World Disability Day: SC’s Anthem Order Restricts My Freedom
This Wednesday, in an unprecedented move, the SC stressed upon the respect that the National Anthem deserves when sung or played while listening to a PIL. It went one step further by stating 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”.
Since then, a national debate has exploded on patriotism and nationalism. Everyone has a view and those not in agreement are branded ‘anti national’.
However, I’m going to stay silent on whether the national anthem should be played. Not because I don’t have an opinion, but because as a wheelchair user, my challenge is much more complicated.
I fear I might never manage going to the theatre for a movie again. As unfortunately for me, the Supreme Court hasn’t clarified what happens to those like me who can’t stand.
Will I be branded ‘anti-national’?
Or will I be physically assaulted?
After all, it was only a few months back that Salil Chaturvedi, a para-athlete from Panaji, was physically assaulted as he didn’t stand up for the national anthem.
Fellow audience members hadn’t even bothered to check whether Salil could stand before coming to the conclusion that he was ‘anti national’.
In the wake of the Salil Chaturvedi incident, I do feel that our media and politicians have failed too in ignoring the challenges this will put on the disabled.
However, should one be really shocked? From courts to governments, the story is always the same. It was late evening on 1 December that I landed in Delhi after a fog-hit, long delayed flight to learn that the government had decided to present the new Persons With Disabilities Bill in Parliament. This was a moment of excitement and anxiety for the disabled community.
Excitement because eight years after signing the United Nations Convention for Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), 2007, the government had finally taken steps to move beyond the toothless 1995 Act.
However, I was as worried as I was happy as no one in the disability sector had been given a chance to read the bill in its latest format – leave alone give inputs and frame it.
However, I shouldn’t have been too happy or anxious. Come 2 December, the scheduled time to discuss the bill, the entire Parliament went back to its usual business of creating an uproar and adjourning proceedings. This time it was by courtesy of the flavour of the session – demonetisation.
Maybe it was naïve of me to expect something. After all, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government did earn brownie points globally by ratifying the UNCRPD in 2007, but it showed no intent of passing a bill going forward.
Why would they be any better in opposition? At the same time, did the government even expect the bill to be discussed? Or were these pure schematics on the eve of World Disability Day?
At least the current government on the other hand launched a campaign dedicated to disability – the Accessible India campaign.
There is no doubt that the Accessible India Campaign has started a debate and created awareness about disability. However, has it been a success? Instead of sharing my opinion on the issue, I would much rather quote the Supreme Court:
You launched ‘Accessible India’ campaign in December 2015 to make 50 percent of the buildings in each of state capitals accessible to disabled persons. But what have you done. We do not see anything.Till now nothing has been done. The ministry concerned has not taken any steps with regard to implementation of the law or the campaign. Is this the way government functions?. Its Central Coordination Committee of it also has not met for the last four years. This is not acceptable.Chief Justice of India (CJI) bench to Solicitor General, Ranjit Kuma on 24 November
The story is the same in the states too. When the Delhi government launched odd-even last year, they refused to exempt the disabled despite multiple requests from the community highlighting Delhi’s inaccessible public transport infrastructure. Eventually, fearing that the odd-even might be an alternate stay at home day for those like me, I filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) and the Delhi High Court intervened.
The World Disability Day was started by the United Nations in 1992 to promote an understanding of disability issues and mobilise support for the dignity, rights and well-being of persons with disabilities. India in 2016 might not have achieved these goals but at least the conversation has started. Next year will be the 25th year of World Disability Day, let’s hope we have more to celebrate then.
(Nipun Malhotra, born with arthrogryposis, is a wheelchair user. He might not stand, but always proudly rises in spirit when the national anthem is played. He can be followed on twitter @nipunmalhotra)