Last October, Salil Chaturvedi, a disability rights activist and writer, was assaulted at a cinema hall in Panaji, Goa. 48-year-old Salil was beaten by a few fellow cinema-goers. Salil, the assaulters charged, did not stand up while the national anthem was being played in the theatre before the commencement of the movie, and thus showed disrespect to it. Whether they had the authority to take the law into their hands and enforce it is another matter. But in their newly found zeal, the fact they failed to notice, intentionally or otherwise, was that Salil was a wheelchair user.
In an atmosphere surcharged with frenzy, where one is supposed to wear his/her patriotism on one’s sleeves, this was not an isolated incident. Even while the incident came in for condemnation, disabled cinema-goers were a harried lot. Many of them were apprehensive of what would happen to them when they go to watch a movie the next time. An overwhelming majority do not get to go to the cinemas even otherwise, thanks to inaccessible roads, pathways, cinema halls, etc.
This is not to speak of films as a medium being inaccessible for those with visual and hearing impairments.
Compounding matters further was the order of the Supreme Court in Writ Petition (Civil) No. 855/2016 – Shyam Narayan Chouksey v/s Union of India, on November 30, 2016, directing that, “All 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”.
However, in the next hearing, the Court modified its earlier order with respect to persons with disabilities, for whom the Attorney General said specific guidelines will be prepared.
The haphazard manner in which this entire issue was dealt with is visible in the manner in which the guidelines issued had to be revised soon.
The guidelines issued on December 21, 2016 had warned that “unwarranted incidents against persons with intellectual disabilities” may occur. The revised guidelines said that authorities need to sensitise the public “so as to avoid any unwarranted incident against persons with intellectual disabilities,” and to prevent their harassment.
It did acknowledge that “Persons with Intellectual Disabilities will have behavioural problems like flapping of the hands, screaming, shouting, abnormal body movements, difficulty in performing practical tasks, etc.”
This notification directed that the disabled should be “attentive” and “alert” during the national anthem. Who would measure attentiveness and alertness, on or by what scale, is highly questionable. Lack of reference to the diversity and severity of disabilities would result in harassment and loss of dignity.
A spinal cord injury person, a cerebral palsy person, a muscular dystrophy person, a leprosy-cured person, a quadriplegic person, and a multiple sclerosis person may all be using wheelchairs, and would have different capacities and capabilities of movement and postures.
The notification mentions the use of sign language to indicate the playing of the National Anthem for the benefit of persons who are either hard of hearing or deaf. Firstly, there is no standard sign language, and the presumption that all deaf and hard-of-hearing persons will be fluent with sign language is absolutely mistaken and ill-founded.
Moreover, the United Nations Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), which India ratified in 2007, in clear terms provides that the State Parties shall ensure the inherent dignity, self- respect, and self-worth of PwDs.
The modalities enlisted in the guidelines are in violation of the sense of dignity, self-respect, and self-worth of PwDs, and thus it would be violative of the principle of the right to life with dignity, as enshrined in Article 21 and expounded upon by judicial pronouncements. Moreover, the recent Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016, which fulfills India’s obligation under the UNCRPD, also provides for the right to life with dignity and respect for integrity under Section 3.
Concerned, the NPRD filed an application, first for impleading in the case, and later on, another application seeking specific directions for exemption for certain categories of disabled persons. The Court admitted both these applications.
The NPRD had sought exemption for ten categories of persons: (i) Wheelchair users; (ii) Those with autism; (iii) Those with cerebral palsy; (iv) Those with intellectual disabilities; (v) Those with mental illness; (vi) Deaf-blind; (vii) Those with Parkinsons and Multiple sclerosis; (viii) Leprosy-cured; (ix) Those with muscular dystrophy; and (x) Those with multiple disabilities.
The Court has not granted exemption to those with intellectual disabilities and mental illness.
However, it has directed the central government to consider all those disabilities for exemption for which there are no orders.
This is an opportunity to raise awareness about different visible and invisible disabilities, and the barriers disabled people commonly face. Also, disability activists should take this moment up to demand that movie halls become accessible and films have proper captioning. The disability movement must demand that the Indian government fulfills its obligation, being a signatory to UNCRPD, that states:
“States Parties recognize the right of persons with disabilities to participate on an equal basis with others in cultural life. They shall take all appropriate measures to ensure that persons with disabilities:
( a) Enjoy access to cultural materials in accessible formats;
( b) Enjoy access to television programmes, films, theatre, and other cultural activities, in accessible formats.
We also can recall here that the current Indian law (Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act of 2016) also includes a specific chapter on Culture & Recreation which promises accessibility. The State is now setting up a specific set of rules. Disabled citizens will have to follow these when the cinema plays the National Anthem before a movie. Hence, the government must also discharge its duties towards these people by fulfilling the rights enshrined in the laws.
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