National Anthem: Liberal overreactions damage personal liberty instead of securing it

If the Supreme Court order on National Anthem, with all due respect, appears problematic, so do some of the liberal reactions to it.

To be clear, the judgment, making it compulsory for all cinema halls in India to "play the national anthem before the feature film starts and all present in the hall to stand up to show respect to the national anthem" as a part of their "sacred obligation" turns the concept of patriotism into a moral benchmark against which each citizens must be judged.

Critics have questioned the rationale behind putting "committed patriotism and nationalism" above individual liberty while legal eagles have argued that the decision goes beyond Constitutional mandate. Former attorney general Soli J Sorabjee, for instance, told The Times of India that "this ruling appears to overlook law settled in this regard by the Supreme Court in the Bijoe Emmanuel case. The court appears to have entered the realm of judicial legislation and gone much beyond constitutional mandate."

Supreme Court of India. Reuters

Supreme Court of India. Reuters

Questions have also been raised on the implementation side and myriad issues that may crop up while ensuring compliance. Forced obedience should have no place in a liberal democracy which places utmost importance on individual liberty.

While all these discussions and arguments are fair and even necessary in a robust polity, some commentators have regrettably crossed into realms of un-reason in their reactions and by accident or design, tried to fashion a paradigm of paranoia.

A commentary in BloombergQuint reads: "The order of the Supreme Court directing that all who wish to watch a film in a theatre be forced to stand for the national anthem is an affront to the Constitution, and a disgraceful dereliction of the judges’ constitutional duty."

While it is incumbent on public intellectuals to raise the red flag if they sense a transgression of rules that bind the social contract between an individual and the state, overreactions ultimately end up damaging personal liberty instead of securing it.

A sample of the reactions show how sometimes rhetorical positioning undermines even valid critiques. Commentators are well within their rights to disagree with an interim order or deeming it to be going against principles of individual freedom. But to see manifestations of a fascist state in a court ruling or portend "dark times ahead" is to create avoidable fear psychosis. In effect, such arguments remove the debate from a valid discussion (on whether forcing patrons to display their patriotism inside a movie hall could be counterproductive) and place it within the familiar binary of Left vs Right.

The discussions could have focused on whether banning of "dramatised exhibition of the National Anthem" will harm creative freedom, but to say that dark times lie ahead of us while reacting to a Supreme Court judgement is inexplicable. It is unclear how showing respect to the National Anthem (even if mandatorily) can bring about darkness.

What this metaphor does is cleverly conflates a court ruling with the larger debate around nationalism. Once the conflation is complete, it then becomes easier to shift the goalposts and create a narrative of a repressive state led by a fascist ruler trying to throttle civil rights in India. So even though the government of the day had nothing to do with a PIL moved by an individual and the apex court issuing interim orders in its wake, the narrative will seek to deflect the attention towards the political power and make it responsible for creating the "mahaul" (ambience).

Let's face it, if there is a case to be made of judicial overreach in personal sphere, liberal commentators have unfortunately weakened their case by failing to be consistent.

As some have pointed out on Twitter:

From Jallikattu to Sabarimala to Shani Shingnapur to arranging the height of Dahi Handi or putting a ban on 2000 CC diesel vehicles the court has frequently delved into the arena of the executive. But the outrage and righteous indignation around Supreme Court's National Anthem order were conspicuously missing from the liberal discourse during the earlier rulings.

This tendency to cherry-pick causes — fight for individual rights on a case by case basis rather than adhering unwaveringly to principles of liberalism ultimately reduces the moral strength of liberal resentment.

Updated Date: Dec 01, 2016 16:12 PM

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