I belong to a generation that was weaned on the Reader's Digest feature " Laughter, the best medicine", MAD comics, PUNCH magazine, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Groucho Marx and quotations from a mysterious " Confucius" ( "a man who be both a fool and an arsehole is an ignoranus.") who bears no resemblance to the original sage. Armed with the understanding of human character acquired from these astute observers I have gone through life realising that humour is the ultimate gift of expression that relieves, criticises, elevates, weeps, embraces. But most important, it always teaches, whether it be by the understatement, the mimicry, the pun, the satire, the suggestio falsi, the paraprosdokian or even the humble limerick. There is no more effective ( but civilised) commentary on the times, and no more perceptive ( but amiable) assessment of individuals. Societies and civilisations which espouse humour are tolerant. sensitive to public opinion, unbigoted and open-minded. By the same definition, those which seek to curb humour, either by legal fiat or street violence, are just the opposite, destined either for fascism or anarchy.
India today seems to be headed in this latter direction. Powerful groups-- both state and non-state actors, to use a preferred phrase-- who brook no criticism, and mis-guided bleeding hearts or seekers of the two minute fame appear to have launched a war against all forms of humour in this country under the specious banner of " political correctness." It began with Sashi Tharoor's " cattle class" comment: in the ensuing din it is still not clear who was more offended- the champions of the poor who did not like the poor being " bovined", as it were; or the Hindutva brigade who resented the disparaging reference to the cow.
Then came the arrest in Mumbai of the cartoonist Aseem Trivedi who dared to publish a caricatured version of the Ashoka Pillar , in order to show how our polity had been debased, distorted and corrupted over time. Cases were slapped against him for sedition and under the provisions of the Information Technology Act and Prevention of Insult to National Honours Act. One could be forgiven for thinking that he is a member of ISIS! Some time later a once-glamorous member of Parliament complained in the House how lawmakers were being made fun of in the media, and demanded steps to curb this tendency-she received a bi-partisan support that has not been seen since. Thereafter the Information and Broadcasting Ministry wrote to all TV channels not to make light of the Prime Minister's somber image, and to show more respect for his position. Last year this intolerance continued as criminal cases were registered against the entire team of AIB ( All India Bakchod) and the presenters for staging the "Roast" show. There was even a demand to rope in some of the more prominent members of the audience. And this when everybody who watched the show had a rollicking good time and no one had complained!
And things are getting worse. Just yesterday a comedian, Kiku Sharda ( a regular on the Kapil Sharma show) was arrested and sent to jail for mimicking- hold your breath- Baba Ram Rahim Insan of Sachha Sauda fame! The charge? ( Hold your breath again)-- hurting the religious feelings of his followers! ( Sec. 295A of the IPC). Its bad enough when this antiquated law is applied to any of the 33 crore Gods in the Hindu pantheon; now it is being used to protect even so called God men. Asa Ram's lawyers must be watching these developments keenly- maybe the sane argument can be used to spring him from jail.
There is worse to come. The Supreme Court has admitted a petition from an offended Sikh that seeks to ban jokes on Sikhs, and has agreed to hear the petition. All these are very disturbing portents and raise disconcerting questions that society needs to ask, and answer.
One, the right of free expression includes the right to criticise, mock, lampoon and laugh at. This is especially true of public figures who constantly project themselves as larger than life and strut about on the media. To criminalise such expression is to curb free speech.
Second, we have carried that chestnut about " hurting religious feelings" to ridiculous lengths. Making fun of a God is one thing, but lampooning a Baba or a Godman, of whom there are thousands in this country, some with very doubtful reputations, cannot be considered a crime. By this yardstick any legal action taken against any Baba would amount to an offence because his or her followers would be bound to have their "religious feelings" bruised by such action! Such mindsets are taking us back to the Dark Ages( or forward to the Taliban era). Not only is the interpretation of this provision of the IPC perverse, the provision itself is regressive. There is an urgent need for Parliament or the Supreme Court to review this law. In its present form it only encourages the fundamentalists and political entities to stifle criticism of any kind.
Third, the judiciary should seriously introspect whether it should become a handmaiden of such antediluvion forces. I simply fail to understand why trial courts admit cases of the Kiku Sharda type just because the police, for extra legal considerations, register them. Surely it is incumbent on these courts to examine whether a prima facie offence is made out under the sections of law cited, before initiating the coercive process of law ? If it is not then the case should simply be thrown out. I am convinced that if the lower courts started doing this then a lot of the harassment value of the police and their political masters could be neutralised and a lot of injustice prevented.
Finally, I am totally disheartened by the Supreme Court admitting what shall no doubt be soon known as the Santa-Banta case. To make jokes about a community is not to denigrate them but to embrace them- it is an expression of fondness, an acknowledgement of their central position in society, a recognition of their endearing qualities. We don't laugh AT them , we laugh WITH them. The whole world makes jokes about the Irish, the Cockney, the dour Scot, the American Hillbilly- but the whole world loves them too. It is the same with the Sikhs.
The Supreme should be aware that by admitting this petition it is opening the floodgates for copy cat petitions by other butts of jokes- mothers-in law, blondes, Gujaratis, Tamilians, lawyers ( Where there's a will there's a lawyer!), homosexuals, alcoholics, politicians, even judges ( JUDGE, pointing at the accused: " Do I see a scroundrel at the end of my arm?" ACCUSED: " Depends which end of the arm you are looking at, my Lord!"). See what I mean ?
Laughter( and not an imperfect Constitution) is the greatest leveller of all- and perhaps that is what the persons in authority are fearful of. But a society which cannot laugh at itself is not worth living in. It was Goethe who said: " By nothing do men show their character more than by the things they laugh at." How will our character be judged when there's nothing left to laugh at ?