Over a century ago, when Bengali writer, illustrator and publisher Sukumar Ray wrote his satirical poem Ekushe Ain, he lampooned the administrative excesses of the British Raj. In the topsy-turvy world of his lyric, poets are held in cages, presumably for offending the powers that be. Penalties are imposed for the slightest slips, such as sneezing without “a ticket”.
Although Ray’s poem is a staple of children’s rhymes in Bengal, the scenarios it makes up may not, at times, seem exaggerated or unlikely in 21st century India. To challenge the status quo in the current political climate may involve being charged with sedition, as the actions taken against students at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi in 2016 showed. Dissenters continue to be tarred as “anti-nationals” on social media, and protest is seen an aberration rather than a democratic right, as the spate of arrests of Bhima Koregaon activists in 2018-20 indicate. More recently, satirists and comics, whose role it is to disturb the echo chambers of aye-sayers, are paying a price for airing unpopular opinions.
Since the outbreak of the pandemic, stand-up comics like Agrima Joshua and Kunal Kamra have been embroiled in controversies. In January, following an incident of alleged heckling of TV journalist Arnab Goswami on an Indigo flight, Kamra was barred from flying on the airline for six months. In July, an year-old video by Joshua, where she rips into the proposed Shivaji statue in Mumbai, was dredged up and she was accused of hurting the sentiments of the Marathi people. Joshua apologised after Maharashtra home minister Anil Deshmukh ordered the police to take legal action against her. And recently, Rachita Taneja, who runs the web comic Sanitary Panels, got into trouble for a post criticising the judiciary. A law student filed a petition against her in the Supreme Court to take action for contempt, which was approved by K.K. Venugopal, the attorney general of India. Comedy and satire are no longer a laughing matter, judging by the swiftness with which officeholders of the land have reacted to these activities.
“We live in a time when a tweet can land you behind bars, a prank can put you on a no-fly list, and an army of online trolls can rapidly mobilise the on-ground vandalisation of a shuttered comedy venue during lockdown,” says Ravina Rawal, editor-in-chief of Dead Ant, a platform dedicated to covering professional comedy. “Already, the artists’ impulse is to pre-emptively self-censor, which is why political comedy in India is still fairly scant. Even the mildly contentious feels revolutionary right now because few such people are willing to take the risk.”
This scenario is far from unprecedented in the annals of modern India, though. From 1975-77, then prime minister Indira Gandhi imposed a state of Emergency, suspending democratic rights and penalising dissenters ruthlessly. In 2020, most of India remains theoretically free and democratic, which makes the state’s taming of its critics anomalous.
“Comedy ideally creates a carnivalesque space where truth can be spoken to power, but, in practice, satire is only being tolerated until it pricks the ego,” says Vijay Parthasarathy, whose research focuses extensively on the stand-up scene in India. “Those in power—and their followers—seem to fiercely believe that the country must unite behind a monolithic ideology to make a dent on the 21st century. That’s a matter of opinion; the real problem is, folks don’t see the value in dissent.”
The arsenal of a satirist or comedian seems far better equipped to cause hurt than that of the state’s—what else can explain the intensity of the retaliation? Against the might of the latter, the former has images and words to fight back with. It’s true that the pen, as the ancient adage reminds us, is mightier than the sword.
“As an editorial cartoonist, my job is to take a critical look at governance, government and rulers,” says Satish Acharya. “In a healthy democracy, the powerful realise the importance of voices of dissent and provide space for it. But when (they) create a louder noise in the form of the IT cell to throttle such voices, it is not only ugly, but dangerous too.” Acharya, who doesn’t hold back his punches, is often targeted viciously on social media. But he doesn’t care for the consequences. “Not just trolls, I try not to get affected by the concerns or fear of my editors,” he says. “Even if a cartoon is rejected by the editor, if I am convinced (by my idea), I can still take it to readers on social media.”
Acharya’s recent cartoons capture the ups and downs of the farmers’ protests in starkly realistic or artfully opaque imagery. Some are direct, featuring the prime minister, others more arch. A striking example of the latter is the impression of a closed fist on a plate created out of grains of rice. Acharya’s cartoons seem to be exercising not only the right to offend but also making a case for the need to do so. How else can a democracy live up to its hallowed ideals?
India’s current predicament is more ironic than may be obvious. Writing in 2012, historian Mushirul Hasan pointed out that the colonial rulers were more tolerant towards satire than those of independent India. “One mark of a great satirist is that he sees the most effective way of getting through his opponent’s guard,” he wrote, “and another that he seizes every casual opening to land his punches.”
In the last decade, stand-up comedy has evolved as a professional field of activity, often supported by big corporate investment, with stars like Aditi Mittal and Varun Grover performing to global audiences, taking on caste, gender, and every other dogma that plagues India. But there have also been periodic moves to censor and censure, especially when it oversteps the boundaries of bourgeois gentility.
In 2016, comedian Tanmay Bhat’s spoof on two of the nation’s most beloved icons, singer Lata Mangeshkar and cricketer Sachin Tendulkar, using Snapchat filters, backfired badly. Periodic accusations of homophobia and misogyny have always plagued the scene, but two years later, the #MeToo movement opened other cans of worms. Allegations of sexual misconduct against Bhat and some of his colleagues at All India Bakchod, the Mumbai-based entertainment company, flew thick and fast, leading to its demise.
On the heels of these developments, lingering concerns about the limits of comedy resurfaced. To rephrase a recent headline-making statement about too much of a democracy by a top bureaucrat—how much satire is too much satire? “In India, we work well within our own boundaries, a Laxman rekha. This is necessary with regard to cartoons on religion or caste,” Acharya says. “Social media’s viral reach is a double-edged sword. It gives you new readers as well as new troubles if a cartoon touches sensitive areas. I need to be careful, as I don’t want my cartoons to lead to riots or killings.”
Parthasarathy adds that humour can be an “irresistible rhetorical strategy in pursuit of influencing opinion”, but the tone of delivery is key. “You have got to balance razor-sharp insights with detached charm,” he says. “Being merely provocative is less effective than being thought-provoking.” In a society like India, the mighty can be thin-skinned, quick to take offence. Their cheerleaders don’t need much provocation either to retort with violent threats.
“The offence-collectors of our country would have a stroke if they saw what American comedians have been saying about everyone, from Donald Trump to (US Supreme Court judge) Brett Kavanaugh, in the last few years,” Rawal says, “yet the only negative feedback they seem to have received is that those targets are too easy.”