India's Supreme Court orders cinemas to play national anthem

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Indian cinemas must play the national anthem before screening a film and the audience must stand and listen, the country’s Supreme Court said on Wednesday in a ruling echoing growing nationalist sentiment under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the nation from the historic Red Fort during Independence Day celebrations in Delhi, India, August 15, 2016. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

The court ordered that an image of India’s national flag also be displayed on screens during the anthem, and it gave cinemas 10 days to comply, saying its decision would help “instil a sense of committed patriotism and nationalism”.

“People must feel this is my country and this is my motherland,” the New Delhi court said in an interim order issued in response to a petition from a local retiree.

“The time has come for people to realize that the national anthem is a symbol of constitutional patriotism.”

Nationalist fervor surged when Modi’s government said in September it had sent troops into territory controlled by bitter rival and neighbor Pakistan to strike at Islamist militants suspected of preparing to attack.

India’s wildly popular Bollywood film industry found itself caught up in the aftermath when a filmmakers’ body banned the hiring of Pakistani actors and some regional politicians said that those prepared to work with their neighbors were unpatriotic.

Playing the national anthem in Indian cinemas was common in the 1960s, but the practice fell out of favor as fewer and fewer people paid attention. A few states had since made it compulsory for theater halls and cinemas to broadcast the anthem, but there is no nationwide law mandating it.

Some commentators mocked the court’s ruling as idiotic.

“The Supreme Court’s moral, constitutional and political idiocy in the national anthem order is truly breathtaking. More dark times ahead,” Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of the Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research think-tank said on Twitter.

Thousands took to the streets early this year in India’s biggest nationwide student protests in 25 years after the arrest of a student accused of sedition, prompting accusations that Modi’s government was clamping down on freedom of expression.

To support his case in the court, petitioner Shyam Narayan Chouksey said the Prevention of Insults to National Honor Act of 1971 had been breached, Indian media reported.

The court also ruled that broadcasting a shortened version of the anthem would not suffice, and it prohibited playing the anthem at “undesirable” or “disgraceful” places.

Editing by Mark Heinrich