Jehovah's Witnesses vs National Anthem: All that is wrong with this debate

When Supreme Court decided to make playing of national anthem and standing up for it mandatory before the screening of films on November 30, 2016, it had opened a Pandora’s Box. Out of this Pandora’s Box came the question how would disabled people stand up during the national anthem? Then came the obvious argument about what was the need for playing national anthem only in theaters? Why not in Courts too? Many were concerned whether they were supposed to feel patriotic before watching films like Grand Masti? The liberals questioned why is nationalism being shoved down our throats?

The issue of disabled people, or why the court is also not playing the anthem before every hearing were either sorted or dismissed by the Court. For people disabled from below their waist the court said they must show due respect by staying alert as they can’t stand. And on playing the National Anthem before hearings, court said “let’s not stretch the matter”.

However, now the SC might be faced with a far trickier situation, which wouldn’t be easy for it to dismiss with such ease. A sect of Christianity called Jehova’s Witnesses doesn’t allow its followers to owe its allegiance to any country or sing it’s national anthem. On August 11, 1986, the Supreme Court had allowed three children from the sect in Kerala to not sing the national anthem in their school assembly. Members of the same sect are now planning to appeal against the Supreme Court’s national anthem order.

Right to practice our religion is a fundamental right bestowed upon us by our constitution. Going by Supreme Court’s earlier judgment, one would assume this is going to pose a tricky scenario for the Supreme Court to deal with.

As for Jehovah’s Witnesses, a basic search would reveal some strict practices like not allowing blood transfusion, or not taking cases of child abuse to court instead punishing the perpetrator within the community. Many kids from the community are not allowed to go to regular schools because they can’t sing the National Anthem. No member of the community usually joins the Army.

On the other hand, while delivering the National Anthem ruling, a bench headed by justice Dipak Misra had said:

“Universalism is alright but still Bharat is the epitome of culture, knowledge… Gyaan and Vigyaan… people should feel that they live in a nation and show respect to the national anthem and the national flag.”

The ethos of the Jahovah’s Witnesses is directly in a clash with the Court’s ruling.

It is wrong to impose nationalism on anyone. But the fundamental issue here is that how fair is it to seek or give exemption to people on grounds of religious sentiments? When you are not even taking into consideration a person’s old age and disability into consideration or the biggest of human being’s innate requirement – free will, how can religious beliefs be treated as a reason to seek an exemption? One might argue that we do not follow the Western definition of secularism where religion and state never cross paths, and this version of secularism has brought upon the world a diabolic form of racial profiling and also resulted in the most conservative forces rising to power across the world. However, our form of secularism hasn’t served us well either. Instead, it has intermingled religion and politics to a level- where both the entities have become inseparable to the detriment of people of this country.

If and when the Jehovah’s Witnesses proposed petition come up, the Supreme Court will not only have to review its recent decision on National Anthem but it will also put to its verdict on the Kerala kids case. Had the Supreme Court taken into consideration this possibility while delivering its verdict? But the bigger question is will religious consideration take precedence over other more pressing considerations while sidelining nationalism?