as well. A person, as Krishnamurthy rightly points out, could simply forget to open a door or choose not do so in which case the blame game will last an eternity.
Navin Sahni, who lost his daughter in the tragedy, believes that it is not just the scale of tragedies and fires as big as Uphaar that the order risks ignoring the lessons from. Incidents can happen for a number of reasons. “We are patriots ourselves. And we don’t see a problem with the national anthem being played. But imagine if you are in the hall, and there is a snake or someone tries to flirt with the idea of one. It could cause a stampede and without clear exits people could choke and die,” he said. Sahni believes the Court has done itself no favours by ignoring its own findings.
While the families of the victims are clear about their consternation regarding the ignorance of safety measures in the order, on the legal side, the criticism is more severe. KTS Tulsi, a Supreme Court lawyer himself, who has been fighting the battle for justice for the Uphaar tragedy victims for well over ten years now, says that the order is absurd.”Aside from the totalitarian nature of the rule, a cinema hall is no sombre place for the national anthem to be played. The atmosphere is different. Films are paid entertainment. There are people from different age groups — even children, who cry all the time and are simply not aware of their surroundings. I don’t see why in such an environment, which people have paid for mind you, should be forced to do something,” he said. Tulsi feels that apart from being contrarian on the safety measures, the Court also needs to consider what is being accomplished out of this.
Most discourses originating from the order are likely to flirt with the sentiments of nationalism and patriotism. But for the families of those who died in the Uphaar cinema fire, this is all very personal. “My concern has always been safety. It is a case for preventing tragedies like Uphaar from happening again. Because you see, a fire won’t wait for the national anthem to be over and closed doors was the reason that people died in the [Uphaar] fire,” Krishnamurthy said. As the Supreme Court mulls over ways to infuse patriotism, it is worth being reminded of the losses these families suffered and the fact that tragedies do not first enquire about your level of patriotism.