Sticky seats, tumultuous toddlers and the rasping sound of crisps being crunched – these are the three reasons I hate going to the cinema. Yet, filmgoers in India have greater cause for concern. In November 2016 the Indian Supreme Court ruled that, in the prelude to cinema screenings, audiences should be serenaded by India’s national anthem.
Moreover, all those in the theatre would be compelled to “stand up in respect” of it. Notwithstanding, the difficulty of cleaving oneself from the near-adhesive upholstery, this is a troubling proposition. The law is an attempt to superimpose nationalism upon citizens through coercion, with those failing to arise, or otherwise disrupting the anthem, susceptible to prison sentences of three years. In doing so, the objective is to iron out overt challenges to the state, suppressing the voices of those who speak against it, such as those supporting Kashmir’s secession from India. Violence has been a predictable offshoot of this drive. Just over a year ago, a man was attacked in Goa for his failure to observe the law; the man in question was disabled from below the waist, a demonstration of the mindless barbarity this
nationalist impulse has engendered. The Supreme Court’s ruling is a clampdown on
perceived ‘dissent’. It is an affront to liberty.
What’s more, similar anthem-based legislation has reared its head in China, a country whose tolerance of political protest is limited at best. Like India, ‘disrespecting’ the national anthem – by adapting its lyrics, for example – can lead to three years of incarceration. This is not all, though; when describing how they expect the anthem to be observed, the state employs the ambiguous term “solemn”. Such vague wording is bound to
spawn injustice. However, the legalistic questions don’t stop there. Consider Hong Kong. Since its transferral to China in 1997, Hong Kong has operated with a distinct constitution, known as Basic Law, which has offered it certain protections from Beijing. Critically, it has ensured that Hong Kong possesses its own judicial structure, meaning that it’s not directly accountable to the Chinese central government. A chief concern of the Chinese government has been to erode this privilege. Past attempts to achieve this have resulted in strong civilian resistance, an example being the Umbrella Revolution of 2014, which was a reaction to proposed electoral reform. This has not meant Hong Kong has been impervious
to Beijing’s encroachments, however. Court orders were implemented to disperse protesters in 2014 and, with these laws on the national anthem, we are seeing Beijing assert ever-greater control over both Hong Kong’s political narrative and, by extension, its people’s freedoms. Thus, for advocates of free speech in both India and China, these developments represent a clearly sticky situation.