Thought Police and the National Anthem in Movie Theaters


The Supreme Court of India passed a baffling order yesterday that makes it mandatory for all movie theaters in the country to play the Indian national anthem before each screening. Just in case you missed the news, let me quote from the report by The Indian Express to get you up to speed:

“To instill ‘committed patriotism and nationalism’, the Supreme Court Wednesday ordered that “all the cinema halls in India shall play the national anthem before the feature film starts and all present in the hall are obliged to stand up to show respect to the national anthem” as a part of their “sacred obligation”. Discarding notions of “any different notion or the perception of individual rights”, a bench of Justices Dipak Misra and Amitava Roy added that the movie screen shall have the image of the national flag when the anthem is being played and that doors of the halls will remain shut during the anthem so that no disturbance is caused.

“The directions are issued, for love and respect for the motherland is reflected when one shows respect to the National Anthem as well as to the National Flag. That apart, it would instill the feeling within one, a sense committed patriotism and nationalism,” said the bench, giving 10 days for compliance with its direction.”

As you might expect, many people have welcomed the order. Some have criticized it. (First Post has a good critique of the Supreme Court order.) Many others have resorted to ‘whataboutism‘ to indirectly criticize the order. For example, here is Shekhar Kapur’s response on Twitter:

While I find the order to be unfortunate and misguided, I’ve been fixated on a different aspect of the order: the fact that the SC mentions movie theaters specifically.

Why movie theaters, in particular? Why did the SC not say, ‘playing of the national anthem should be mandatory in all public gatherings of 50 or more people, in cases where the gathering is for recreational or entertainment purposes?’ Why not make playing the national anthem mandatory for all workplaces, all malls, trade shows, and so on? Why not make it mandatory for all adult citizens of India to sing the national anthem first thing every morning?

I suspect that there are two reasons for this. One is simply convenience. Workplaces have people coming in at different times, and very few workplaces have the space to assemble all employees in a single gathering. Most offices have small meeting rooms, and very few have large halls where a few hundred or more people can gather. Malls would be impractical. There is no way to easily gather all people in one place. Also, people are always streaming in and out, and the entire crowd is divided into small clumps of people spread across various stores, food outlets, and so on.

Movie theaters, in comparison, are ideal locations. They already have the audio technology in place, each screening starts at a specific time so most people gather in one place at a predetermined time, the audience is captive in the sense that they have all paid to be there, and their attention is guaranteed once the hall is darkened and just the big screen is visible.

Still, why not make playing the national anthem mandatory for TV channels before each movie, or (in case of news channels, music channels, etc.) three times a day, before the beginning of a program?

That brings me to the second reason why the Supreme Court picked movie theaters specifically: enforceability. If the national anthem starts playing on the TV, who is to ensure that the people are actually standing up, and are being appropriately respectful? Because, much to the government’s regret I imagine, the government is not able to watch everyone all the time.

For context, let’s consider how the telescreen works in Nineteen Eighty-Four. The Wikipedia offers a nice summary of what a telescreen device is:

“Telescreens are fictional devices which operate as both televisions and security cameras….telescreens are used by the ruling Party in Oceania to keep its subjects under constant surveillance…. In addition to being surveillance devices, telescreens are also televisions [ broadcasting] propaganda about Oceania’s military victories, economic production figures, spirited renditions of the national anthem to heighten patriotism….”

So the missing piece in our current setup is the means to monitor people effectively. It would be trivial to make playing the national anthem mandatory on TV. All the technology is already in place, all we need is an order from the Supreme Court. But without the ability to monitor people effectively, this move would be futile. Unlike the telescreen, our TVs unfortunately do not come with built-in cameras.

So how do you monitor people? As it happens, George Orwell has an answer for that too. Let’s look at another quote from Nineteen Eighty-Four:

“With those children, he thought, that wretched woman must lead a life of terror. Another year, two years, and they would be watching her night and day for symptoms of unorthodoxy. Nearly all children nowadays were horrible…. It was almost normal for people over thirty to be frightened of their own children. And with good reason, for hardly a week passed in which ‘The Times’ did not carry a paragraph describing how some eavesdropping little sneak—’child hero’ was the phrase generally used—had overheard some compromising remark and denounced its parents to the Thought Police.”

So that’s the simple idea. You get the ordinary citizens to do the monitoring for you. You don’t need to worry about the number of ‘thought police’ in your employment to enforce all your rules; you simply run the propaganda machine well enough to turn millions into agents of thought police.

Playing the national anthem on the TV at home will not work, as there is no way to enforce respect and patriotism. But in the theater, surrounded by a couple hundred others, one can be either shamed or coerced into showing patriotism.

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