Recently, there have been a couple of rulings from India’s apex court that should trouble or atleast make every Indian citizen ponder on the effects of these rulings. Before I say anything, I must admit that I have tremendous respect for the Supreme Court of India, a court whose rulings in the past have inspired ethical judgments not just in India but outside its borders too. That being said, I am sad to say that some of their recent rulings have caused a concern as to whether they are going beyond their powers and jurisdiction and functioning with a parental touch rather than as the dispenser of justice and upholder of the constitution in a country of more than a billion individuals.
The first ruling, in hearing a petition filed by an individual, by a single judge in the apex court, mandating cinema theatre owners all across the country to play the national anthem before the movie starts and mandating the movie-goers to stand when the national anthem is played with the theatre doors closed (unlocked) is frankly a ridiculous ruling. The ruling, among others, read – “Be it stated, the time has come, the citizens of the country realize that they live in a nation and are duty bound to show respect to the national anthem,”. Now, frankly, this is a mockery of intelligence and spirit of the citizens of the country. As far as I know, there is no law that mandates this, nor is there a violation of any fundamental right enshrined in the constitution when a theatre doesn’t play the national anthem. For me, personally, this issue goes beyond that – the idea that the apex court of the country thought that it was necessary to instill patriotism, through whatever means it may be, on its citizens, is an issue of serious concern to me. Because anytime we talk about “patriotism”, it borders on “nationalism”. And to me, nationalism is the enemy of humanity. We have seen repeatedly in history that whenever the concept of nationalism is trumped up, it leads to a violation of individual rights – which is what I believe is happening here too. By ordering when to play the national anthem and how its citizens should respond to it, the Supreme Court of India has strayed too far away from its powers and authority, and frankly, has behaved in a dictatorial way.
The other ruling that had come out just this week, by a panel of seven judges in the apex court, with four of them ruling, on the basis of the secular nature of the Indian constitution, to ban all political parties and persons seeking to occupy a public office from using religion, race, caste and language to seek votes during election campaigns, is an issue that I invite all Indian citizens to ponder carefully. On the surface, this ruling must look like something we all should welcome. After all, we dream for a secular society where religious, caste and linguistic based lines are erased and people unite as humans who care for each other and live an ethical life. But sadly, that is still a dream, and the reality is far different. And hence, unfortunately, in this case, I might have to side with the other three judges in the panel who voted against this ruling by citing that this ruling would violate the free speech right enshrined in the constitution. And I agree with them. Many social progresses in the country have come by mobilizing people on these grounds. Yes, I do feel awkward to say this because I am well aware of the fact that many social backwardness have also resulted in the country by mobilizing people on these grounds, but that’s not to say that we could take away a tool that can be used and has been used to make social progress and correct historic injustices in the country.
If such a ruling existed in the 1950s and 1960s, then the people of the state of Tamil Nadu might have not been able to understand the negative implications of the attempt to impose the Hindi language on them by the central government during that time. Politicians and political parties mobilized people on linguistic basis to stop the domestic colonial attempts of giving unwarranted extra-importance to Hindi in a state that has spoken Tamil for millennia. Or take this case - The man who is credited to writing the secular Indian constitution, Dr. Ambedkar, had raised genuine issues during his time surrounding the plight of Dalits, the lowest-caste society or the “untouchables”, a caste group to which he himself belonged. If he contested today for election by mobilizing people of his caste on some of the injustices that still seem to occur to Dalits, would he disbarred from contesting or would his election be disqualified by the Supreme Court of India? And today, in Tamil Nadu and many other parts of the country, there are genuine social issues and problems faced by the “Brahmin” or the upper-caste society members. So would it be wrong for someone from that society to contest for office and speak publicly about those problems or promise to correct them if he/she is elected to the office? Would the Supreme Court void his/her election for speaking the truth?
Whether we like it or not, India is a country that is rooted in diversity – diversity in religion, race, caste, language etc. And what unites all these people is the ability and the inherent culture to speak freely, debate freely, and in the process evolve into a continuously tolerant and accepting society by embracing all these differences and diversity. Curtailing that free speech, however good that intention may be, will not give us anything other than piled up anger and frustration. Allowing to speak freely, though at times may annoy and even harm us, will ultimately be more beneficial to all individuals living in the society. And lastly, the Supreme Court can leave this matter to the intelligence of the people of this country rather than taking it in their own hands, because it is in that country, where religion-based and caste-based parties are repeatedly defeated in elections. One just has to look at the last election, both at the state and at the national level, in the state of Tamil Nadu, where even in constituencies where their religion or caste were the majority, the parties and politicians who campaigned on them, were handsomely defeated. They won less than 2% of the votes in some instances and less than 10% of the seats in total. What more evidence do you need, honorable judges of the Supreme Court? Let the free-speaking and free-thinking people take up this matter. Leave it to them!