Reversing its order, the Supreme Court on Tuesday held that playing of national anthem in cinema halls before screening of films is no longer mandatory and left it to a government panel to frame guidelines on this sensitive matter.
The apex court said that playing of national anthem in cinema halls before screening of movies would now be optional and in that case the audience will have to stand as a show of respect.
The direction came a day after the Centre made a plea to the apex court to modify its November 30, 2016 order that made it mandatory for cinema halls to play the national anthem before screening of a film during which the audience was also required to stand.
The order had sparked a nationwide debate.
The court, while emphasising that citizens were bound to show respect to the national anthem, said that a 12-member inter-ministerial committee, set up by the Centre, would take a final call on various aspects including playing of national anthem in cinema halls.
A bench headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra said that the committee should 'comprehensively' look into all the aspects related to playing of national anthem in its entirety.
"The interim order passed on November 30, 2016 is modified that playing of national anthem prior to screening of film in a cinema hall is not mandatory as directed," the bench also comprising Justices A M Khanwilkar and D Y Chandrachud said.
The top court, while disposing of the petitions pending before it, made it clear that the exemption granted earlier to disabled persons from standing in cinema halls when national anthem was being played, shall remain in force till the committee takes a decision.
The bench accepted the Centre's affidavit which said the 12-member panel has been set up to suggest changes in the 1971 Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act.
Attorney General K K Venugopal told the court that the committee, which was set up through a notification on December 5 last year, will submit its report within six months.
The Centre in its affidavit yesterday said that an inter-ministerial committee has been set up as extensive consultations were needed for framing of guidelines describing the circumstances and occasions on which the national anthem is to be played or sung and observance of proper decorum on such occasions.
The government had said that the top court may 'consider the restoration of status quo ante until then, that is restoration of the position as it stood before the order passed by this court on November 30, 2016' as it mandated the playing of the anthem in cinemas before a feature film starts.
During the hearing, the bench accepted the submissions of the attorney general that petitioners before the court could make representations before the committee.
"When we say suggestion, the suggestion should only relate to national anthem," the bench said.
Regarding the playing of national anthem in cinema halls before screening of movies, Venugopal said that it should not be made mandatory until a final decision was taken by the committee and thereafter by the central government.
The counsel appearing for petitioner Shyam Narayan Chouksey, referred to various instances when due respect was allegedly not shown to national anthem and said that scope of provision related to it should be expanded.
"National anthem cannot be equated with any caste or religion. It is a tool for integration of the entire country. Guidelines are existing but they cannot resolve the issue," the lawyer said and referred to an instance where some persons were manhandled inside a cinema hall in Mumbai after they had not stood up during playing of national anthem.
Meanwhile, the attorney general told the bench that the committee was required to suggest changes in the 1971 Act and the panel comprises of representatives of various ministries.
Regarding disrespect shown to national anthem, Venugopal said such matters could be decided on a case to case basis.
Meanwhile, some petitioners raised the issue of Article 51 A (a) of the Constitution which say that it shall be the duty of every citizen of India to abide by the Constitution and respect its ideals and institutions, the national flag and the national anthem.
Senior counsel Sajan Poovayya, representing another petitioner advocate Ashwini Kumar Upadhaya, said that national anthem, national flag and national song were secular symbol representing nationhood and were required to be respected.
The bench, while referring to the provisions of the 1971 Act, said it was clear that no one can intentionally prevent playing of national anthem.
The court said that national anthem has to be accorded respect as a respect to salutation of motherland and a proper decorum has to be maintained when it is played.
It, however, said that list of occasions where national anthem should or should not be played cannot be stated.
The top court had in October last year observed that the people 'cannot be forced to carry patriotism on their sleeves' and it cannot be assumed that if a person does not stand up for the national anthem, he or she is 'less patriotic'.
The apex court had on October 23 last year observed that people do not need to stand up in cinema halls to prove their patriotism and had asked the Centre to consider amending the rules for regulating playing of national anthem in theatres.