As part of a ‘mad-ads’ event, students had to devise a humourous advertisement for a fictitious product. Some students created a skit on ‘Beer Ambedkar’, a pun on BR Ambedkar. It had the line “why be a Dalit when you can be D-lit?” (‘lit’ is slang for ‘intoxicated’) The skit portrayed Ambedkar in different scenarios, such as going on a date with a woman who wouldn’t eat from his plate.
Many people, including me, may view some of the jokes as in terrible taste. But bad taste while it is subjective is certainly not criminal and is commonplace in democracies. Jokes and cartoons on politicians are the rule, not exceptions.
The Bengaluru police arrested the students under laws on committing atrocities, promoting enmity between groups, unlawful assembly and outraging religious feelings. Dare we laugh at such an over-reaction to humour?
Right to be Funny could perhaps be extracted from the constitutional Right to Free Speech and Expression. SC has already extracted a Right to Information from this provision. Why not also a Right to Joke or Laugh?
War on humour
The ruling BJP is not alone in this. Protests against the skit came from the Congress party, Janata Dal (S), and BSP. There is a political consensus on intolerance of humour.
The Bengaluru arrests are just part of a long list of arrests of humourists in the last decade. Parties seek votes from lobbies claiming to be insulted by humour. There is no countervailing vote bank for humour.
Congress spokesman Pawan Khera was arrested last week for misnaming the prime minister. He could have defended this as the sort of joke commonplace in democracies. Instead he called it a slip of the tongue and apologised unreservedly. His party castigated the arrest, but did not defend the right to joke.
TV comedians like Kiku Sharda and standup comedians like Kunal Kamra have been slapped with contempt of court notices just for tweets. Standup comedian Munawar Faruqui was jailed for months, not for actually cracking a joke but for uploading one on YouTube almost a year earlier, even though that had been deleted.
Thin-skinned India needs help
How can such excesses be checked? In 2017, the Supreme Court in a landmark judgment discovered a right to privacy in existing constitutional provisions on liberty. Similarly, let us petition the court to discover a ‘Right to Joke and Laugh’ in the constitutional provisions on free speech.
The case for such a right was spelled out in 2021 by Justice GR Swaminathan of the Tamil Nadu high court. He was presiding over a truly comical case. Mathivanan, an office-bearer of the CPI-ML, had gone on a sightseeing trip to the Sirumalai hills with his daughter and son-in-law. He uploaded photos of the visit on Facebook with the caption ‘trip to Sirumalai for shooting practice’, a play on the word ‘shooting’. But since he represented a Maoist party, the police interpreted this as a threat to “wage war” and arrested him!
Bad taste is subjective but is certainly not criminal and is commonplace in democracies. Jokes and cartoons on politicians are the rule, not exceptions.
Mathivanan had to appeal to the high court for redress. While dismissing the charges, Justice Swaminathan observed that a Right to be Funny could perhaps be extracted from the constitutional Right to Free Speech and Expression. The Supreme Court has already extracted a Right to Information from this provision. Why not also a Right to Joke or Laugh? All such provisions are subject to reasonable restriction, so misuse for truly spreading enmity can easily be checked. But enunciating such a right will check the flagrant political misuse that is so common today.
Justice Swaminathan also suggested that a ‘Duty to Laugh’ could be added to the constitutional list of Fundamental Duties such as upholding the dignity and sovereignty of India. That would provide a defence against arrest for comedians.
Justice Swaminathan’s judgment is itself a masterpiece in humour. “We have holy cows grazing all the way from Varanasi to Vadipatti. We dare not poke fun at them. A real cow, even if underfed and emaciated, shall be holy in Yogi’s terrain. In West Bengal, Tagore is such an iconic figure that Khushwant Singh learned the lesson at some cost. Coming to my own Tamil Desh, the all-time iconoclast Periyar, Shri EV Ramaswamy Naicker, is a super-holy cow. In today’s Kerala, Marx and Lenin are beyond the bounds of criticism or satire. Chhatrapati Shivaji and Veer Savarkar enjoy similar immunity in Maharashtra. But all over India there is one holy cow, and that is national security.”
Being a judge, Justice Swaminathan got away with this. Lesser mortals might have been arrested. We truly need a Right to Joke.